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 capitalism—whether it can be reformed and remade to create the kind of broad prosperity the country once knew, but without the sexism and racism of the postwar period, as liberals hope; or whether corporate power is now so great that we are simply beyond that, as the younger socialists would argue, and more radical surgery is called for. Further, it’s about who holds power in the Democratic Party, and the real and perceived ways in which the Democrats of the last thirty years or so have failed to challenge that power. These questions are not easily resolved, so this internal conflict is likely to last for some time and grow very bitter indeed. If Sanders wins the nomination, he will presumably try to unify the party behind his movement—but many in the party establishment will be reluctant to join, and a substantial number of his most fervent supporters wouldn’t welcome them anyway. It does not seem to me too alarmist to wonder if the Democrats can survive all this; if 2020 will be to the Democrats as 1852 was to the Whigs—a schismatic turning point that proved that the divisions were beyond bridging.

When did it begin, this split in the Democratic Party over these most basic questions of our political economy? One could trace it back to William Jennings Bryan and the Free Silver Movement (an early rebellion against the eastern bankers), or perhaps even earlier. But if pressed to name a modern starting point, I would choose the mid-1980s: the crushing 1984 defeat of Walter Mondale, and Al From’s creation the next year of the Democratic Leadership Council, which was founded to move the party away from statism and unions and toward positions friendlier to the free market. Mondale was the last old-fashioned Keynesian to capture the Democratic nomination. Ever since, the party’s nominees have offered, to one degree or another, hybrids of Keynesianism and neoliberalism.2

Bill Clinton, the 1992 nominee, probably tilted more toward neoliberalism than any other Democrat, although wholesale dismissals of him as a neoliberal sellout aren’t fair or accurate. People forget, for example, that he rolled the dice on government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 because he refused to sign a budget Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole pressed on him with enormous domestic spending cuts. It was by no means a given when the first shutdown started that he would win that fight politically (which he did, even if he lost in another way, because of the intern he met who brought him pizza while the White House staff was furloughed). Clinton was a Keynesian at times, but in broad strokes, on trade and financial deregulation, he pushed the Democrats much closer to that then-aborning creature, the global financial elite.


Like Clinton, Al Gore had been a “New Democrat,” as the more centrist Democrats of the day called themselves, most of his career, but as the nominee in 2000, he tried on both suits. I was at the convention in Los Angeles for his surprisingly high-octane, populist speech announcing that his campaign would rest on the idea of “the people versus the powerful.” But over the next few weeks, the powerful must have started calling. Gore toned that rhetoric down. We never got to see him govern, of course, as he won the election by 500,000 votes but lost it by one at the Supreme Court. John Kerry continued in a similar style in 2004. He proposed new health care and jobs spending, to be paid for by rescinding the Bush tax cuts. He also pledged to cut the deficit in half in four years. But the 2004 election turned more on national security—Iraq and the September 11 attacks—than the economy, and he narrowly lost.

None of these candidates really had to worry about “the left.” It certainly existed. There was a fairly robust movement against free trade, backed by the labor unions, though it never succeeded in nominating a president. And there were numerous columnists and policy intellectuals who protested every time a Democratic president or congressional leader emphasized the importance of deficit reduction, or otherwise embraced austerity. But electorally, Democrats could get by just paying occasional lip service to the economic left.

Then came the meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession. As thrilled as millions were by Barack Obama’s election victory, the activists and intellectuals who cared most about breaking the neoliberal grip on the party were appalled by his appointments of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Rahm Emanuel (not an economic adviser per se but a brutish enforcer of centrist orthodoxy), among others. To be fair, Obama had never done anything to indicate, on the campaign trail or in his short career, that he would govern as a left populist. Adam Tooze, in Crashed, his authoritative book on the financial crisis, notes that in April 2006, Senator Obama was selected for the rare privilege of speaking at the founding meeting of the Hamilton Project, a group of centrist economists brought together by Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Treasury secretary and the bête noire of the left populists. Presidential ambitions no doubt on his mind during this important audition, he carefully walked the Keynes-neoliberal line: he reminded his audience of the people the global economy had left behind in Illinois towns like Decatur and Galesburg, yet he also nodded toward two Hamilton Project priorities when he spoke of “keep[ing] the deficit low” and keeping US debt low and “out of the hands of foreign nations.”3

In the early years of Obama’s presidency, the only anger most of the media noticed emanated from the right, in the form of the Tea Party movement, supported financially by figures like the Koch brothers and promoted by the Fox News Channel. The angry left, lacking such resources, was less visible, but it was always there. It found its avatar in Elizabeth Warren, named by then Senate majority leader Harry Reid to chair a congressional oversight panel on emergency economic relief. It was from this perch that she became such a thorn in Geithner’s, and Obama’s, side—and such a star of the progressive left.

Outside of official Washington circles, the impatience, and the insurgency, were building, especially among young people born since about the early 1990s. They had grown up under a capitalism very different from the one Baby Boomers experienced; they’d seen a rigged game all their adult lives—a weak job market and heavy college debt for them, more and more riches for the one percent, and no one seeming to do anything about it. In 2010 a young leftist named Bhaskar Sunkara started Jacobin, a socialist journal that became an immediate surprise success. The next year, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began, making it clear that anger was real and widespread, and eventually having a strong influence on debate within the Democratic Party. The Democratic Socialists of America, founded in 1982, saw its membership rise from 6,000 in 2016 to 40,000 in 2018. Two other movements of the left, while not mainly concerned with economics, became potent political forces—the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013, and the movement seeking permanent legal status for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.


Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders; drawing by James Ferguson

All this activity might have remained inchoate had Sanders not decided to run for president against Hillary Clinton in 2016 (he deferred at first to Warren, who declined to run). Sanders had been inveighing against the banks and rigged political system in exactly the same language for years, but his general ineffectiveness on Capitol Hill, and his comprehensive lack of interest in schmoozing, reduced him to background noise as far as most of Washington was concerned. Now, however, people were coming out by the tens of thousands to hear him speak bluntly about the banks and the billionaires in a way Clinton never would have. And he gave this movement a figurehead, a cynosure around which to rally; his conveniently uncommon first name seemed to dance joyfully out of his supporters’ mouths.

There is no harsher spotlight in the world than the one shone on major-party candidates for president of the United States, and he handled it with a skill that not everyone thrust into that position could. His critics—and I have been one, especially when I felt in 2016 that he attacked Clinton too viciously for too long, well after he was mathematically eliminated4—cannot deny him that. Whatever happens with this nominating process and election, he has gone from being an afterthought backbencher to a historical figure.

To what extent was all this left-wing anger at mainstream Democrats justified? It’s a complicated question. The left was correct that Obama could have been far more aggressive on mortgage rescues and penalties imposed on the banks that brought on the financial crisis, as well as in its criticisms (which I joined) of Obama’s lamentable embrace of deficit reduction. It is also correct that Democrats have, since the 1990s, gotten themselves far too indebted to certain donor groups, notably Wall Street and the tech industry.

Yet the left, in its critiques, sometimes acts as if Republicans don’t exist and have no say in political outcomes. Leftists tend to interpret the policy failures of the Obama era as a function of his own lack of will, or his reliance on corporate interests, rather than what they more often were, in my view—a reflection of the facts that in the Senate, a unified and dug-in minority can thwart a majority, and even a majority can pass legislation only as progressive as the sixtieth senator will allow because of the super-majority voting rules. I recall several conversations with administration officials who had worked for months on certain policy matters but who knew that the ideas would never get through the Senate. And presidents just don’t have endless political capital.

I’ve always found this a useful heuristic: imagine Obama in his first term with LBJ-like majorities in Congress, sixty-eight senators and nearly three hundred House members. What would he have passed? It’s useful because our answers define the limits of mainstream liberalism—what it would be willing to push for, and the interests it would be hesitant to take on.

First, I think a larger stimulus would have passed, with fewer tax cuts and more spending, like the green school construction proposal that was killed by Republican Susan Collins. Quite possibly there would have been a second stimulus the next year (a good and needed dose of Keynesian counter-cyclical spending). A more progressive health care bill with a public option might well have passed. Certainly a minimum wage increase. A big infrastructure bill. The Democrats would have done something on climate change—nothing on the scale of today’s Green New Deal ambitions, but something. Immigration reform. Probably a student-loan reform bill. And, I believe, a paid family leave bill of some kind (some of this would have depended on where those extra eight Democratic senators were from and what they were willing to support).

Some things that still would not have passed: Medicare for All; free college; card-check legislation to ease union organizing, which was opposed by southern Democrats; aggressive antitrust legislation; any efforts to take on or break up the big tech companies; any bill that would have seriously weakened the power of Big Pharma. It’s also quite unlikely there would have been any effort to break up or punish the big banks—on that issue, Obama was definitely not a populist crusader.

The broader American public would likely have been delighted with this balance sheet (which Republicans knew well and took care to thwart). But the left would not have been, because Obama would still have failed to take on some powerful special interests and because he would have refrained from adopting the broad Sanders-esque efforts to combat wealth concentration and corporate power. Also, people on the left would have judged the accomplishments inadequate, as surely many of them would have been—student debt forgiveness not generous enough, the climate measure not ambitious enough, and so on. So their assessment of Obama as a neoliberal would still have stood.

That’s the heart of the division today—the left sees liberal cowardice as the main impediment to change, while liberals blame a system that abets and indeed rewards Republican minority obstruction (or, sometimes, helps them win elections they’ve lost). It’s not an accident that one of the left’s favored insults for mainstream liberals is “corporate Democrats.” Meanwhile, when liberals speak of reforms that would permit sweeping change, the ideas tend to focus on procedural matters of governance: eliminating the Senate filibuster, doing away with the Electoral College, perhaps expanding the Supreme Court.

Incidentally, where Warren sits on this grid is an interesting question. She persuasively criticizes both corporate power and structural impediments to change. The media grouped her with Sanders, a pairing she encouraged but may regret today, because the intolerant and besotted Sanders Twitter army ended up savaging her anyway, as she should have known it someday would. I always felt that she should have tried from the start to create a third “lane” for herself, between Sanders on her left and the others on her right—by stopping just short of embracing Medicare for All, for example, which was the issue that bedeviled her after she downplayed initial support for the policy. This would have positioned her as an acceptable compromise candidate in a fractured party, which in theory she still could be at a deadlocked convention.

Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, February 25, 2020

The Democrats have no unifying candidate. None of the mainstream candidates has made overtures to the Sanders left; in debates, they have mostly sought to assure the non-Sanders electorate that they think his brand of politics will reelect Trump. Sanders has likewise dug in, at least in the early going. When he called the former Clinton adviser James Carville a “political hack” in mid-February in response to Carville’s criticisms of him, he signaled to his followers that the Clinton crowd is still the enemy. Warren has attempted a unity pitch at different times, but, tellingly, no one among the elites was the least bit interested in hearing it.

Into this mess barged Michael Bloomberg with his billions. The left’s animus to Bloomberg is ferocious—over his wealth, his discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing policy as mayor, and his blatant attempt to purchase the nomination. One hardly needs to be a leftist to resent the idea that a sometime Republican who endorsed George W. Bush for president and Scott Brown for Senate over Warren in 2012 could buy the Democratic nomination.

It’s hard to write about this in the thick of the election, but, depending on how things turn out in the caucuses and election, and at the Milwaukee convention in July, the Democrats will ultimately confront four possible scenarios, each capable of leading to open civil war:

(1) Sanders gets the nomination and wins the general election.

(2) Sanders gets the nomination and loses the general election.

(3) Someone else gets the nomination and wins the general election.

(4) Someone else gets the nomination and loses the general election.

In Scenario 1, Sanders would fundamentally alter the character of the Democratic Party. First and most obviously, he’d make congressional Democrats adapt to his priorities, like Medicare for All and free college. Second, he’d get to name the new chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, and he would name someone who’d seek to extend the “people’s revolution” that lifted him to the White House. Third, he’d force a change in the approach of the many liberal think tanks around Washington and the battery of foundations whose funding decisions do so much to influence Democratic policy priorities.

All that would happen—at first. Then we’d have to see how his legislative program fared. Even assuming the Democrats keep the House and take the Senate, probably not great. Medicare for All won’t pass. The bill has 118 cosponsors in the House, only about half the Democratic caucus; in the Senate, it has a mere fourteen, and of those, three pretty obviously signed on just because they were running for president (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand), so the real number is probably eleven. He’d get a Bidenesque public option at best. A Democratic Congress would give him something he could call a Green New Deal, but not a $16.3 trillion one, which is the cost of his current proposal. He would end up with watered-down versions of his plans that he could persuade sixty senators to support (or perhaps only fifty-one, if he were able to use the budget reconciliation process as he claims and sidestep cloture votes, but even getting fifty-one would be a struggle).

If Republicans retain the Senate, Mitch McConnell would take a particular glee in ensuring that President Sanders gets nothing. History suggests that millions of dispirited Democrats might not vote in 2022, the Republicans might retake the House, and a weakened Sanders could face a primary challenge from a mainstream liberal or moderate. An ugly fight for control of the party would be likely, therefore, in the 2024 primary.

Scenario 2: if Sanders loses to Trump, the fallout for the Democratic Party would depend to some extent on how badly he was defeated. If the loss was respectable, and if the mainstream wing of the party were seen by the left as having done its good-faith share to help elect him (a big if!), the party could probably just lick its wounds and proceed.

If Sanders were to get shellacked, however, recriminations would be instant and intense. Mainstream party leaders would work to isolate the left-wing members, and with special zeal if Sanders lost so badly that the Democrats also lost the House. Meanwhile, on the left, the conviction that the center had undermined Sanders would be widespread; calls would commence immediately for AOC or some other figure from the left wing of the party to run for president in 2024 (as fate would have it, Ocasio-Cortez will turn thirty-five on October 13, 2024, three weeks before Election Day).

Scenario 3: if someone else gets the nomination and wins, the result for party unity would depend to some extent on who that someone else was. If it were one of the Democratic office-holders running, we would likely have a situation not unlike that of 2009–2010, except this time with a larger and stronger left that would try to increase its leverage by, for example, running left-wing candidates against a large number of mainstream Democratic House incumbents. Ocasio-Cortez has already started a political action committee whose goal is to find and finance candidates on the left to run in primaries against mainstream Democrats. Its goals for 2020 are modest, so far at least, but it will surely expand.

That would constitute at least a manageable acrimony. If the someone else were Bloomberg, though, anger on the left would be seismic. A President Bloomberg would have, in effect, two oppositions, to his right and to his left, and he would almost certainly face a 2024 primary challenge from the left.

Scenario 4: if someone else gets the nomination and loses, another hellish battle would ensue. Here, of course, the Sanders forces would cry that the defeat proved merely that the Democrats offered the electorate a choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The AOC (or someone) boomlet would start up with even greater force than in Scenario 2. The centrists would cry that the left undermined the Democratic candidate (especially if there were a third-party candidate who ended up corralling some chunk of the left-wing vote).

In sum, Democratic unity, even in victory this fall, is well-nigh impossible to envision. One faction in the party will claim that it has vanquished not only Trump, but the other faction. And if the outcome is defeat…

Joe Biden
Joe Biden; drawing by James Ferguson

There is a nontrivial chance that following a presidential defeat and a few more developments that are not too difficult to imagine, the Democratic Party could collapse. A Sanders–Bloomberg nomination fight in particular could sound a death rattle. This fight—between, ironists will note, a billionaire and a man who wants to ban billionaires, and neither of them really even a Democrat—would produce a dramatic, public split.

As for those post-defeat developments, the most obvious would be an actual war. Suppose that Trump started a military action that for whatever reason—because it involved a defense of Israel, say—a number of hawkish Democrats felt compelled to support. An event like that, with tensions between the left and the mainstream already raging, could be the party’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, the 1854 law that tore the Whig Party apart once and for all. The Whig analogy is somewhat instructive because internal Whig divisions, especially but not wholly over slavery, reached a point at which reconciliation became impossible. So there is precedent in American history for a party becoming so split that members of both factions decide it’s no longer worth the bother. The difference is that the Whigs had existed for only about twenty years, while the Democrats have been around since the 1820s.

There is also the overwhelming reality that our electoral system makes it very hard for third parties to gain traction. Duverger’s Law—the theorem of the twentieth-century French political scientist Maurice Duverger that single-member districts lead to the existence of two-party systems—still holds. If AOC and her allies were to form a third party, they would find that they could elect only a small handful of members of Congress (from the deepest-blue districts, and even there they would have to fight to dislodge entrenched Democratic incumbents), and their opportunities to exercise leverage would be rare. Third parties can overtake their rivals—it just happened in Ireland, where Sinn Féin, which had long trailed the two main parties, finished first. But Ireland uses a form of proportional representation that makes such outcomes more possible. In single-member district systems, third-party victories are much rarer. Labour displaced the Liberals in the UK as the main opposition party in the 1922 elections, after the Liberals had split into two factions behind David Lloyd George (in coalition with the Tories) and H.H. Asquith (dissenting). But this, too, happened because of the parliamentary structure.

So our system militates against a schism. Yet it’s hard to imagine pro-socialist leftists and pro-capitalist liberals remaining peacefully in the same political party. Right now, there aren’t that many of the former, but their numbers will grow if the system continues to fail to address their concerns. Ocasio-Cortez gives them a highly charismatic leader to rally behind for many years after Sanders is gone.

How is this fracture to be healed? I doubt it happens this year (although the unpopular Trump could still be defeated). If Sanders wins the nomination, it becomes absolutely incumbent upon Democratic establishment figures to get behind him, because a second Trump term is unthinkable. But the reality is probably that a number of them won’t; also, that a number of Democrats running in purple districts where some of Sanders’s positions might not be popular will keep their distance from him. In the long term, party unity will probably require a different presidential candidate, such is the overwhelming dominance of the presidential selection process in our system. This would be a person who, by dint of biography, personality, and record, would have some measure of credibility with both the left and the mainstream, and who could sell a concordat to both sides, convincing liberals to shed the neoliberal reflex to defer to certain corporate benefactors and embrace populism, and persuading leftists that the real common enemies they share with liberals are the Republicans, the Electoral College, and the Senate.

The Republicans have their version of these problems, but they are less severe because the GOP is a far less diverse party, both racially and ideologically. The Democrats’ tent has always been bigger, going back to the days when it included crusading liberals and reactionary segregationists. But that was a time when capitalism was doing pretty well, and when it had a global enemy, so all Democrats at least agreed that the system was working. There is no such agreement today.

—February 27, 2020