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I Watched Americans Try to Pick Their Trump Slayer. Yikes

A Canadian hits Iowa and New Hampshire to live in the Democrats’ big tent. How big is too big?

Doug Ward 21 Feb 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Doug Ward is a freelance writer and previously a reporter at the Vancouver Sun.

On the final night of the recent New Hampshire presidential primary, actor Cynthia Nixon — remember, the flame-haired lawyer Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City — inadvertently or maybe deliberately touched on the existential quandary facing the big-tent coalition called the Democratic Party.

Nixon confessed to a passionate crowd of 7,000 Bernie Sanders supporters in a university hockey arena that she had voted for Hillary Clinton — not Sanders — in the 2016 Democratic primary. A chorus of boos erupted, and Nixon quickly said: “Oh no, oh no, oh no, we’re not going to do that here.”

The exchange was a reminder that the shaky Democratic coalition may be too big for its own good.

I recently spent two weeks as a political tourist observing the Democrats at the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary and came away amazed at how different the process is from how Canadians with centre-to-left leanings hash out their differences.

It caused me to wonder about the pros and cons of the U.S. two-party system compared to the many options Canadian voters are given.

And it left me unsure whether the Democrats can unite with enough emotional energy to beat Donald Trump. Or whether left-wing candidate Sanders or any of the “moderate” candidates can energize the party’s diverse parts in the same way Barack Obama did.

‘We all want to fall in love again’

“One of the reasons we are struggling with who to choose from these candidates is that we all want to fall in love again — like we were in love with Obama for eight years,” said Heather Atwood, a Massachusetts liberal who visited neighbouring New Hampshire to check out the primary.

“We just want that experience again. And we may not have it.”

Will older moderate liberal folks who think Sanders is too left to beat Trump fulfill their own prediction by finding, say, his universal health care program too risky and therefore failing to vote for the 78-year-old independent senator from Vermont in November?

Will the Sanders supporters who regularly on Twitter deride other candidates as neoliberal corporatists knock on doors for the eventual Democratic candidate in the fall if their guy loses the nomination battle?

The socialist senator’s fans — especially the more aggressive online members known collectively as the “Bernie Bros” — get as apoplectic over rival candidates such as Pete Buttigieg and liberal news channel MSNBC as they do over Trump and Fox News.

Ideologically, it’s so unwieldy now that the current frontrunner, Sanders, is a self-avowed democratic socialist who has never even joined the party, while the emerging leader in polls among moderate candidates, Michael Bloomberg, is a billionaire plutocrat who was previously a Republican.

The party is also fractured when it comes to age, race, geography, education levels and cultural attitudes. Midwest blue-collar Democrats, for example, tend to be more conservative than big city Dems like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who presses for a sweeping reforms and regularly calls out racism.

Fear of Trump

Democrats are in a state of high anxiety over whether any of the candidates can beat Trump and whether their party will come together after a year of in-fighting.

“Most of us are single-issue voters, and that issue is getting rid of Trump,” said New Hampshire Democrat Eleanor Hudson, an Elizabeth Warren supporter who would vote for Sanders if he is the nominee. “We can’t have a repeat of 2016 where a lot of Bernie supporters after the convention hated Hillary so much and swore they would never vote for her.”

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Among the buttons worn by 89-year-old Pete Buttigieg fan Pat Provencher in a Manchester, New Hampshire café is one with a photo taken of her with the candidate. Photo by Doug Ward.

To understand the rifts in the Democratic Party, imagine if all centre-left parties in Canada — federal Liberals, New Democrats, Greens, moderate Red Tories — came together in one party to defeat an increasingly right-wing Conservative party.

Then imagine that a faction of this party — about a quarter of its base and mostly young — began to coalesce around a left-wing leadership candidate calling for a platform akin to the Leap Manifesto of 2015, which called a restructuring of the Canadian economy and an end to the development of fossil fuels.

Imagine that this tilt toward the left by millennials and Gen-Z in this new party clashed with a larger more mainstream group dominated by boomers and Gen-Xers. And then imagine all settling on one leader — and doing so with enough enthusiasm to drive high voter turn-out.

Currently, in Canada, the NDP is the home of the traditional left and is a viable national party with strong provincial wings. To defeat the NDP, the federal Liberals typically campaign from the left during elections and then become more centrist in government.

The American left-wing movement behind Sanders is similar to the social democratic NDP and has suddenly grown to the point where it is almost a de facto third party in American politics. Yet it remains constrained within the Democratic Party umbrella, because an actual NDP-like third party would split the Democratic vote, delivering Republican dominance for the foreseeable future.

Lefties who want a political “revolution” — Medicare For All, the Green New Deal — are uneasy with moderates who simply want a “restoration” of Obama-style liberalism, or as the Sanders’ die-hards call it, neoliberalism.

“We’ve got one big party with a left-wing way at one end and a fascist in power in Washington,” said Sanders supporter Arthur Brennan, a retired court judge who lives near Manchester, New Hampshire.

“It’s always about the lesser of two evils. Our party is controlled by neoliberal corporate Democrats. And we’ve had enough of them. But we can’t get rid of them because the Republicans are not an alternative — and we’ve only got two parties.”

Views from Canada

Mike Magee, former chief of staff to Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, is familiar with the Democrats and with both federal Liberals and New Democrats in Canada. He says the right-wing in North America and elsewhere is succeeding through unity, while the centre-left is plagued by division.

“What we’re seeing around the globe is progressive coalitions and party coalitions being outpaced by a far more disciplined right-wing in which voters are coalescing for a winning strategy,” said Magee, in an email. “Just look at the decline of social democratic parties throughout the western world to see proof of that.”

Magee said that the federal Conservatives succeeded with unity under Stephen Harper and in Alberta now, under Jason Kenney, while “the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens duke it out for votes and sometimes dance on the head of a pin over policy differences.”

Most moderate Democrats I met said they liked Sanders and had no problem with many of his policies — they just fear he’s unelectable. “These days the far left is challenging for a bigger role in the Democratic Party, and we moderates are trying to keep it in the middle lane,” said Chris Bastian, a transportation planner from New York City who visited the New Hampshire primary.

“It’s not so much that we disagree with Bernie’s policies. I don’t know any Democrat who doesn’t want free college tuition or Medicare-For-All. It’s a question of how far left can you be and still beat Trump. And if you don’t, how much worse is Trump going to be.”

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Bernie Sanders backers New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and professor Cornel West embrace at an election-eve rally in Durham, New Hampshire where they spoke for their candidate. Photo by Doug Ward.

Pessimists say Sanders makes them think of liberal George McGovern who excited the party’s left anti-war base in 1972 but was trounced by Republican Richard Nixon. Others point to the recent defeat of Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn whose socialist platform failed to win over U.K. working-class voters.

“Bernie is way too far left to succeed,” said John Van Drie, a scientist visiting the New Hampshire primary from Boston. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he won the nomination and then went down in flames in the general election.”

Retired software developer Al Day came to New Hampshire to campaign for Warren, although he voted for Sanders in 2016. “Elizabeth has the ability to get things done, while Bernie talks more than he does. And I think Trump would take him apart with that whole thing about being a socialist. I don’t think it’s bad thing, but it’s an epithet that is a real negative for many.”

Sanders’ fans counter that their guy beats Trump in most polls and that he stands the best chance of unifying the party.

Martyn Brown, former chief of staff to BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, said there is little chance Canadian progressives would form a Democratic Party-style coalition because the Liberals “truth be told, view the parties to the left as perhaps a more serious and hostile threat than the united right.”

Brown added that “our first-past-the-post system occasionally rewards rival parties with a voice in opposition and allows them to even hold the balance of power in a minority government.

“Today’s minority government with the Liberals in power reinforces that dynamic, making a big-tent party on the centre-left even less likely.”

Progressive parties are also split over how deal with climate change, resource extraction, immigration, housing affordability and the conflicting priorities of urban and rural Canada, said Brown. “The right wing is also conflicted on those issues, but typically mostly fears changes to the status quo that threaten existing economic entitlements and white middle-class privilege.”

Veteran federal Liberal insider Mark Marissen sees no scenario in which the Liberals, NDP or Greens unite to confront the Conservative threat, because of the compromises that would demand. “The Liberals,” he noted, “are in government because of the fact that the other two parties are ideological first and pragmatic second.”

Marissen added that political polarization in Canada, accelerated by social media and the decline of traditional corporate media, is pushing the Liberals more into the political space previously occupied by the NDP and the Greens when it comes to climate change policy.

“Conservative centrists like Peter MacKay now have to cater to a more right-wing party due to this polarization.”

The pie in the tent

The word “electability” is the word you hear most often among Democrats. Many Democrats are so desperate to defeat Trump that they are willing to switch from the candidate they like the most to the candidate they think would be most acceptable to people in the critical battleground states.

“People are so scared and frantic about Trump that they are second-guessing themselves. Like, I may be with so-and-so candidate, but who will the rest of the country like,” said Charlotte Gordon, a Boston woman who came to New Hampshire to knock on doors for Warren but ended up switching to Amy Klobuchar.

“Elizabeth has my heart but when I heard Amy speak today, I came away thinking that she connects better with voters. I think her personal story is more relatable to people in Pennsylvania and Ohio.”

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Elizabeth Warren poses with a family after thanking volunteers at a home in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Doug Ward.

Buttigieg, who narrowly won the most delegates in Iowa and finished a close second in New Hampshire, has a youthful Obamaesque appeal for some nervous Dems.

“I’m extremely progressive and I like many of the positions being put forward by our party’s most left candidates,” said Sheila Smith who drove from New York City to New Hampshire to campaign for the Indiana mayor. “But I just think that in a general election we need a broad coalition of people to win and when you look at when the Democrats have won in recent years, it’s been with a young candidate from outside Washington who represents generational change with a positive message of hope.”

Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar had well-organized teams in New Hampshire with enthusiastic volunteers, but their events lacked the quasi-religious fervor of a Sanders rally. All three, Warren especially, hit hard in Wednesday night’s debate in Nevada, a diverse state that will further define each candidate’s “electability” when it holds its Democratic caucus vote Saturday.

Sanders supporters, like their candidate, see no need to be afraid or compromising. At the rally where TV star Nixon spoke, they roared with approval when she said, “For too long, as long as I can remember, we’ve been making do with crumbs. We’ve been told the crumbs we’ve been getting…are a meal. But Bernie has taught us to say: ‘I’m done with these crumbs. I want the whole pie.’”

Democrats supporting the other candidates in this big-tent party are worried that by going for the whole pie, they might get nothing.

Nothing but four more years of Trump being even more regressive on every issue Democrats care about.  [Tyee]

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