From about 2003 through Barack Obama’s election, there was a much-discussed theory that the Democrats had become a “movement” in their own right. Rather than the fractured band of various special interests and ideological factions that defined the party from the 1970s and 1980s, the Left was coming to identify itself as simply “Democrats.” Howard Dean seemed to start it. Left-wing blogs, particularly Daily Kos, were a big part of this story. Markos Moulitsas used to say that he wasn’t ideological, he just wanted to win. That spirit — just win, and work out the details later — did seem to galvanize the Democrats.
I believed this interpretation and I talked to any number of smart liberals who believed it too.
Anyway, the latest Gallup poll (Kathryn mentions below), showing that conservatives and moderates hugely outnumber liberals I think demonstrates the problem with the theory. Partisan unity, no matter how heartfelt, is going to be ephemeral once your side wins an election. Out of power, everyone wants only one thing: to get back in power. But in power, lots of people want lots of different things. It’s the difference between elections and governing. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think Democratic infighting is necessarily a sign of weakness. Winning coalitions are, by their very nature, going to have warring factions. FDR’s coalition was sustained by, among others, racist Democrats, blacks, and very left-wing Jews. The inability of many journalists to understand this point — at least when it applies to conservatives — is one of the reasons why, from the moment Republicans win an election, we’re told that the right is “cracking up.”
That said, I do think one plausible theory as to why the Democratic party is having some of its problems these days is that they misread their pre-election unity. I think this is understandable. Lots of polls suggested that America was becoming more liberal under Bush (at least on a bunch of issues). The differences between centrist and left-wing Democrats seemed trivial. Barack Obama won handily without ever tacking back to the center in the general election. In short, those eager to find evidence that the country was poised to lurch leftward had lots to go on.
But perhaps that had more to do with the fact that country was (again understandably) fed up with the Republican party. The Democratic party’s leaders are a lot more liberal than their voters (the dynamic is even more true when it comes to committee chairs who are to the left of the average Democratic congressmen). The Democrats came into power in 2008 thinking they had a huge mandate for liberalism, when they really had a huge mandate for competence (for want of a better word). Obama and his coterie misunderstood this. They used a lot of “pragmatic” rhetoric, but they governed from the left, starting with the calamitous stimulus bill. Obama’s personal popularity is still sustaining him, but it seems to me that the Democratic party missed an enormous opportunity. I don’t think they’re doomed or anything like that. But, they’ve managed to rebrand themselves as a very liberal party again, and that’s a problem when 80% of Americans don’t describe themselves as liberals.