In his video launching his presidential campaign this week, Joe Biden defined the terms of the 2020 presidential race: the soul of America is at stake. Within hours — ignoring Barack Obama’s warning earlier this month that ideological rigidity could turn the Democratic primary process into a circular firing squad — activist groups on the left rose up with guns blazing to take Joe down.
The speed and intensity of the response reminded me of a comment made by my business partner, John White, at the height of the Reagan Revolution, suggesting that single-issue voters would be the death of American democracy. He was referring to the growing power within the Republican Party of single-issue voting groups — pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-tax voters, among others — under the guidance of Reagan lieutenant Grover Norquist. An astute political observer, John believed that the rise of single-issue voting groups — including similar trends he saw in the Democratic Party — was anathema to governing a pluralistic, democratic society, which relies on the messy give-and-take of political compromise. Decades later, the outcome that he foresaw is upon us.
Donald Trump did not create the tribalism that now deeply infects our politics, but he learned over the years — through his involvement in public controversies such as the Central Park Five and the Birther movement — how to manipulate historical grievances and grudges to build a personal following. He also recognized that the coalition Norquist had assembled could be harnessed to his own political purposes, regardless of whether he gave anything more than lip service to traditional Republican principles. Accordingly, Trump built his campaign in 2016 around his unique abilities as a demagogue to channel the resentments of his base, combined with pledges on taxes, judges and guns to secure the votes of the Norquist coalition. And it worked. Even as Trump has destroyed the last vestiges of the Republican Party as it once was — committed to free trade, civil liberties, fiscal conservatism, and Constitutional principles — he has enjoyed the highest approval ratings in history for a Republican president among Republicans.
In a similar vein, Vladimir Putin did not create the deep divisions that have now set Americans against each other. Rather, he recognized how he could manipulate those fissures for his own purposes. In the hope of dealing a blow to the America that led the alliance of western democracies for the better part of a century, undermined the Soviet Union and humiliated Russia, he launched intelligence operations intended to deepen those fissures and further divide Americans against each other.
Joe Biden sought to remind Democrats that the 2020 presidential race is about more than health insurance or the affordability of higher education, but about reversing the trajectory of the nation and restoring our capacity to govern ourselves as a pluralistic democracy. Polling and focus groups suggest that Democratic Party voters share Biden’s sense of urgency. By significant margins, Democrats as a whole suggest that nominating a candidate who can beat Trump is a higher priority than nominating one that supports their particular issues. Activist groups in the Democratic Party, on the other hand — reflective of the trend that concerned my partner several decades ago — appear less willing to subordinate their issues to some notion of the greater good.
To those Democrats, Trump many be anathema, but Biden is as well. He represents a return to a status quo ante when progressive values were subordinated, election after election, to centrist, neo-liberal interests, and they are loath to go down that path again. They remain steadfast in their goal of assuring that the nominee that is ultimately chosen will be loyal to their own particular priorities, and evince little concern over whether whatever litmus test they are pushing on candidates might ultimately undermine the ability of the ultimate Democrat nominee to beat Donald Trump. As Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats — the group behind AOC — commented this week in Vanity Fair, “The old guard of the Democratic Party failed to stop Trump, and they can’t be counted on to lead the fight against his divide-and-conquer politics today.” Rather than offering electability, Joe Biden stands “in near complete opposition to where the center of energy is in the Democratic Party today.”
The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to know which candidates can beat Trump, and which issues might help or hinder a nominee in a general election. While Joe Biden’s central argument is electability, Bernie supporters firmly believe that he too can win back the votes of working class whites who turned to Trump. Leftist Democrats believe that young and disaffected voters, as well as many working class whites, will flock to a candidate who embraced their democratic socialist vision, more than offsetting any loss of independent voters or disaffected Republicans. Others believe that the path to victory lies in building on the base-broadening success of women candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections and in nominating a woman as the standard bearer for the party. They could all be right; they could all be wrong.
Leveraging those divisions among Democrats has emerged as an essential part of Trump’s campaign strategy. One of the keys to his victory in 2016 was the ability of his campaign — along with Vladimir Putin’s cyber warriors — to suppress Election Day turnout for Hilary among progressive and African American voters. And it worked; despite Bernie’s last ditch efforts to bring his supporters on board, an estimated 20% of Bernie supporters either voted for Trump or chose to stay home, while according to The Washington Post, 4.4 million Obama supporters chose to stay home rather than vote for Hilary, one-third of them Black.
In the wake of the mid-term elections in which Democrats flipped dozens of House seats running moderate candidates in suburban districts, Trump used the early media obsession with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to flip the script and rebrand the Democratic Party as a fringe socialist political movement. This ploy was useful for him in two ways. First, it defined Democrats in a way that he believes will give pause to a subset of independent and disaffected Republican voters who had cast their lot with Democrats in the mid-terms elections. Second — and perhaps more important — it led to a very public, intra-party squabble that dominated the news cycle for several weeks over the merits of socialism vs. capitalism, with the media dutifully forcing each prospective nominee to take a stand on the issue.
Socialism was just an opening gambit. That flurry had barely subsided when Trump used comments by the newly elected Ilhan Omar to paint the Democratic Party as becoming increasingly hostile to Jews. In a masterstroke of irony, the President who famously pandered to racists and anti-Semites in Charlottesville put Democrats on the defensive as he fomented another intra-party squabble, this one culminating in a hotly-debated, yet vacuous Congressional anti-hate resolution.
We can expect to see this strategy played out over and over in the months ahead. Trump will comment or tweet about a topic that he believes can drive a wedge between various Democrat constituencies, or will alienate a subset of independent voters. It is not hard to anticipate which ones he might choose; there are any number of obvious examples are out there. Triggered by Trump’s words, activist groups will rise to the bait, leading to more intra-party squabbling among Democrats. The media, in turn, will ask competing candidates for their position on the issue. The controversy will dominate the news cycle, with the inevitable back and forth as activist groups judge which candidates provided satisfactory responses, until everyone ultimately moves on.
This strategy will play an important role in Trump’s reelection effort. In addition to controlling the political narrative — deflecting attention away from whatever controversy is swirling around him — Trump knows that instigating conflict among Democrats over the course of the campaign can alienate subsets of independent voters and disaffected Republicans tempted to vote Democratic, as well as suppress enthusiasm and turnout among Democrats for the surviving party nominee. As much as Democrats might believe that having Donald Trump on the ballot will be enough to assure strong turnout for whomever Democrats nominate, Trump believes instigating discord among Democrats in order to suppress Democrat enthusiasm for the Party’s ultimate nominee and turnout on Election Day can work because it worked before.
Joe Biden and Barack Obama might hope that Democrats will show more flexibility and tone down their differences, and focus instead on the larger issues that are at stake in 2020, but that seems unlikely to happen. While Democrats as a whole appear inclined to heed their warnings, the determined focus of progressive activists on their own priorities may yet imperil Democrat chances of unseating Trump in 2020.
Perhaps seeing Trump’s low approval ratings and polls indicating that 54% of Americans have already decided that they will not vote for Trump has led activist Democrats to believe the outcome is pre-ordained. But nothing is pre-ordained in politics, particularly this far in advance of an election. It is worth noting that Donald Trump’s current approval ratings are roughly the same as Barack Obama’s at the same point in Obama’s first term, and in March 2016 — just eight months before Election Day — two-thirds of Republicans polled similarly indicated that they would not vote for Donald Trump for President under any circumstances.
And then there is the elephant in the room. As New York Times political analyst Nate Cohn pointed out in a piece earlier this month, entitled The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate, the lion’s share of the Democrat and independent voters — whose support progressives will ultimately need if their preferred candidate is to beat Donald Trump next year — are more conservative than they are. As if to prove the point, data guru Nate Silver responded to Alexandra Rojas’ comments by pointing out that only 26 of the 79 candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats won their primaries in 2018, and, of those, only seven went on to win their elections. This is the progressive blind spot that Trump is counting on, and that he is eager to exploit in the months ahead. It worked before; and unless Democrats wake up, there is no reason it couldn’t work again.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”