The Party Cannot Hold

Drawing by Tom Bachtell
Drawing by Tom Bachtell

In early January, as Democratic voters began to focus more intently on the approaching primary season, New York magazine published a profile of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.1 The writer, David Freedlander, spoke with her about the divisions within the Democratic Party, and asked what sort of role she envisioned for herself in a possible Joe Biden presidency. “Oh, God,” Ocasio-Cortez replied (“with a groan,” Freedlander noted). “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”

This was in some respects an impolitic, even impolite, thing for the first-term politician to say. AOC, a democratic socialist, had endorsed Bernie Sanders the previous October, so it was no secret where her loyalties lay. Still, Biden was at that point the clear front-runner for the presidential nomination, and freshman members of Congress don’t usually make disparaging remarks about their party’s front-runner. Her comment thus carried a considerable charge—a suggestion that if Biden were the nominee, this luminary and her 6.3 million Twitter followers might not just placidly go along.

And yet, she is correct. In a parliamentary system, Biden would be in the main center-left party and AOC in a smaller, left-wing party. So her comment was an accurate description of an oddity of American politics that has endured since just before the Civil War—the existence of our two, large-tent parties battling for primacy against each other, but often battling within themselves.

At the moment, as the Democrats struggle over their future, one can legitimately wonder whether the poles of the Democratic tent are strong enough to hold. The divisions are stark. This historical moment is often compared to 1972, when a youth movement similar to the one Sanders leads today took over the party and nominated George McGovern. But if anything, today’s divisions run far deeper. Then, the party was split chiefly over the Vietnam War. There were other issues, to be sure, and the New Left—the 1960s movement of student radicals that spread from Madison to Berkeley to everywhere—pressed a broader critique of American society; but McGovern’s was fundamentally an antiwar candidacy. And while the Vietnam debate was shattering to the party for a few years, wars eventually end, as indeed that one did, not long after the 1972 election.

Once it ended, and once the Watergate scandal mushroomed, the party was able to stitch itself back together with surprising ease. In the 1974 midterms, both liberals and moderates were able to run aggressively against Richard Nixon, and the Democrats made historic gains that year. Then, with the country still agitated over Nixon and Gerald Ford’s pardon of him, and with a sunny southern moderate vaulting over several better-known and more liberal senators, they recaptured the White House in 1976.

The current divide is not about one war. It is about…

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