Joe Biden has won the US presidential election. A reason for his party to celebrate, come together and be proud of their work – one would assume. Instead, moderate and progressive Democrats seem to be gearing up for another fight.
Extremely narrow margins and seat losses in the races for the US Senate and House of Representatives spooked many moderates. In a party-wide conference call just two days after the election, before Biden’s victory was announced, the blame was quickly placed on the progressive, more left-wing party members.
So-called “socialist” policies like Medicare for All, the new green deal and calls to defund the police have been highlighted as some of the points moderates took issue with. They believe this scared off swing voters and steered them into the Republican’s open arms.
Progressives have countered these allegations: for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated that poor digital strategy was to blame for the issues rather than the policies she promotes. Indeed, she and her ‘squad’ of progressive representatives were all safely re-elected, showing that their agenda and campaigning tactics were successful. Additionally, some candidates strongly associated with the ‘squad’ were elected for the first time – Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman for example.
Unsurprisingly, Ocasio-Cortez’ statements were opposed again, different voter bases and the Democratic ‘brand’ are amongst the main discussion points. The party performed below expectations and the much anticipated ‘Blue Wave’ never came. Now, neither moderates nor progressives want to take the blame.
The Democrats’ internal divide is not new. After looming in the background for years, it became obvious when Bernie Sanders proved to be a stronger competitor to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries than anticipated.
Sanders’ supporters did not feel Clinton shared their values or represented them well. This highlighted an intensified ideological gap within the party, which has continued to grow as progressives have been electorally successful and built a widely known brand for themselves.
Young voters and politicians especially see themselves as distant to the party establishment. The policies of the moderate party elite are not enough for the up-and-coming – they want their party to be more liberal, more inclusive, more bottom-up.
Moderates argue against this shift to the left as they believe it would deter voters and make the Democrats unelectable. Prior to the 2020 election they argued that Biden, as a moderate, would be an electable candidate for Republican leaning voters who were unsupportive of President Trump. After all, they claimed, defeating Trump was the only thing that should matter to Democrats and Biden could unify the country.
Over the last few months, it seemed as though the Democratic party had grown back together. Even when news outlets published reports of a left-wing rebellion at the 2020 Democratic convention, the rumours were quickly shut down and the party appeared to be unanimously rallied behind Biden. This must now be called into question – did they really unite for Biden or merely against Trump?
Recent news suggests the latter is likely. Why else would the two camps within the party start fighting less than 48 hours after polls closed, before all ballots were even counted? The accusations and discussions seem hasty. It is as though the end of the campaign functioned as an opportunity to air pent-up frustrations and grievances.
Everyone had been a good soldier, fallen into line, but with Biden’s election the need for a solid, united front disappeared. All dams now seem to have broken down and the president-elect may struggle to reunite his party.
Different opinions and variations within a political party are normal, good even. They allow for the party to evolve and adapt to new trends in society and amongst voters. In a few decades time, the current progressives might be described as moderate by their successors. Therefore, this is not the issue per se.
It becomes problematic when there is either no common ground whatsoever, or different camps lack respect, understanding and acceptance for one another. But this is exactly what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sees happening in the Democratic party.
In her recent interview with the New York Times, she spoke about how moderate swing candidates had refused her help, but were now blaming her for their losses. At the same time, all of those whom she had supported were elected.
“So, I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy. And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy.” she continued.
This comes after Rep. Abigail Spanberger freely and directly gave her opinions on the elections on the now infamous post-election conference call: “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again… We lost good members because of that…If we are classifying Tuesday as a success… we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022.”
One of Biden’s first challenges will therefore be to make the Democratic party a place where different political opinions can coexist peacefully and productively. To keep the peace and ensure continued support for himself, he will need to make sure all groups feel recognised.
Success will depend on who he picks for chief governmental positions, which policy areas he prioritises and his openness to collaborate with his progressive colleagues. No one is expecting him to abandon his moderate ideals and follow a strictly progressive agenda during his presidency, but he must show consideration for it.
Especially with a majority as slim as that of the Democrats, collaborative policymaking and a unified front is incredibly important. It will make it easier to create new laws, gather public and party-internal support, and ultimately succeed in future elections.
Finally, some re-education might not go amiss. The branding of the party as “socialist” has a negative association that has only been exacerbated through President Trump and has even affected Democratic party members, as Rep. Spanberger’s remarks show. In reality, the progressives’ policy ideas are much closer to other Western, mainstream left parties than to the feared socialist regimes.
Biden has a lot of work to do – in terms of his party and his country. It is now up to him how he handles his new-found power and responsibility. Whatever he chooses to do, straddling the divide in his own party will be vital to ensuring a shot at re-election and a functioning, productive government.