If you had to describe the state of the Democratic Party in 2018, you could pretty well capture it in two wildly contrasting vignettes from the past two days. Cut to Tuesday evening in Atlanta, Georgia: In a jam-packed and jubilant ballroom, 44-year-old Stacey Abrams – who’s running to become the first black female governor in American history – celebrated a landslide victory in the state’s Democratic primary. Abrams is the sort of candidate the Democratic Party would never have recruited to run for governor of any state, much less a Southern one. If her race and gender didn’t mark her as a sure “liability” in the eyes of the consultants, her unabashed liberalism would have. But despite vigorous (white) opposition, 76 percent of Georgia Democrats decided otherwise. “We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s future,” Abrams joyfully proclaimed, “where no one is unseen, no one is unheard, and no one is uninspired.”
Roughly 36 hours earlier, on the Capitol steps in Washington, two white, wind-blown senior citizens named Pelosi and Schumer rolled out the latest installment of the party’s grand plan for winning this year’s midterms – a wonky and far-flung platform glommed together under the yawn-inducing catchphrase, “A Better Deal.” (Not a good deal, mind you – certainly not a great one. Just “better.”)
The contrast could hardly have been more vivid – or more telling.
The Democrats’ grand theme this year, Pelosi and Schumer said, won’t be bold proposals for health care or jobs or criminal-justice reform – it’ll be “corruption.” Why? Because “instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp,” Pelosi explained. In response, the Democrats aren’t calling for impeachment or anything so drastic – instead, they’re planning to run another version of the Trump campaign, focusing on “draining the swamp.” The difference is, we really mean it!
As Pelosi and Schumer droned on, the Democratic caucus members flanking them on the Capitol steps languidly waved the miniature American flags they’d been handed for the photo op, looking every bit as bored as the leaders sounded. Aside from the Trump references, it could have been 1985, or 2005 – with the same damn people mouthing the same worn platitudes in the same old poker-faced way.
In Georgia, Abrams’ victory party was a Technicolor snapshot of the Democratic future, full of unbridled optimism and unalloyed progressivism; in Washington, the party’s leaders were looking and sounding like battle-scarred veterans of one too many wars. In miniature, that’s the story of the Democratic effort to strike a blow at President Trump in the midterms – and the source of the friction that political pundits want to hype into a Democratic “civil war.” The national party is preaching (and trying to enforce) much the same old go-slow, throw-no-bombs approach that it’s taken since the rise of Bill Clinton – cautioning candidates against talking gun control after mass shootings, steering them away from championing single-payer health care, telling them not to call for impeachment. But even as the party recycles a strategy it used in 2006 (seriously), Democratic candidates and voters are deviating from the script and recognizing that it’s 2018.
On Tuesday in Kentucky, another insurgent Democrat – Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot – defeated a more “establishment” candidate the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited to run against her. While a centrist in Texas won yesterday’s other hotly contested race, voters at the grassroots level have been bucking the party establishment with some regularity in this spring’s primaries. Last Tuesday in Nebraska, liberal social worker Kara Eastman pulled a startling upset over former Congressman Brad Ashford, whom the national party believed could steal a Republican seat in November. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Democrats unseated two of their own state House incumbents in favor of “card-carrying” members of the Democratic Socialists of America (and nominated two other DSA members to boot).
Since 2016, there’s been a lot of chatter about Democrats at war with each other – a debilitating state of conflict that might make it impossible for the party to capitalize on President Trump’s unpopularity and incompetence. “The Democratic civil war is getting nasty,” warned The New Yorker‘s Susan Glasser last November. “The party faces a schism between its establishment and its left flank,” opined The Financial Times (and everyone else) this week. Republicans, of course, are pinning their hopes for November on the Democrats’ remarkable knack for losing even when they’re dealt a winning hand. (See, for instance, 2016.) “Democrats Tearing Themselves Apart Over Abortion, Litmus Tests, and Primary Purges,” reads one of the many such optimistic headlines at the conservative site TownHall.
But despite the fond hopes of conflict-seeking pundits and desperate Republicans, the Democratic Party is not at war with itself. It’s a party in the middle of an historic transition – a move from Clinton-style neoliberalism, with all its compromises and concessions to white centrists, to the more full-throated (and diverse) liberalism of Abrams and McGrath and Eastman. Even in the primaries being hyped as “battles” in the supposed Democratic war, ideological differences are scant – the left has mostly already “won” that battle. Candidates aren’t dividing neatly into “Bernie” and “Hillary” camps, either; no matter how hard the media tries to paint them that way. (Abrams, for instance, beat an equally liberal candidate backed by many Sanders supporters; McGrath beat a progressive mayor who is openly homosexual.)
The real conflict among Democrats is the one that played out in those contrasting images on Monday and Tuesday – it’s almost entirely a disagreement about strategy, not policy. “I’m tired of hearing that Democrats don’t have a backbone, that we don’t stand for anything,” Eastman said in a commercial, summing up the rebel yell of the liberal insurgents. “That changes now!” The old guard in Washington remains almost cripplingly risk-averse; they’ve long been accustomed to trying to win elections by pretending not to be liberals. The new vanguard, out in America where people actually vote, is rebelling more than anything against the constitutional timidity of a party that produces (in the age of Trump no less!) a breathtakingly uninspiring campaign agenda called “A Better Deal.”
“Inaction can be contagious,” Abrams said in her victory speech Tuesday night. “But so can a passion for change.” Abrams, who has a side business as a romance-novel writer, always chooses her words with precision, and these were no exception. She has spearheaded an ambitious campaign to register 800,000 new voters in Georgia, and she knows that “inaction” is what the Democratic Party has been inspiring in its own grassroots for a very long time with its insistence on a “unified” message that’s palatable to “the center” – along with apathy, inertia and terminally lowered horizons. Abrams and her fellow Democratic insurgents aren’t bringing new policy ideas into the party; they’re bringing passion into the equation. They’re bringing a determination to leave no one uninspired. It’s no surprise that this is making old-school Democratic leaders blanche. It’s also no surprise that voters are responding.