This past week’s controversy over Joe Biden seemed to show an older man who learned his social skills in another time getting caught in the #MeToo riptides of our time and emerging, depending on your point of view, either exposed as hopelessly out of it or authentically chastened and prepared to adapt.
It did show that, but it also showed us something much more consequential. It showed us a division that has emerged in the Democratic Party that is the most serious in decades, and which might split the party in two in a few years’ time—or even sooner if it helps cost the party the presidency next year.
The Democratic Party of today has two activist bases. They are separate and distinct from each other. In several important respects, they are downright hostile to each other. I can’t think of a time when this has been the case and the party in question still managed to capture the White House.
Traditionally—for at least the last 30 years or so—the Democratic Party has had one activist base. It has consisted mostly of the kinds of professionals who have always voted heavily Democratic: trial lawyers, teachers, civil servants. Go walk around a Democratic convention sometime, or any gathering of Democratic activists, and ask people what they do for a living. I assure you that you’ll take note of the number of attorneys, educators, and AFSCME members.
This base tilts somewhat female. Over the course of those 30 years, it has become more multiracial and multiethnic. It tends to include people who are over 30, and probably strongly clustered in the 40-to-70 range.
In terms of geography, these folks live in the Democratic strongholds across the country in and around cities, and in university towns. They live on the Upper West Side, yes; but a lot more of them live in places like Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh in the South Hills area, which voted heavily for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, and in more racially diverse places like Prince George’s County, Maryland. The media, which has trouble getting its collective head out of New York unless it’s to go scouring the countryside for disgruntled Trump voters, tends to pay little attention to these places. But in fact, Mount Lebanon and PG County and the places like them around the country are where today’s first Democratic activist base lives.
These people are liberal, make no mistake about that. They sustain Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the NAACP, and similar groups in their areas. They hate inequality and the people FDR called “economic royalists.” They believe in fighting climate change aggressively. They embrace what the press calls identity politics. A 50-year-old white male Democratic trial lawyer from the Detroit suburbs is still a Democrat in no small part because he, quite unlike his politically unaffiliated insurance broker neighbor, is comfortable with and committed to diversity.
These are the people who’ve nominated every Democrat from Walter Mondale (and maybe Jimmy Carter, although Carter was a result of some unique post-Watergate factors) to Hillary Clinton. They’ve been the party’s backbone for a long, long time.
They’ve done a lot. But here’s one thing they didn’t do: They never really challenged the ideological boundaries demarcated by the party’s establishment. After Mondale and Michael Dukakis lost, they agreed that the party maybe had to accept some compromises to win, and they got behind a candidate who embraced free trade and welfare reform. Later, they loved Barack Obama, but they didn’t particularly push him in one direction or another. And they were for the most part perfectly fine with Hillary Clinton.
But coming of age during the Obama years was a cohort that grew up with a whole different set of responses to the world they’d been raised in. They grew up in an America where social mobility was limited, inequality was oppressive, rights were being impinged upon, and the Democrats didn’t seem to be doing much about it. Obama in fact did try to do some things about it, pushing for a higher minimum wage and immigration reform and other initiatives that the Republicans blocked en masse. But he wasn’t nearly aggressive enough for young people, and he badly underestimated their opposition to free trade as he pushed for the TPP. And so was born the Democrats’ second base.
They’re young, and they’re very urban; the beating heart of this base is in Brooklyn, although there are little Brooklyn-like pockets in most cities. They’re in university towns, too, although my guess would be that they’re much more prevalent on urban campuses (and some small liberal arts campuses) than on your average land-grant campus. They’re very diverse and hold diversity as not just a but often the most important value.
There aren’t as many of them as the first base; in fact not nearly as many. But they’re well represented in the media, probably out of proportion to their numbers. And they almost completely dominate the new technology that has arisen alongside them: social media.
In 2016, they were Bernie Sanders supporters. Well, most of them; some—many of the feminists among them—stuck with Hillary to see a woman elected president. Most are Sanders backers today, too, but some are not, and in any case by now it’s clear that this base isn’t just about Sanders. It will outlast Sanders. It will grow. AOC will turn 35, as fate would have it, on October 13, 2024—right before that election. I think there’s little doubt this base will be agitating for her to run then.
For this base, the current Democratic Party needs radical surgery. For the first base of more traditional liberals, that’s not so. The first base is comfortable moving to the left, especially on economic issues. But because the first base is older and lives in places that occasionally elect Republicans, they don’t want radical surgery. They see what it took to elect, say, an Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th district, or a Sharice Davids in Kansas’ 3rd district. Second-base leftists don’t tend to live in these swing-ish places, so they’re more impatient about change.
This is the fragile reality the Democratic Party faces. As I said, I don’t recall a modern political party having two such bases. The closest analogy is the Democrats of 1972. Then, the traditional activist base was white blue-collar union members. The second base consisted of the young people who came out of the civil rights and antiwar movements to spur George McGovern’s nomination. Not a comforting analogy.
But it’s only an analogy if Sanders—roughly, the McGovern of our time, in that his campaigns challenge the party establishment as McGovern’s did—wins the nomination. The first base is generally resistant to Sanders, in no small part because he’s not a Democrat, and first-basers are serious party loyalists. One of the biggest questions that hovers over the Democrats in this campaign is whether Sanders did so well in 2016 because he was the only non-establishment choice on the menu (and everyone figured Clinton would win easily anyway, so why not cast a protest vote), or because voters were particularly committed to him. The Iowa results 10 months from now will go some distance toward answering this question of how many first-basers actually embrace Sanders.
Meanwhile, another question that looms is whether there is another Democrat who emerges mostly from the first base but is capable of energizing both bases if Sanders cannot. This will be a very hard task, as a number of issues divide the two bases—Medicare for All, abolishing ICE—and they tend to be the highest-profile issues. At the same time, there is also common ground there. A first-base Democrat who finds the right way to talk about wages and inequality, corporate and monopoly power, the need to defend and expand democracy and civil rights, and the importance of climate issues could get a hearing from many second-basers, even if the hyperventilations of a relative handful of people on Twitter would suggest otherwise.
The main difference between the two bases, though, is not about issues. It’s about sensibility. This circles us back to Biden. Members of the first activist base are very likely to give Biden the benefit of the doubt here. He may test even their patience if he continues to crack wise about his touchy-feely problem as he did in a speech Friday (didn’t anyone around him tell him not to do that?).
But members of this base, who overwhelmingly supported Al Franken and have turned on Kirsten Gillibrand in a seemingly irreversible way, will cut Biden more slack, I’d bet, than the media right now assumes, particularly if they decide that he’s the best bet to deny Sanders the nomination and then defeat Donald Trump. Members of the second base, though, are inclined to put much more weight on the stated experiences of the women who’ve recently come forward and consider their testimonies disqualifying of Biden.
So this is what the Democrats are up against. They need a candidate who can unite, even if temporarily, even if with band-aids and glue, these two bases. If none proves capable of doing this, Trump will probably win reelection. Then vicious recriminations will ensue, and, depending on how those play out, a party schism is totally within the realm of possibility. The Whigs collapsed after their emotionally crushing loss in the 1852 election and over deep internal divisions. So it’s happened before and can happen again.
But it is not what must happen. Trump is uniquely disliked. No one will again make the mistake of thinking he can’t win. But no one should make the mistake of thinking that beating him will be easy. The Democrats, as has too often been the case, are running against not just the other guy, but themselves.