Set Against Their Own
Democrats are showing themselves more willing than ever to bicker and squabble among themselves. It is a less than ideal PR strategy going into the 2020 elections — but the heavily contested primaries look set to make it worse.
January tends to be a frosty time for the District of Columbia, and yet the first days of 2019 felt warmer than usual. Republicans were certainly feeling the heat, scrambling to reorganise and hiding away mention of their serious defeats in the November midterms. Democrats didn’t seem to be faring much better — having put on a united, strong front for the 2018 campaign, their victory in the House had caused a return to the inter-party squabbling that was so common during the 2016 primaries and first two years of Trump’s administration.
The group of “Bernie-or-bust” voters that strongly rallied against Hillary Clinton after she had secured the Democratic nomination acted as the foreshocks for the current earthquake shaking up the Democratic party, causing a pointless war within the party as they tried desperately to group together and take down Donald Trump — but to no avail. The shocks continued as Democrats went into their next nationwide elections, as voters in strongly liberal and progressive cities overturned establishment figures, electing instead to have young, vibrantly left-wing representatives take their place — the most notable of these being New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The first of two major moments of unity for Democrats came in the months after, as the party drew up and showed off a much more united front with the (successful) goal of taking back the House of Representatives.
The unity that Democrats pulled off didn’t last. The hard-fought but never realistic campaign against Nancy Pelosi’s election to the Speaker’s chair further demonstrated how willing Democrats were to fight against each other. The devastating loss of Hillary Clinton had left Democrats without a clear leader — and instead of embracing the veteran California lawmaker as someone to unite behind, candidates on the 2018 field were campaigning on promises not to support her. Her subsequent (unsurprising) victory was assisted by a pledge she’d later step down to make way for new leadership but mainly came as a result of no declared opposition to her. Even Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge (OH-11), who was once reported to be considering a rival bid for House Speaker, dropped out and endorsed Nancy Pelosi.
The decision to elect her to the Speakership may have been an unpopular decision among progressive Democrats at the time, but her selection as the spokesperson of the House of Representatives when dealing with Trump’s unruly White House has massively boosted her popularity, especially during the shutdown, during which Democrats presented another united front against the shutdown. Nancy Pelosi’s “red coat” moment as she confidently strutted away from a session of futile negotiations granted her a dose of internet love, accompanied by a rise in support among the generally progressive Democratic youth. Her ascent to internet stardom was later given a boost: after rather forcefully and boldly postponing President Trump’s State of the Union address before permitting it on her terms (the end of the shutdown), she seemed less than impressed with his actual speech. When Trump turned around to either gloat or bask in all the praise he could get from an opposition leader, Pelosi twisted her clapping into a sarcastic, passive-aggressive and petty move that won her the hearts of liberal, left-wing Twitter account owners.
Perhaps unwillingly, the Democratic Party has adopted Nancy Pelosi as an interim leader until the winner of the primaries becomes clear. In the immediate aftermath of the longest shutdown on record and Trump’s falsehood-ridden State of the Union, the wall of party unity seemed to be standing tall for Democrats — and yet, less than a week later, the cracks began showing again. The 2020 Iowa caucuses are expected to be the first votes of the 2020 electoral season, currently scheduled for February 3 — meaning Democrats have a year to figure out how to avoid another “Bernie-or-bust” situation in a critical election for the party. Pledging to stay together just simply isn’t enough — and it isn’t just Democrats. Today’s left has a fatal flaw in how unwilling different left-wing factions are to work with each other.
Take a look at the United Kingdom’s past few years, as Westminster faces its most difficult and significant economic problem in decades. The Conservative Party (or “Tories”), the right-winged one of the UK’s two major political parties, currently has a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in which they will vote for Conservative Party resolutions in return for political favours (a “confidence and supply” agreement). That places the remaining the left-wing parties, led by Labour, in opposition. While the current media attention is held on Theresa May’s remarkable attempts in surviving repeated attempts to oust her, Jeremy Corbyn’s party are in a similar and underreported turmoil, currently battling against allegations of anti-Semitism within their ranks and from Corbyn himself.
These allegations, in my opinion, are far from unfounded: in 2014, Corbyn attended a ceremony remembering the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich terror attack, during which 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken as hostages and murdered. After criticism he then also refused to apologise, issuing a rather weak defence that his attendance and memorial of these terrorists was part of his plan to somehow “promote peace in the Middle East”. It is important to remember that criticising Israel is not being anti-Semitic, of course, but it is certainly worth questioning any politician’s views on certain religions when they compare Israel, a self-proclaimed “Jewish state”, to Nazism, the ideology which murdered more than 6 million Jewish people during the Second World War (awful move, Corbyn). His apology for campaigning with people whose opinions he “completely rejects” was little respite from the uncertainty and disgust surrounding his actions.
The battle within Labour is very much still ongoing, sapping political will and motivation away from the major and potentially catastrophic issue of the British departure from the EU. Murmurs around any attempt to oust Jeremy Corbyn continue to swirl — as recently as 2016, after Corbyn’s lukewarm attempt at opposing Brexit, Labour MPs attempted to oust him in an overwhelming no-confidence motion in his leadership, which he later went on to defeat. His popularity remains low among the electorate and his own fellow MPs alike, with his only saving grace coming in the form of a 9.6% vote swing towards him in the 2017 snap election. Even so, Labour failed to win a majority by a reasonable distance and has since failed to maintain any lead in opinion polling, a testament to his divisive and unpopular leadership among the electorate.
The Democrats, as Labour’s ostensible equivalent in the US, are having similar problems. The newest, progressive Democrats tend to be strongly pro-Palestine, placing them at odds with the generally pro-Israel electorate and Democratic leadership. Heated debates and arguments about pro-Israeli lobbying groups operating within Washington have been followed with accusations of anti-Semitism and prejudice, even from those who disagree with Netanyahu’s transparent and ugly attempt to convince the world that being anti-Zionist is being anti-Semitic (which it isn’t).
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar made headlines as the two first Muslim women elected to serve in the U.S. Congress — making them instant targets for right-wing media and propaganda sites to start falsifying articles and reports on how disgracefully they have conducted themselves in situations involving Israel. Both support the BDS movement and while I do not believe that either congresswoman is genuinely prejudiced against Jewish people, their actions (and tweets) in trying to expose what they see as Israeli money in the U.S. Congress quickly led them down the trap of using anti-Semitic stereotypes, opening themselves up to accusations of prejudice not too dissimilar to that of those in the Labour Party.
Early on into the 116th Congress, Rashida Tlaib fell foul of linking to the idea of “dual loyalty” with a tweet criticising Marco Rubio’s flawed and unconstitutional bill to penalise criticism of Israel. While her intentions were in-line with a defence of the Constitution, her execution and attempted reasoning behind her opposition to Rubio’s bill severely backfired, drawing condemnation from Jewish groups and the Anti-Defamation League, who issued a statement saying:
Historically, the allegation of mixed loyalty or dual loyalty has been leveled as a smear against many kinds of Americans — including against Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. Though the legislation discussed is sponsored by four non-Jewish Senators, any charge of dual loyalty has special sensitivity and resonance for Jews, particularly in an environment of rising anti-Semitism.
Around a month later, Ilhan Omar decided to also take on the noble cause of speaking out against the incredible volume of lobbying money scattered through the halls of the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately for her, she decided that when levying her attack against the non-profit lobbying group the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (or AIPAC) she would implicate herself in using the deeply harmful stereotype of Jewish money in politics —supposedly saying that Jewish lobbying groups were paying politicians to be pro-Israel. The response from Democrats was swift, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking that she apologise for using “anti-Semitic tropes” exposing more divisions between new congressmembers and the establishment. Ilhan Omar later apologised for her ill-thought choice of language — but the debate on whether her tweets were anti-Semitic or just against lobbying money rages on. Pelosi and Omar both agreed, however, that criticism of Israel was protected and legitimate (as it should be, of course). It is the line between criticism of Israel and genuine anti-Semitism that the left needs to figure out before more and more divisions over these allegations form and are exacerbated by opposition parties.
By their very nature, primaries dare candidates from the same party to tear into each other, exposing rifts, controversies and ties that could be later used by their opponent’s party to tear down the eventual nominee. The upcoming primary season is more susceptible than any primary in recent memory to this fighting: a crowded field, with numerous high-profile politicians and a shared resentment of President Trump, looks set to divide the Democratic leadership — and electorate — between the two or three frontrunners that will ultimately emerge.
2016’s primary saw a much smaller field, with only 6 actual candidates — of which only 2 really had a chance. 2020’s field is notably different — as of writing, nine major candidates have declared that they will run (or have formed exploratory committees). Of these 9, candidates Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar (six so far!) have received enough media and electorate buzz to look set for a real shot at the nomination —my apologies to Buttigieg, Castro and Delaney, but recent Democratic primaries have seen Senator Joe Biden (2004), Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (2008) and Senators Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (2016) be the major contesters. (I think the 2020 primaries will be similar: Senators like Elizabeth Warren have much more exposure than the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana).
The field will ultimately refine itself, probably down to two candidates, but by then the damage may have already been done. In 2016, three of six candidates withdrew before the primaries even began. Another withdrew shortly after, leaving only 2. If in the modern electoral landscape, where ideas and ideology matter greatly, two candidates alone can draw a split a party down the middle, what hope do Democrats have for holding together in an election with 6 realistic candidates?
Of course, unity problems with left-wing parties aren’t a new thing (but they are definitely one that needs fixing): one of the most awful and inhumane chapters of political history, the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, may have been assisted by Germany’s left-wing infighting during the 1930s. The SPD (Social Democratic Party) and KPD (Communist Party) were notably unwilling to work together, creating conditions in which both parties became much easier to suppress and put down. The lack of co-operation in confronting the rise of the incredibly right-wing, fascist NSDAP also left Germany’s left without much of a voice to shout it down as they fractured themselves — some KPD members, such as Ernst Thälmann, even saw Hitler’s model of right-wing politics as a lesser threat than the centre-left policies of the SPD.
Of course, I’m not saying that the fault of the rise of Hitler should belong entirely to the left-wing parties at the time, nor am I comparing anyone in modern-day politics to Hitler. But it is another example of something that the right has that the left cannot grasp: the ability to put aside even minor differences and work towards common goals. Conservative groups do this easily, with the modern-day Republican Party forming an umbrella under which some strong patriots, libertarians, fiscally-conservative and socially-liberal people, evangelicals and yes, racists, can find politicians to throw their support. In contrast, the Democratic Party never seems to be able to appeal to more than one group of its diverse electorate. It is not a good strategy for any election — especially not one as important as 2020, where Democrats need to be able to appeal to not only all of their electorate, but voters outside of it as well. Falling once again to squabbling over minor differences and trivial policies would just be setting Democrats against their own.
And to win in 2020, they must do better.