Ambika Sinha: The Democrat’s dilemma

Monday, March 11, 2019 - 1:34pm

The division of the Democratic Party is inevitable given the rhetoric Democratic colleagues use when they exchange words with each other. Whether it be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein arguing U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal as insignificant or the disorganization behind what substantive health care reform looks like, there seems to be a lack of consensus on issues of great importance to the country.

The new progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has foisted individuals such as Ocasio-Cortez into the forefront of national politics is actually hurting the Democratic Party more than it is helping it. While I would personally like to see basic legislation on climate change passed in response to our decaying planet, is the fact that there is any opposition at all within the party reason enough to stop fighting for the cause? Democrats face somewhat of an impossible dilemma: act in self-interest to keep personal popularity within the media and pursue policy that fragments the party, or act only in the interest of unifying the party under one ideology.

Today, it is clear that the more popular choice is the former. Nothing is sexy about following the rules. People want to see a trailblazer come in with new ideas that make change seem palpable. However, in 2019, this might come at too great a cost. In the wake of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party appears clearly split between nationalistic and institutional wings. With the 2020 election approaching, Democrats can take advantage of this split in places like Michigan to win the White House.

Let’s explore how party fragmentation has manifested within matters of policy by looking at how climate change has been dealt with. While most Democrats are in favor of passing legislation to combat climate change, the Senate Democratic caucus is still not on board with the Green New Deal due to its progressive nature. The result is inconsistent policy within the party. In the house, Pelosi has proposed creating a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. However, the committee won’t have the ability to send legislation to the House for a vote, not create it or even subpoena for hearings. While U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fl. and chair of the committee, has promised the committee recognizes the “urgency to reduce carbon pollution,” several members, including Castor herself, have accepted altogether hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from fossil fuel companies. This select committee was created in “spirit” of the Green New Deal, but its lack of substantive power delineates from this purpose. This is further seen as U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ and chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has stated that policies narrowly tailored to immediate action are required, contrary to the broad-stroked 10-year policy plans of the Green New Deal. The list of contradictions goes on. While Pallone will take one direction within his committee, Ocasio-Cortez will take another as she serves on the subcommittee on the Environment within the Committee of Oversight and Reform. The inconsistent policy stance is bound to create contradicting policies, or no substantive policies that address the issue at all. Progressives must ask themselves, if the general theme of their preferred policies are embedded within the party, is it worth it to constantly be spearheading a more specific version of their plan? Inconsistent policies are evidence of fraction within the party that will leave it vulnerable to struggling in elections in the future.

Modern day factionalism apparent in these issues is no longer conducive to the civic politic. Moreover, it is counterproductive to what the framers of the Constitution intended. In “Federalist 10,” James Madison wrote about the later coined theory of the “tyranny of the majority” — an idea that warned that one faction would dominate the political process by overpowering all other minority factions. Today, I would argue that we must worry about the “tyranny of the obstinate” — a notion that I ascribe to immutable political players who are able to manipulate and halt the entire democratic process. The best example of this tyranny coming into play comes from Ralph Nader’s spoiler effect in the 2000 election. Yes, I know Nader isn’t even a Democrat. However, when it came down to it, who do you think would better represent the Green Party’s interests? I see Al Gore in his blazer and button-up on a different ad for some climate change documentary every other day. The answer is glaring.

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the progressive faction has been able to pursue the opportunities that the media has presented to make viewers more extreme. The current process of the progressive wing however is obstinate because its interest is not centered around compromise. It has used a “my way or the highway” approach that is made possible by the extreme nature of media. It has become easy to rile people up about an issue. This division of the Democratic Party may just cost it the election in 2020. I know it is naive to say that every political faction should just work into the existing coalition of the two-party system cemented into American politics, but in 2019, the stakes are simply higher. My view is that progressives should compromise now, so that key aspects of their desired change can happen later.

Our pluralist government is designed so that this can happen. Research has shown that among individuals who voted for Obama in 2012 as well as a third-party candidate in 2016, Democratic identification has decreased by 35 percent. The effects of a splitting Democratic Party could very well influence the Republican Party’s success. Think about it this way — as the party swings further to the left, the policies that progressives are proposing will eventually make it to the forefront.

While I myself have views that are in line with the progressive faction of the party, I believe that since Trump-era policies are so far removed from any liberal resolve, factions from the Democratic Party must unite to secure a victory for the preservation of any sort of liberal agenda. Though the direness of the issues progressives have taken on continues to persist, the alternative is simply too grave to imagine. The only thing left to do is compromise.

Ambika Sinha can be reached at ambikavs@umich.edu.