Before the dust had settled on Joe Biden’s presidential victory, a news cycle had begun, yet again, about how the Democratic party was in disarray. Representative Jim Clyburn, the juggernaut of South Carolina Democratic politics and a frequent emissary for the centrist wing of the party, began telling news reporters that he feared that the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and in particular the slogan “Defund the Police”, had dampened the Democrat’s chances of strengthening their majority in the House and retaking the US Senate.
On a tense conference call for the party’s House of Representatives caucus on Thursday, Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia congresswoman who narrowly won re-election on Tuesday, expressed the same concern. Meanwhile, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the standard bearer of the party’s progressive wing, gave an interview to the New York Times urging her party to adopt more modern voter engagement tactics and to view the left as allies, not obstacles. “I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she said. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy.”
Democratic infighting is an old story, one that comes up perennially, sometimes ascribed to generational or regional differences: the younger, more city-dwelling Democrats want universal healthcare and demand racial justice; the older, suburbanite Democrats shush them, worrying they will scare off the white suburban swing voters whom centrists believe that Democrats need for a majority. The conflict is repeated ad nauseam, whether Democrats lose or whether they win.
But the truth is that the Democratic party is indeed a deeply divided one. The coalition that swept Joe Biden to victory was massive, diverse and profoundly self-contradictory. It contained older Black voters with religious convictions that are not dissimilar to those of the white evangelicals who power the American right, and it contained younger Black voters who believe fiercely in transgender civil rights and the dismantling of the police state. It contained white college-educated women who took offense at Trump’s crass language and it contained young Latino voters who feared for his threats to their citizenship. It is a coalition composed of the vast majority of all the Americans who are not white and a sizable minority of the Americans who are, of people who identify as socialists and people who see socialism as a serious threat to their way of life, people who desperately fear for abortion rights and people who deeply oppose them. The Democratic coalition, in other words, is huge – composed of people with competing, mutually exclusive goals, people who, in the end, probably would not always like each other.
How did the Democrats wind up here, with such a very big tent, with so many competing demands underneath it? In large part, the answer to how the Democratic party’s coalition became so huge and contradictory lies not with the Democrats, but with Republicans. Throughout the Trump era but also for decades before, stretching back to the Nixon administration, the Republican party has played an aggressive base politics, shaping its policy positions and public rhetoric around white racial grievance. As Americans of color have grown in numbers and the share of the white vote has decreased, Republicans have not adjusted their stance to be more welcoming to non-white voters, but instead have increasingly relied on gerrymandering, voter suppression and anti-democratic institutional advantages to secure their continued power even in the absence of majority support. The Republicans have abandoned the pretense of trying to convince a majority of voters to back their vision for the country, and instead have taken on an electoral strategy that is about power, not persuasion.
Republicans gerrymander congressional and state legislature districts to ensure Republican majorities in these bodies even when Democrats receive more votes, and they suppress the vote with archaic, burdensome and racially targeted state laws to ensure Republican victories even in races that would be competitive with a complete, free electorate. The result is that Democrats can often achieve only divided government at best even when, like in the 2020 election, they produce a massive majority of the votes. Republicans, meanwhile, can often secure united government even with a minority of votes. Faced with defeat, the anti-democracy Republican party need not even accept the results of an election that does not go in their favor, as we have seen over the past few days as the Trump campaign and Republican-controlled justice department sue in an attempt to have votes for Biden in many swing states declared illegal. Republican power relies heavily on these anti-democracy tactics, so heavily that in many instances the party no longer intends to persuade a majority of voters. They intend, instead, to secure minority rule.
The result is that the competition between the Republican and Democratic parties has become de facto not a competition between ideologies or policy positions, but a competition between pro-and anti-democracy forces. Though the Republicans sometimes make half-hearted, clumsy and comedically tone-deaf overtures towards men of color in an attempt to secure their votes – Donald Trump increased his share of the Latino male vote significantly in the 2020 election, and attempted to court Black male voters by staging a bizarre photo op with the New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne – their overall strategy has been to remain in power by making it as difficult as possible for people to vote, and by especially targeting the voting rights of Black Americans. The goal is to ensure that the votes which matter most belong to their white minority of supporters.
With one party committed to suppressing the vote, and only one other party remaining that considers itself accountable to voters, its no wonder that the Democratic party has assembled a coalition of so many disparate and conflicting constituencies. As the only pro-democracy party left in America, the Democrats have had to take as their mandate all the different democratic ambitions of a vast and diverse nation. Voters of different ideological stripes, ages and agendas have begun voting Democratic because the Republican party is repugnant to their principles in some cases, outright hostile to their citizenship in others. In other words, many voters have come under the Democratic tent because there is nowhere else for them to go.
What does such a large coalition mean for the Democrats? In one sense, it’s an advantage – it means overwhelming popular support. Democratic party surrogates never tire of reminding Americans that their party has won the popular vote in every election except one since 1992. Those popular vote majorities are sizable, too – Joe Biden’s popular vote lead over Donald Trump is set to surpass 5m, even bigger than Hillary Clinton’s 3m popular vote lead in 2016. Anti-democratic provisions in the American constitution mean that more votes do not always translate to more power – Republicans control the Senate, for instance, even though their Democratic colleagues in that body represent millions more constituents. But in the long term, it means that Democrats have popular opinion, and sheer numbers, on their side.
But the heft of the Democratic coalition also means that the party is swollen and overburdened, attempting to be all things to all its voters, attempting to please everyone at once. There is no coherent Democratic agenda, to speak of. The Biden campaign made little effort to draw attention to its policy proposals during the election season, relying instead on vague, broadly appealing rhetoric about the nation’s soul. Though the party has leaned heavily on the issue of healthcare, perhaps the one policy area that affects every single voter, the party’s healthcare agenda has been inconsistent across congressional districts, with Democrats calling for a single-payer system in blue areas and for a strengthened or merely maintained Affordable Care Act in purple ones. The issue is perhaps emblematic of the party’s problem in representing too many different groups: they can’t have one message, because there’s nothing that so many different people can all agree on.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist