What’s driving so much conflict in the U.S. Democratic Party?

The Signal

Ruy Teixeira on identity politics, generational divisions, and the challenges of coalition building.
Jakob Rosen
Jakob Rosen
It’s already been a bruising summer for the Democratic Party in America. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of decisions undermining liberal priorities, most obviously by overturning Roe v. Wade and ending the constitutional right to an abortion. President Joe Biden’s approval rating fell below 40 percent—according to an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, “the worst of any elected president at this point in his presidency since the end of World War II.” And a recent New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Democratic voters don’t want Biden to run for re-election. Things got worse last week when the latest effort to pass significant elements of Biden’s domestic agenda fell apart in the U.S. Congress: New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait—a center-left journalist who’s long tended to support the Democrats—concluded that “by realistic or even minimal standards of performance, this two-year term, almost certain to be the last period of Democratic-controlled government for the foreseeable future, has been a failure.” Progressives are blaming moderates, and Biden is fending off criticism from the left. Meanwhile, as The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported last month, some of the country’s leading progressive advocacy groups are riven by internal workplace fights—often between younger staffers and older managers—over questions of race, gender, identity, and the future of their movements. All in all, there’s a lot of conflict on the American left. What’s behind it?
Ruy Teixeira is a U.S. political analyst who worked for almost two decades at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and is joining the center-right American Enterprise Institute next month—still a Democrat but disenchanted by the state of the Democratic Party and progressive activism. Teixeira sees generational differences—and the acute ideological divisions that now tend to map onto them—as not merely driving conflict within progressive groups but affecting the culture and decision-making of the Biden administration, mainstream corporations, and a variety of other social institutions in which younger people on the left have gained influence. While Biden’s moderate inclinations helped him win the presidential primary in 2020, Teixeira says, his desire to gratify his party’s left—or even avoid criticism from left-wing activists—is preventing the party from adopting rhetoric and policies that would better align them with mainstream America on issues like crime, immigration, and the newly vital question of abortion. But while a lot of the left remains highly invested in its current orthodoxies, Teixeira is starting to see evidence of new dissent and debate—and new alliances across the American political mainstream.
Graham Vyse: How do you see the current tension between the Biden White House and progressive activists?
Ruy Teixeria: That tension goes back to the very beginning of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. The activist groups—and the kind of politics they represented—heavily influenced almost all the other Democratic candidates. You had a lot of weird talk from them about decriminalizing illegal crossings at the border, “Medicare for All,” and other ideas that may not have been in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, much less of the country. The were all trying to outdo one another in showing progressive bona fides on race, gender, and immigration issues. Biden almost had the moderate lane to himself, where he could take more nuanced positions and say things more consistent with the center of gravity in public opinion in his party and in America. Ultimately, he was rewarded for that.
After he won the Democratic nomination, however, he made what was arguably a fateful decision. He decided he would try to co-opt the left—moving leftward on many issues rather than making a more traditional move to the center. As he came into office—without as big a mandate as he thought he’d have—he started talking about creating another New Deal and having a transformative presidency, though he only had a narrow Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and a U.S. Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Biden’s administration included junior, mid-level, and even some senior staffers who were well to his left on various issues, especially on questions of race, gender, identity, and crime. All of this meant that there was built-in tension for his administration, stemming from the campaign and the early days of his presidency.
Vyse: How has Biden been navigating this tension?
Teixeria: He’s been trying to figure out how to do and say popular things while placating the left within his administration and outside of it. It’s been a very difficult struggle. He hasn’t been able to change the Democratic Party’s image on issues like supporting the police and cracking down on violent crime, which is what most Americans want their leaders to do. Meanwhile, immigration activists have hammered Biden for turning people away at the border, despite the fact that there’s quite an immense problem with historically high levels of illegal-immigration attempts. Some of these people are getting released into the U.S. There’s still abuse of the asylum system. Everybody knows this. Yet activists won’t abide the president doing anything about it. They don’t really want to hear about border enforcement.
Another issue to consider is abortion, which is newly salient. The overturning of Roe is unpopular among activists, within the Democratic Party, and across the broader country. You’d think this issue would be a perfect opportunity for Democrats to take a moderate, reasonable position, with a careful approach to moving back toward greater abortion rights in the U.S. Instead, Biden has been under immense pressure from activists to somehow—through some unspecified method—legislate the right to abortion through Congress.
Why don’t they try smaller things? Why not try guaranteeing the right to an abortion if there’s a threat to the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest? After all, we know the median voter in the U.S. generally supports abortion being available in the first three months of a pregnancy and then—in cases of rape and incest or other distinctive circumstances—even later on. Is this what Democratic officials are focusing on? It’s not. Which is yet another example of the tension between Biden’s moderate inclinations—to do popular, effective things—and the desire of activists to push a maximalist agenda.
Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
More from Ruy Teixeira at The Signal:
On many issues related to race and gender, the administration has been pressured into talking and acting in a way that’s inconsistent with the mainstream of American public opinion but very consistent with what activist groups and a lot of progressive administration staffers want. This creates conflict, but Biden’s inclination isn’t to confront that aggressively; he wants to make everybody happy. He wants somehow to get everyone in his party moving in the same direction by giving something to everyone, but that never works. He’s shown an inability to send clear signals, and he’s been hurt repeatedly by it.”
Today’s progressive left believes that the Democratic Party has failed in a massive way by not pushing aggressively for bold left-wing policies, which would change the public debate and achieve transformative reforms. They believe the party hasn’t thought big enough—that it’s been captive to neoliberalism and taken over by business interests. Some of them just think the Democrats are cowards.”
Americans’ appetite for policy change evolves gradually, and it can’t be revolutionized overnight. Over time, voters may decide they want more aggressive government action in certain ways. By and large, they’re more open to government action than they were 15 years ago. Still, that doesn’t mean they’re ready for everything progressives say they’re ready for. People tend to be relatively conservative about how much change they can absorb at any given time. You can expand the realm of permissible policy discourse, but it’s not infinitely elastic.”

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