Rumors of a Democratic Civil War Are (Probably) Exaggerated

When it comes to bread-and-butter issues, centrist and left-wing candidates actually have a lot in common.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic candidate for Congress, appears on MSNBC's Morning Joe, June 27
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic candidate for Congress, appears on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, June 27 (Anthony Scutro)

Axios warns that Democrats in the United States risk throwing away their advantage in November’s congressional elections if they nominate more left-wing candidates.

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leftist endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, defeated incumbent congressman Joe Crowley in New York last week.
  • Membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has ballooned from 7,000 to 37,000 since the 2016 election.
  • 37 Democratic state legislators have been defeated by primary challengers so far.

It’s a little early to panic, but there is clearly a trend — and the fear is it will doom Democrats in the midterms, when, due to built-in disadvantages for their demographics and geographies, they need to defeat Republicans nationwide by around 7 percent to take back Congress.

A lot in common

As a defender of Democratic centrism, I agree the party mustn’t veer to extremes. But there is a fair argument to be made that it isn’t.

David Leonhardt points out in The New York Times that supposedly “centrist” and “leftist” candidates have a lot in common.

Leonhardt admits there are tensions on the left. But these tensions — over Barack Obama-style incrementalism versus Bernie Sanders-style purism, over the wisdom of talking about impeachment, over whether to woo or write off the white working class — are more intense among people who write and tweet about politics. “Among Democrats running for office, the tensions are somewhere between mild and nonexistent.”

Democratic candidates aren’t obsessed with President Trump and they aren’t giving up on the white working class as irredeemably racist. They are running pocketbook campaigns that blast Republicans for trying to take health insurance from the middle class while bestowing tax cuts on the rich (charges that have the benefit of being true).

Ronald Brownstein predicts in The Atlantic that the Democrats’ ideological tensions will come to a head in 2020, when they need to find a single presidential candidate who can both reassure swing voters appalled by Donald Trump and energize the left. But for now, they can run on bread-and-butter — as opposed to culture-war — issues that appeal to both constituencies.