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Even if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Democrats face an identity crisis

There will be second-guessing for months after the U.S. presidential election, leadership retreats in balmy resorts, conferences on leafy college campuses and hand-wringing among party activists, strategists and theorists. There will be white papers, bitter recriminations, power struggles. Above all, there will be a giant identity crisis.

All that surely is in store for Republicans, in victory or in defeat, after next week's election. But overlooked amid the Republican crack-up of 2016 is that the very same introspection, the very same soul-searching – perhaps even more blistering a self-examination – is in store for the Democrats, win or lose, after Tuesday's White House balloting.

For as much as the Republicans will engage in angry reflection and recrimination, the Democrats will undertake an even more searching examination of their processes, their priorities and their policies. To the victor belong the spoils – for nearly two centuries, since senator William L. Marcy of New York coined the phrase after the election of 1828, that has been both a trope and a truth in American politics – but even a Democratic victory will bring deep suspicion and searing introspection in the party for months to come.

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"The Democrats have to contemplate a post-Clinton future even if she wins," said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist, "and that is going to prompt a very big struggle."

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While the Republicans examine how they permitted a boastful tycoon with base instincts and no political experience to capture the presidential nomination of a political party that once prided itself on probity, prudence, political primogeniture and personal modesty, the Democrats will face perhaps even more troubling questions: They will examine how their party – once the sentinel of workers and the defenders of the poor and striving – quietly became transformed, emerging as the redoubt of elites, with a 2016 nominee comfortable in the C-suites of Wall Street, embraced in the snoozy reading rooms of the city clubs of corporate America and welcome in the tony alumni lounges of the Ivy League.

"The Democrats are in an identity crisis right now – and they should be," former representative Michael Harrington of Massachusetts, elected to the House of Representatives as a critic of the Vietnam War, said in an interview. "There's an aging, dated leadership. There are whole swaths of our traditional constituencies who don't think they want to be involved in our party any more. And the new people in the party have an entirely different orientation. There is tension all around."

Already these strains are evident in Democratic circles, cracks in the fragile party unity created more by repugnance for Manhattan businessman Donald Trump and his social excesses than by enthusiasm for former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, an awkward campaigner with visible discomfort in the traditional Democratic settings of the union hall and in conversation with party bosses.

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Ms. Clinton is burdened, moreover, with an ideology rooted in her husband's two terms in the White House (1993-2001), a period increasingly regarded as a faraway time when Democrats cozied up to the barons of the bond market, tightened social-welfare policies to the detriment of the poor, promoted trade agreements long since discredited and supported anti-crime legislation with hardened punishments that disproportionally penalized, and then imprisoned, black Americans.

As the campaign wound to its weary conclusion, both Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who mounted a spirited challenge to Ms. Clinton even as her nomination seemed inevitable, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the crusading liberal warrior who has regularly criticized Ms. Clinton as a reluctant progressive, have indicated that they expect a Clinton administration to hew to left-leaning policies attacking the wealth gap, battling climate change and creating a regulatory climate that is skeptical if not openly antagonistic to business and banking interests.

The two have spent the autumn weeks as campaign surrogates for Ms. Clinton, but they almost certainly will extract a price for their efforts if she prevails. They will claim the intellectual and emotional high ground if she loses.

For his part, Mr. Sanders has indicated that he expects Ms. Clinton, if elected, to implement the elements of the Democratic Party platform that he worked to include in the document; ordinarily party platforms are forgotten days after they are drafted, and no president has taken a party platform as a blueprint for governing.

Mr. Sanders will push Ms. Clinton to support a national minimum wage of $15 and to break up the big banks, two measures that many of her financial supporters will oppose vigorously in raucous internal battles.

And he and Ms. Warren plan to oppose Ms. Clinton if she seeks to appoint cabinet members, especially a treasury secretary, who does not share their views – an indication that this civil war within the Democratic Party could break out into the open as early as the next few weeks, as a president-elect Clinton begins to shape her governing team.

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But it is not only the two New England lawmakers who are skeptical of the new profile of the Democratic Party. Others, too, are deeply troubled that the party – whose 20th-century ideology and identity were formed in Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which drew working and ethnic Americans into a powerful political coalition – allowed so many of its traditional constituents to be captured by Mr. Trump's insurgency.

Indeed, if Ms. Clinton prevails on Tuesday, her victory largely will be without the support of the very blue-collar voters who kept Harry Truman in the White House in 1948, supported John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and lent their loyalty to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in the late-20th and early-21st centuries.

The year 1968 – when protesters rioted in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention – is a revealing benchmark for contrasting the old Democratic Party with the new version, and the political profile of senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, who that year was the party's vice-presidential candidate and who mounted an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972, provides a vivid example of how the party has changed.

"The Muskie of 1968 and 1972 would not recognize the Democrats of today," says Joel Goldstein, a Saint Louis University law professor working on a biography of Mr. Muskie, who later served as Jimmy Carter's secretary of state. "He would have recognized the social-justice part and the climate-change part, but he wouldn't recognize a party where organized labour is so much less important, where Hollywood is so much more important and where money is so important."

One tension point for the Democrats as they go forward: the collision between the faction of the party coalition that is more congenial to Wall Street (the Clinton element that is popular, roughly speaking, with baby boomers) and the segment that is hostile to business (the Sanders/Warren axis, popular, roughly speaking, with younger voters).

"Some of them are much farther to the left, much less supportive of capitalism as we know it, much more supportive of government intervention," said Frank Luntz, a leading Republican pollster who is sitting out the 2016 presidential campaign.

The newest poll of Americans 18 to 29 years old taken by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, released in late October, indicated that these voters prefer Ms. Clinton by a rate of more than 2 to 1.

"There's the emergence of a new professional class that is progressive on social issues," said Michael Haselswerdt, a political scientist at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. "The Republican Party has nothing to offer them on that account."

Another tension point: the Democrats' advantage with the growing minority population and its disadvantage in an anti-government age because, unlike the Republicans, it is the party identified with government.

Writing in the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science this fall, the political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Michael Tesler of the University of California, Irvine, argued that the Democrats have a demographic advantage "thanks to two mutually supportive trends – the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans on racial issues and the movement toward the Democratic Party among non-white voters."

But this year's presidential campaign, which rewarded outsiders rather than insiders and raised questions about the professional governing class in the United States, suggested that the Democrats could be disadvantaged if the discontent that fuelled the Trump and Sanders insurgencies persists.

"Our political institutions are changing, and our lack of faith in government is much deeper than it was," said Ira Shapiro, author of an important book on the Senate of the late 20th century. "The degraded public culture we are in hasn't helped the Democrats, because they believe in government."

And so this campaign ends where the next one begins – with the Democrats well positioned, as the demographic composition of the United States changes even as the party itself is struggling to determine whether its future is imperilled, or enhanced, by the legacy of its past.

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