The Democratic Party faces a steep climb in the coming year. Why?

Congressional delegation to the exhibit to pay respects to the lives lost, 10/1/21. Artist Suzanne Firstenberg is speaking. Nancy Pelosi with Jim Clyburn. (photo: Victoria Pickering)

With friends like Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Krysten Sinema, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the Democratic Party hardly needs enemies.

After a victorious 2020, it should be surprising that the Democratic Party is already facing a steep uphill climb to electoral success in 2022. For many astute observers of Democratic Party politics though, it isn’t.

“I’m not a member of any organized political party,” quipped the humorist Will Rogers once upon a time; “I’m a Democrat.”

Part of the problem is that Democrats, while successful in defeating Donald Trump in 2020, never really divided up the spoils properly. In fact, the Democratic Party seemed reluctant to decide just who was responsible for delivering the Oval Office to President Joe Biden.

Was it firebrand progressives, with their Twitter army and fundraising prowess? Or was it the moderates, drawing in just enough members of the erstwhile big-tent party to eke out a very narrow victory?

Both arms of the Democratic Party have claimed credit for any successes of the past year; both have denied all responsibility for any failures.

At the top of the party, respected stalwarts like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been reticent, reluctant to arbitrate conflicts between progressives and moderates and unwilling to say definitively what led Democrats to victory in 2020.

It should be noted, as it seldom has been for the record, that down-ballot Democrats didn’t do as well in 2020 as the average voter might think. House Democrats were favored to win by pollsters in 27 toss-up races.

Republicans won all 27.

Besides what that says about pollsters- nothing good- it says something else, too: The Democratic Party’s mandate in 2020 was shaky at best. But in the ecstasy of Joe Biden’s election, down-ballot losses were easier to overlook.

And so, by and large, they have been.

Now, of course, with the mid-term election already begun and President Biden safe this cycle, down-ballot Democrats are really all that matters in the upcoming race.

In the House and the Senate, the Democratic majority could hardly be slimmer. Democrats hold the chambers by such a thin margin, any defection by any elected member is a major problem for the House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader.

For this reason, conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin and ultra-progressive lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have outsize power. Manchin in particular has been amply demonstrating just how obstructionist a Democratic Senator can be.

There is no question of what progressives think about Manchin; witness the harassment Manchin and Sen. Krysten Sinema have endured from progressive action groups since bucking the Biden agenda.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is certainly no fan of Manchin. Less conservative Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi herself have been on the receiving end of accusations from AOC, up to and including Ocasio-Cortez calling Pelosi a racist.

Rumors that Pelosi will be retiring at the end of this term have been swirling around Capitol Hill in recent weeks. Some have even speculated that Pelosi might become President Joe Biden’s ambassador to the Vatican. Whatever the case, it isn’t surprising that Pelosi might no longer relish her role as cat herder in chief. It is a thankless job that makes her the target of both progressives and moderates.

Not even President Joe Biden has escaped the disdainful ire of popular progressive lawmakers. According to Ocasio-Cortez, Biden doesn’t even belong in the same party as her.

Party leadership, including Biden and Pelosi are often being stymied by progressive Democrats, undermining from within using Twitter, viral media marketing techniques and direct “appeal to the people” type messaging, pushing ever leftward.

There is no question of who dominates on Twitter; progressives. But there is a question about just how much influence Twitter has on the real-world electoral struggles of the Democratic Party.

Twitter users are far more liberal than likely voters. Only 1 in 5 U.S. adults even uses Twitter, to say nothing of how many voting Democrats are actually active on Twitter. Besides not accounting for everyone, Twitter users fall into two distinct categories; Sunday Drivers and Serious Twitter.

Most of the content on Twitter, that isn’t advertising, is produced by a relatively small number of users. Most Twitter users seldom post much of anything. So, out of that 1 in 5 U.S. adults on Twitter, very few make up the very vocal minority we hear so often #clamoring for ever more leftward progressive policies.

Take “Defund the Police,” the progressive cause du jour in 2020. On Twitter, the concept seemed quite popular. The phrase certainly made a pithy tweet and looked rad on a protest sign.

At the ballot box, however, voting Democrats have been singing a different tune all year. New York City just elected its next mayor; an ex-NYPD officer who ran a classic tough-on-crime campaign message. In the primary, he beat everyone to his left and carried every borough but Manhattan- where the recent spike in crime hasn’t been such a problem.

The push to defund police departments is a good example of how far-left progressive wish-list items have landed the Democratic Party in hot water.

The biggest problem at the heart of the Democratic Party struggles post-2020 is a failure to define the party and its values: What is the religion of the Democratic Party?

Is the Democratic Party a hyper-progressive party pushing untested utopian ideas like a police-free society? Or is it still the Big Tent Party?

One thing is clear: The Democratic Party cannot be both.

The Big Tent Party, it need hardly be said, used to include most of the rank-and-file police officers nationwide. Working-class police officers belong to unions in general and unions not only vote Democrat, they organize for Democrats, donate to Democrats.

In the Defund the Police Party, where are all the tens of thousands of voting law enforcement officers supposed to find themselves? What about the millions of Democratic voters who support criminal justice reform but think abolishing police departments is madness?

For Democratic Party progressives, this isn’t a problem: Good riddance. Progressives like AOC don’t want to share the Democratic Party with Joe Biden and Joe Manchin, they certainly don’t want to share it with cops or people who support police officers.

For Democrats who want to win elections, however, the alienation wrought by party progressives is a grave and immediate threat.

Critical Race Theory is another such progressive v. moderate dust up. Progressives are the ones who have been vocally supporting and defending CRT over the past year, emphasizing the importance of educating public school students about the intricacies of race relations. Moderates have been the ones alternately denying the existence of CRT and decrying it as a fringe theory of no importance being exploited by callous Republicans.

To fully embrace CRT, the Democratic Party will need to alienate a great many voters- many of them classically liberal voters who still consider themselves progressives. They may not, however, all agree with progressives that segregating school children by race is a good idea.

Bill Maher, an outspoken progressive long before today’s outspoken progressives were even born, riffed on the Democratic Party’s conundrum recently with regards to CRT. “White People Suck,” noted Maher, is hardly a winning campaign message in a country where the majority of people are white.

The conflicts currently happening between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party are akin to what happens when you introduce two of your best friends to each other, expecting them to like each other.

They have so much in common, they are so alike, you are just sure they are going to adore each other…and instead they repel each other.

Like mutual friends of a friend, the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party have much more in common than they might think.

Chiefly, a desire to stop the Republican Party from taking control of the House and Senate in 2022, a feat which Republicans are looking increasingly likely to do.

And yet, what a difference a year can make, as we know only too well.

The Republican Party is having its own identity crisis, torn between establishment Republicans who don’t want Donald Trump anywhere near 2022 and other Republicans who do.

The Republican Party got Donald Trump in 2016 because it tried, with absolutely no success whatsoever, to give its voters Jeb Bush. This inability to “read the room” is still hurting Republicans- with their base and with the independents and swing voters they need so badly to win over.

Obstructionist Senate Republicans are blocking Biden nominees to the point that members of the Republican Party are grumbling about it. Not a single ambassador to Africa has been confirmed since Joe Biden took office.

Republicans are going to keep playing party politics for their base, and this obstructionism of Biden nominees isn’t the worst of it.

If Democrats don’t sort out their internal squabbles soon, this blockade of Biden nominees will pale in comparison to the obstruction in which Republicans will almost certainly engage after taking back the House and Senate in 2022.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)