Political pundits love to predict the failure of the opposing political party, especially after their side wins a presidential election. After Ronald Reagan's landslide victory over Walter Mondale, William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” discussed whether there was a "liberal crack-up" dooming Democrats to historical irrelevance. In 2012, after Obama's re-election victory, politicians and pundits wondered whether a Republican would ever become president again. Such triumphalist prognostications are typically little more than wishful thinking on the part of political partisans. That said, it really does seem like the Democratic Party could be close cracking up.
When successful self-made business tycoon Howard Schultz recently entered the political fray as an Independent candidate, Democrats smelt danger. For all the talk about Donald Trump's low approval rating, he has consistently maintained over 80% approval among Republican-leaning voters, while waffling somewhere between "we hate his guts" and "okay, he got lucky" among Democrats. Trump's consistently high popularity among Republicans means that an third party run by a businessman like Schultz would likely peel more voters away from Democrats than from Republicans. And, progressives are outraged.
Schultz's announcement might actually help Democrats, however. By floating the idea of running as an Independent, Schultz has created a political pressure on the Democratic Primary race that did not exist before: the pressure to moderate. Centrist Democrat warhorse Joe Biden is currently the front-runner for the Democratic ticket, but that was likely to change as primary debates forced candidates to say radical things to please their primary audience. However, the threat of a moderate independent run gives an added boost to middle-of-the-road Democrats. And, given the lack of impressive progressive options this season, Biden might be the Democrats’ best shot at winning.
So, if Schultz’s announcement ultimately benefits the Democrats (after his inevitable mea culpa), why am I still predicting a crack-up in the Democratic Party?
Because the crack-up has already begun. The chasm between a self-made Jewish billionaire like Schultz and the progressive Democratic base is paradigmatic of a widespread, festering problem. In 2012, the Democratic National Convention held a voice vote over the inclusion of a reference to God and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel into their party platform. Both measures were clearly shouted down by the progressive base, although the moderator awkwardly moved on as if that didn’t happen. This time, the progressives will have the floor.
As usual, Israel is the canary in the political coal-mine. Older Democrats, many of whom are Jewish themselves, are quite friendly to Israel. Younger progressive-Democrats coming fresh out of campus propaganda mills are prone to vocalize a deep-seated visceral hatred of the Israeli state. For instance, at a recent gathering of “democratic socialists,” young progressives spontaneously broke out into anti-Israel chants after voting to join forces with the movement to “boycott, divest, and sanction” the State of Israel. This does not bode well for the upcoming primary season, where seemingly innocuous questions regarding U.S. policy toward Israel could spark internecine warfare between these two Democrat factions.
Israel will not be the only fault-line in this war. Candidate Kamala Harris stumbled upon another one when she announced her advocacy (followed by her sudden de-advocacy) of single-payer healthcare. This issue, once again, pits the interests of older Democrats against younger progressives. Older Democrats do not consider their Medicare benefits to be a form of “socialized medicine.” Instead, they view their lifelong contributions to the Medicare system (in the form of taxes) as what entitles them to these benefits. The idea of giving away a portion of their benefits to young people who have not yet paid in, especially when these programs are already threatened with insolvency, will not be particularly appealing.
Warfare between old and young Democrats during the primary debates might redound to the benefit of establishment candidates, who will inevitably denounce infighting and call for “focus” on the “true enemy,” which is Donald Trump. But damage will be done. Many progressive Democrats will be dispirited by a Democrat establishment that does not take their issues seriously. Some progressives might even rebel against what they see as an excessively old and white Democratic Party. Third party candidates could start springing up, not from the Center, but from the Left flank. And, if that happens, the Democratic Party machinery would once again be in direct conflict with its own base of voters. After being burned so badly in 2016, progressive voters will not like that.
This is a volatile moment for the Democratic Party. When the sparks start flying, things might get very ugly.