Democrats are beginning the infighting inevitable after a defeat like they suffered in 2016. There are disputes about strategies and tactics as well as ones about ideology and issues. Some of the arguments may play out during the race for DNC but the divides in the party will probably last longer.
The debate seems similar to the one that happened after the 2004 election. That year, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign brought a host of young people to the political table and many took roles in local Democratic Party organizations across the country. They were more activist and ideological than the centrist Democrats who had been in power since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 and they upended old guard party loyalists, particularly in urban progressive hubs like Asheville, NC.
This year, it’s the activists inspired by Bernie Sanders campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement who are more engaged. They want a more progressive party and they’re actively combatting those they consider establishment Democrats. They support an economic populist message and they want to fight like Republicans did against Obama, opposing them at every turn.
In 2005, Dean’s followers considered themselves the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” borrowing a phrase coined by the late Senator Paul Wellstone. In North Carolina, they captured the Chair of the State Democratic Party when Jerry Meek won over the establishment’s choice. They took control of county parties across the state and, in 2006, won primaries against more centrist candidates.
Today, many of those Deaniacs are part of the Democratic Party establishment, holding elected offices and positions of influence. Dean himself served as Chair of the DNC. His finance director is now head of EMILY’s List, the powerful organization that helps elect pro-choice women to Congress.
Other Dean alumni have held onto their more progressive values and continue challenging the establishment. Zephyr Teachout, who served as Dean’s Director of Internet Organizing, ran against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic Primary and became the 2016 Democratic nominee for Congress, defeating a more establishment candidate in the primary.
As in 2005, Democrats need the energy the Sanders activists can give the party. They also need to embrace the economic populism embodied by Sanders’ campaign. However, they should be more accepting of less progressive views within the party. To win majorities in Congress and state legislatures across the country, Democrats need to embrace more moderate candidates who can win in more conservative districts. Winning primaries and losing general elections won’t get Democrats very far. Progressives might not like Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, but they’ll like the alternative even less.
In the next few weeks, Democrats in North Carolina will convene precinct meetings to elect new officers. Expect the Sanders activists to show their strength. Their input and energy should be embraced. The newcomers, though, should also respect the experience of people who are already involved. More than a few of them came into the fold as anti-establishment Dean supporters a dozen years ago.