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Shattering The Myth Of Democratic Unity

Democrats may soon discover what Republicans have learned: Opposition creates only unity’s illusion.  Although neither party desires being out of the White House, opposition has its advantages — as Republicans realized with growing Congressional numbers.  Yet as opposition increases, cohesion does not necessarily.  Today’s Democrats are even more susceptible to this political paradox than Republicans.




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Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but opposition can make the body grow larger.  At least it can if the body is a political party.  Few things do that body better than a good dose of vitriol — a vitamin of amazing political potency.

Republicans discovered opposition’s power during Obama’s presidency.  Obama’s victory in 2008’s election left Republicans with just 178 House seats and just 41 Senate seats (reduced shortly to 40 by party defection).  Over the next six years, Republicans gained a net 68 House and 13 Senate seats — reaching a combined Congressional total unseen since Hoover — taking the House (2010), Senate (2014), and White House (2016).

However, as numbers rose, Republicans’ unity did not.  Confronting the Obama administration, lack of cohesion was not readily apparent or particularly important.  Now having fully controlled the legislative process for two years, Republicans’ lack of unity has been all too apparent and important.

What Republicans now experience, Democrats may soon — should their November numbers swell as predicted — but even more, because their disunity is even greater.

Sanders: An Avatar Of Disunity?

Their 2016 presidential nomination contest demonstrated Democratic disunity’s depths.  Even on the surface, the Democrats’ nomination fight was contentious.  Sanders, much to the Clinton campaign and Democratic establishment’s chagrin, hung tough to the very end.

Yet, that split’s breadth can still be missed.  Clinton won 34 of Democrats’ 57 contests and had 2,842 delegates to Sanders’ 1,865.  However overall, Clinton won just 55% of the primary votes, versus Sanders’ 43%.

Eliminating non-U.S. contests, Clinton’s contest total drops to just 29-22.  Further, 18 of the U.S. contests Hillary won in primaries, she did not win in the general election.  Of the 21 states-plus-DC that Democrats won in November, Sanders won ten.

As for delegates, Clinton owed the nomination to unelected Democrat “super delegates,” who overwhelmingly chose her (570 ½ to Sanders’ 43 ½).  Without this unelected Democratic official landslide, Clinton does not win the nomination — even if they had been apportioned based on primary votes won.

Democrats At Odds

Democrats came that close to a “hung convention,” despite secret efforts to hide their split behind Clinton’s nomination.  Leaked emails indicted the DNC’s neutrality throughout the contest. The favoritism ranged from from manipulated primary schedules, to the number of debates, to leaked debate questions.

Beneath this hidden split lie several important points.

First, Democrats’ closer-than-realized contest was waged between “left-of-center” and “further left.”  The contest moved further left as it progressed.

Second, only about 2% of Democrat primary votes (those not going to Clinton or Sanders) fell outside this divisive range — the contest almost immediately became a two-person one embodying it.  Assuming neither Clinton nor Sanders run again, Democrats have an inexperienced bench — and limited basis for bridging their division.  In 2008, although Mitt Romney finished second to Senator McCain, he still won almost a quarter of the primary votes. That formed his 2012 base of support.

Democrats are more divided now and further out on the ideological spectrum than Republicans were at this point in Obama’s first term.  Republicans would accumulate impressive congressional numbers but not unity, as they struggled to work together — not just substantively, but even procedurally at times.

Regardless of Democrats’ fortunes in upcoming elections, increased opposition numbers alone will not paper over their wide divergence.  Opposition’s flaw is that alone it does not drive people to anything, only away from something.

The Meaning Of Opposition

Opposition simply defines people by where they are not, not by where they are.  It is easy to miss the distinction between these two very different positions.  It is not an oversight limited by party, by time, or even by country, and has happened repeatedly.

It is axiomatic in Washington that being the opposition is liberating.  A party is freed from the responsibility of governing, and elements — resources and agenda control, among others — that can exacerbate internal feuds.  Simultaneously in America’s two-party political world, they become the default landing place for all alienated from the governing party.

Yet just because the party out of power becomes a place around which opposition coalesces, that dynamic does not necessarily make it cohesive. Back in power, the centripetal forces pushing elements inward become centrifugal, pushing them outward.  Republicans have been in the throes of that reversal.

Should they return, Democrats will be likewise; however, theirs will be even more virulent, because they are already more divided and removed on the ideological spectrum than Republicans were or are.

  • Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.

 

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