The two-person contest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in the United States is turning into a question of what kind of a party it wants to be.
Thursday’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, televised by PBS from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, revealed a split, argues political scientist David A. Hopkins at his blog, Honest Graft: whereas the former secretary of state sees the party as a coalition of social groups, each with their own separable set of concerns and interests, the Vermont senator sees an ideological vehicle that can be dedicated to a “political revolution”.
In the final moments of the debate, Clinton, who is fending off an unexpectedly strong challenge from Sanders, agreed that big financial interests have too much power.
“But if we were to stop that tomorrow,” she argued there would still be challenges left for progressives.
We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions.
As Hopkins puts it, Clinton is assuming that feminists, gays, racial minorities and union members — key demographics for Democrats — “do not simply view their own concerns and perceived injustices as limited to, or merely the consequences of, economic unfairness.”
For Sanders, it all comes down to the inordinate influence of money interests in American politics.
Clinton’s view is closer to the Democratic Party’s.
Hopkins earlier wrote in The Washington Post, together with Matt Grossmann, another political scientist, that there is an asymmetry between America’s two political parties.
They argued that the Republican Party is best understood as the agent of the conservative movement. Republican voters are united by their devotion to limited government and “consistently seek a more conservative and uncompromising party.” Hence its inability to govern with a Democratic president, Barack Obama.
Democrats, by contrast, are largely attracted to the party for reasons of group interest or identity rather than a devotion to the principles of liberalism. Hence Democratic leaders face a strong incentive to govern pragmatically in order to deliver concrete programs and benefits to their partisan constituencies.
While there are Republican voters who value governing over purity and Democrats who favor ideology over pragmatism, majorities on both sides have very different mentalities.
When Americans are asked what they like and dislike about the two parties, Republicans tend to give answers that are informed by ideology, describing their own party as “conservative” or “for smaller government” while characterizing Democrats as “socialists.”
Democrats describe their own party as caring about the “middle class” or “working to help women” and think of Republicans as only “looking out for the rich” or representing “old white folks.”
Whether he realizes it or not, Sanders is trying to make the Democratic Party more like Republicans. He only joined the party last year to run for president and is now trying to turn it into an ideological project.
“The” Democratic Party, broadly understood as the network of elected officials, donors, insiders and allies in the media, doesn’t like that one bit. Even if they sympathize with his ideas, they are not going to allow Sanders to complete a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party.