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The Six Wings Of The Democratic Party

There’s a lot of news right now about conflicts within the Democratic Party, and similar stories will likely continue to pop up for the next two years. Much of this is normal and unsurprising. The American political system has only two major parties, resulting in those parties being large and internally diverse — a political reporter could write a “Democrats divided” or “Republicans divided” story virtually any day of any year. And the Democrats are in a complicated place politically at the moment, having just won a major election but not the presidency, which would give the party one single person to rally around.

All that said, it’s worth unpacking these divides among elected Democrats. Not because they will necessarily hurt the party in November 2020, but because those divides will explain a lot of what happens day-to-day until the presidential election and potentially afterward. These conflicts are often hard to understand — factions and officials have incentives to obscure both the existence and the specifics of their differences. Many labels have lost their utility by becoming too broad and oversimplified; the term “progressive,” for example, has become virtually meaningless to describe different kinds of Democrats, since politicians as different as Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both define themselves as progressive.

So here’s a short guide to the various factions of the 2019-20 Democratic Party, based on my reporting and conversations with Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill, on the various presidential campaigns and at liberal-leaning activists groups.1 The goal is to better reflect the disagreements playing out among party elites in the real world, which aren’t well captured by “liberal vs. moderate” or other broad terms like that.

We have generally ordered these blocs from most liberal to least:2

The Super Progressives

  • Very liberal on economic and identity/cultural issues, anti-establishment. (Anti-establishment is a very fuzzy term, but in this piece, what I’m referring to is people who see part of their role as not just attacking Republicans, but also highlighting what they see as shortcomings of the Democratic Party itself.)
  • Prominent examples: Ocasio-Cortez , Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

People in this bloc generally see the Democratic Party as too centrist and too cautious. This bloc is pushing for very liberal policies on economics (for example, its members favor a plan that would put all Americans in a Medicare-style system for health insurance). But unlike the next bloc, they are also pushing for very liberal stands on issues around identity and race (they support abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency).

In short, this group represents the most left wing of the modern Democratic Party on both of the main policy areas occupying U.S. politics. Moreover, its members are aggressively pushing their vision even when other Democrats balk.

This is a fairly small bloc in terms of Democratic elected officials — I don’t think any of the current Democratic governors or senators fit into this group.3 That’s partly because policies like abolishing ICE are fairly new, so Democrats who did not run in the 2018 cycle did not have to take a position on them. But it’s also not yet clear that you can win statewide (or nationally) with this kind of across-the-board-very-liberal politics.

The Very Progressives

  • Very liberal on economic issues, fairly liberal on identity issues, skeptical of the Democratic establishment.
  • Prominent examples: Bill de Blasio, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren.

This group has much in common with the first, particularly on economics. The Very Progressive group’s distinguishing characteristics are being a little less aggressive and less focused on identity issues and a little more willing to play nice with the Democratic Party establishment.4

I don’t expect Sanders or Warren, for example, to come out in favor of abolishing ICE during their presidential candidacies. (Look for language like “restructuring” or “starting over.”) But people in this bloc are on board with the economic liberalism of the Super Progressives and are worried that the Democratic Party is too cozy with corporate America.

A good illustration of the dividing line between the first two blocs and the rest of the party was the debate over Amazon getting tax breaks from New York for moving part of its second headquarters there. Ocasio-Cortez and Warren were among the most prominent opponents of offering benefits to Amazon, while less liberal Democrats like Cuomo generally are less wary of the Democrats building ties with major corporations.

The Progressive New Guard

  • Liberal on both economic and identity issues but also somewhat concerned about the “electability” of candidates and the appeal of ideas to the political center; generally rose to prominence after Barack Obama was elected president.
  • Prominent examples: Stacey Abrams, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke.

I consider the vast majority of Democratic members of Congress and Democratic governors either in this group or the one that comes next. The people in this group (and the next one) are often reacting to the ideas of the two more progressive blocs instead of really driving the party’s vision themselves. Abrams and O’Rourke, in particular, are talented politicians, but I don’t think either of them has a defined ideology in the way that Sanders does. Booker, in the midst of the 2020 presidential campaign, has embraced Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. But if he is the party’s presidential nominee, I would expect him to hedge on those issues — “I support the aspiration of Medicare for all” or some such — in a way Ocasio-Cortez would not if she were the candidate.

But what makes this group distinct from the next bloc of Democrats is a kind of performative wokeness, both on racial and nonracial issues. Its members are adept at speaking to a Democratic Party that is increasingly a coalition of minorities and whites with liberal views on gender and racial issues. They aren’t dismissive of the young activists pushing the Green New Deal, as some in the next bloc are. And wokeness is also illustrated in how this bloc sees the electorate. The Progressive New Guard wants to appeal to white, working-class swing voters, but it sees another path to Democrats winning in purple states: mobilizing nonwhite voters and white millennials who might not vote at all if the candidate does not inspire them.

The Progressive Old Guard

  • Solidly center-left on both economic and identity issues, but very concerned about the “electability” of candidates and the appeal of ideas to the political center; generally rose to prominence before Obama was elected president.
  • Prominent examples: Joe Biden, Cuomo, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer.

People in this bloc are often considered “moderate,” while those in the previous one are tagged “liberal,” but I’m not sure these two groups have huge policy differences. I’m not convinced, for example, Biden would pick meaningfully different Supreme Court justices than Harris or O’Rourke. But the Progressive Old Guard presents itself much differently than the new guard. The old guard is less willing to placate the party’s most progressive wings. The defining phrase of this group might be “how do you pay for that?” With the Super Progressives and Very Progressives seemingly ascendant, this bloc is deeply concerned about the party going too far left. That’s in part because this bloc, more so than the Progressive New Guard, sees the path to the Democrats winning as largely about wooing white swing voters in the Midwest, not mobilizing nonwhite voters in states like Georgia.

The Moderates

  • More conservative and business-friendly than other Democrats on economic policies; somewhat liberal on cultural issues; anti-establishment.
  • Prominent examples: Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.

Some members of this bloc recently voted for a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, which was championed by Pelosi, but then also supported a GOP-backed amendment to the measure that would alert ICE when an undocumented immigrant tries to purchase a gun. The moderates supporting that idea infuriated both Pelosi (she argued that Democrats need to work as a team and not join with the GOP) and Ocasio-Cortez (she objects to empowering ICE).

But criticism from Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi may be a feature, not a bug, for these members. Many of them represent competitive (purple) districts and states. Some Democrats in this bloc may be, in their hearts and minds, just more conservative than other Democrats. But virtually all have a political incentive to play up their differences with Pelosi and particularly Ocasio-Cortez — to tell their constituents essentially, “I’m a Democrat, but not that kind of Democrat.”

Conservative Democrats

This is probably the smallest wing of these six. But it’s an important one. Democrats may need more Democrats in this mold to win any of the three gubernatorial races in 2019 (Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi) or to gain seats in state legislatures in the West and the South. This wing, I think, will punch above its weight in the national debate about where the Democrats are headed — because these Democrats will likely be those pushing loudest for it to avoid the policy stands of the Very Progressives and the Super Progressives. And they will have a compelling argument — by being elected, Edwards was able to expand Medicaid to more than 400,000 people in a very red state, a real policy change that Ocasio-Cortez can’t make.


Even these categories are broad and imperfect. You could argue for more or fewer and might dispute some of the politicians I have included in the various groups. But I think this captures something essential about what is happening in Democratic politics right now.

I didn’t intend to have six blocs when I started writing this story. But six (two on the left, two in the center and two to the right) is apt in describing where the Democratic Party is right now. The two most liberal groups have a ton of new policy ideas and energy, and they are determined to push the party left. But the Democrats have a majority in the House in part because of moderate Democrats winning in closely contested districts, and the party probably needs more moderate, and even some conservative, Democrats to gain ground in gubernatorial and Senate seats. Trapped in the middle are the party’s congressional leaders and most of its presidential contenders, facing pressure from the party’s left and the right.

Over the next year two years, divides that crop up among Democrats will likely break along some of these factional lines.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. This is intentionally modeled on our 2017 story about the power centers in the Trump administration.

  2. We are trying to create broad categories. We understand these categories do not perfectly capture the views of any wing of the Democratic Party — or even any individual politician. And we’ve kept this fairly simple, largely not discussing foreign policy in this piece, for example. Foreign policy issues are very important, but we’re not sure the dividing lines within the Democrats on them are that clear. And we have not included every politician who might fit particular categories, instead looking for people who kind of exemplify our categories and who readers are already somewhat familiar with. You’ll notice we include “Rep.” and “of Wisconsin” for Mark Pocan, but we’re assuming you know that Chuck Schumer is from New York and the Senate minority leader. We also opted for elected leaders instead of activist groups. But you could, for example, include the Justice Democrats in the Super Progressives bloc.

  3. I didn’t do a comprehensive search of mayors, state legislators or city council members, but Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff is an example of a politician outside of Congress who supports abolishing ICE.

  4. We’re not saying this group, especially Sanders, is particularly rah-rah about the Democratic Party. But Omar, say, bashes the actions of former President Barack Obama in a way I don’t think Warren would.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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