Politics & Policy

What’s Next for the Democratic Party?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Reuters photo: Peter Nicholls)
For a possible hint of its future, see the British Labour party.

In the last few days before November 8, the RealClearPolitcs average of generic-ballot polls had a generic Democrat favored over a generic Republican by about one percentage point. In the event, Republicans won the popular House vote — that is, the sum of votes cast in all House races nationwide — by 2.8 points and won a 45-seat majority, 238 to 193. (There are four seats outstanding.) I bring up the House election specifically because the House of Representatives is our closest analog to the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, and the last two years of House of Commons infighting may be a clue to America’s political future.

In the last few days before the U.K.’s last general election, in May of last year, the Conservative party led in the average of polls by less than half a point. Every major election forecaster predicted that the two major parties — Labour and Conservative — would win roughly the same number of seats; the average gave the Conservatives a ten-seat edge over Labour, in a house of 650. When the votes were counted, the Conservatives won by 6.6 points nationwide and beat Labour by 98 seats.

After Labour’s electoral humiliation, the leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, resigned; this is the admirable tradition in British politics. A number of serious Labour candidates stepped forward to replace him, along with a dark horse named Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was a hard-left, avowedly socialist, anti-war radical who believed that the root of all international problems was American imperialism and who called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends.”

Like Bernie Sanders, he was taken seriously by no one, to begin with. When he started gaining traction, the Labour establishment, like the Democratic establishment, warned that a radical leftist leader would pull the party to a politically disastrous extreme. Unlike the Democratic establishment, the Labour establishment wasn’t able to fix its leadership election, and unlike Bernie Sanders, Corbyn won.

Since Corbyn took over, the U.K. hasn’t had another general election; barring unforeseen circumstances, the next general election will be in 2020. What the U.K. has had is a referendum on EU membership. The two leading voices in favor or remaining in the EU were the leaders of the two major parties. After Brexit carried the day, the Conservative leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, resigned (per the admirable tradition in British politics).

Corbyn was expected to resign as well, but he refused. A senior Labour member of Parliament, one of Corbyn’s deputies in the opposition “shadow cabinet,” called for Corbyn’s ouster. Corbyn fired him. Two dozen other shadow ministers resigned, in protest. Still Corbyn refused to resign. So the Labour members of the House of Commons called a no-confidence vote. Corbyn lost, 40–172. Still he refused to resign, but because of the vote he was compelled to undergo a formal leadership challenge, which put the leadership of the Labour party to a popular vote of all Labour-party members. Party membership had swelled under Corbyn’s leadership — which had expressly appealed to Communist, Marxist, anarchist, and Islamist groups. Corbyn won.

In a sense, though, Corbyn’s victory barely mattered. The damage to the Labour party has already been done. The party now has two firmly entrenched factions, a Hillary Clinton faction of big-government pseudo-capitalists who understand that national security cannot simply be ignored, and a Bernie Sanders faction of unreconstructed pinkos. For a long time, these two wings had peacefully coexisted, jointly pursuing their highest ideal of taking freedom and money from the people and giving it to the government. Under the strain of Brexit and Corbyn, they’ve reached the point where they can no longer pretend not to hate each other.

The Democratic party now has two firmly entrenched factions.

Consequently, 18 months after the generic ballot had the Labour and Conservative parties tied, new polls have the Conservatives up by 15 points, with Labour getting the support of only about a quarter of voters.

Is the Democratic party on the same path? Possibly. At the moment the Democrats are actually fighting two party splits — between the light capitalists and the socialists on the one hand, and between labor-first Democrats and identity-first Democrats on the other. Representative Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco is about to have her longtime leadership of House Democrats challenged by Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio. Ryan wants the Democrats to try to recover the blue-collar workers that they lost to Trump. In Ohio’s Trumbull County, where Ryan lives, Obama won by 23 points in 2012; Clinton lost by seven points in 2016.

#related#The identity wing of the party lost no time in responding to Ryan’s challenge. An editor at the blog ThinkProgress, an outlet of the Center for American Progress, which was founded by Clinton-campaign chairman John Podesta, tweeted this about Ryan: “This thing where an obscure male backbencher thinks he deserves to replace the most accomplished woman in congress is how sexism works.”

Is that the attitude that will recover the Reagan Democrats? Not likely. Will the Democrats’ new leader in the Senate, non-pacifist, non-socialist Chuck Schumer, recover the Sanders Democrats? Also not likely. So can we expect the Democratic party to be polling 15 points behind the Republicans a year from now, with new third parties in the offing? It’s not impossible.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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