Democrats are struggling to reconcile an existential contradiction. They know that something has gone terribly wrong with their party and that it must adapt to new political realities. But they also know Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, and that grassroots Democrats are energized—spontaneously crowding Republican town halls, marching in the streets, and paralyzing airports. Which means that some Democrats are now certain it’s not their party but the country that must change. This confused line of thought was on display at Wednesday night’s debate among candidates vying to chair the Democratic National Committee. This paralyzing cognitive dissonance has put the Democratic Party on a path toward an eerily familiar sort of internecine turmoil.
The next DNC chair will not only be tasked with recovering from three (out of the last four) disastrous election cycles but also from a crippling scandal that cost the former chair—Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz—her job. Given those circumstances, the race has been remarkably cordial. This contest is nothing like the ugly and divisive process the Republican National Committee endured in race to replace their party chairman in 2009. The internal debate in which Democrats find themselves is not dissimilar from the one that preceded the rise of the Tea Party.
The race for what amounts to a glorified fundraiser is an unusually crowded one. Eight candidates clogged the stage last night, with the clearest division between mainstream Democrats and insurgent reformers. More conventional candidates like former Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez and the radical alternative to the status quo, Representative Keith Ellison, did their best to coast through the affair. Save for a biography and affectation that Democrats in the era of Trump find attractive, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was similarly underwhelming. A handful of also-rans on the stage were among the more notable attendees, not because they have a prayer of winning over the 400 or so Democrats who vote for DNC chair but for what they represent.
Former Fox News contributor and “Rock the Vote” president Jehmu Greene channeled the id of the Democratic Party’s activist wing. She dubbed Trump a harbinger of fascism and “the single biggest threat to our freedoms” since King George III, advocated his impeachment, and alleged in a all-but-open fashion that his election was illegitimate. U.S. Air Force Veteran and former state-level candidate Sam Ronan channeled the anxieties of Bernie Sanders voters, who still regard the 2016 primary process as a “rigged” one that disenfranchised progressive voters. Both seemed to receive a warm reception from the audience of Democratic Party men and women. As Buttigieg observed with unconcealed trepidation, Democrats would not be well served by a “factional struggle between the Bernie wing and the establishment wing.” But civil war seems very much in the offing.
Wednesday night’s affair indicated two things: The first is that the party’s prospective leaders seem to see the energy bubbling up from the grassroots in opposition to President Trump as a cure-all. Each of these candidates leaned heavily into the notion that Trump represents an existential authoritarian threat. They failed to take into account the fact that neither Trump nor the GOP-led Congress has done much of anything. Coming just one week after the White House was compelled to abandon its executive order restricting immigration, fire its national security advisor, and lose a Cabinet nominee to opposition among their supposed allies, the definition of what constitutes authoritarian fascism is becoming unrecognizably broad.
Second, it is clear that the Democratic Party is finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that it finds itself in the worst position it has been in institutionally since before the New Deal and that the party’s decimation occurred under Barack Obama. In broad strokes, the contest between Ellison and Perez has become a referendum on Barack Obama’s tenure—one Obama seems likely to win. In the entire debate, only South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison (who dropped out today in favor of Perez) had the courage to say outright that the party had been decimated between 2009 and 2017 and the Obama’s Organizing for America had hamstrung local party machinery and rendered local efforts dysfunctional.
It would be a display of pigheaded determination for the Democrats to pretend their political predicament is not of their own making and to refuse to acknowledge the validity of its base voters’ concerns. It would be insane for a political party that has lost over 1,000 seats in eight years not to make a course correction. It would be malpractice for a political party to invite the same conditions that led to civil war among its opponents just a few years back. Yet this is the trajectory on which the Democratic Party finds itself.
The Democrats do not necessarily have to change in order to benefit from a swing in the political pendulum in their direction. Still, it appears blind to its predicament. It is one visible to every Republican who watched the rise of the Tea Party with both apprehension and optimism. Until and unless Democrats come to terms with the failures of the Obama era, they are sleepwalking into a period of chaos. As Republicans will attest, what–or who—might emerge from that process will be anyone’s guess.