The Democratic Party is undoubtedly in the midst of a political identity crisis. There are questions swirling around Haverford’s campus and across the country about what the Left is, what it stands for, and where it will go. In the wake of their stinging loss in the 2016 election to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, the Democrats have been soul-searching for both what they stand for and who are its standard bearers. There has been the ceremonial “I told you so” chant from the supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, arguing the Democrats must be moved further to the left in their policy positions and maintain a resolute stance of opposition to the Trump administration and its allies in Congress. The Democratic National Committee will now have former Obama Labor Secretary and Hillary Clinton supporter Thomas Perez as its chair, as well as Congressman Keith Ellison, a Sanders supporter, as its Deputy Co-chair. While it remains to be seen how the Chairs will restructure the Democratic party’s apparatuses, many of which are financially strained given the dismal results of the election, not to mention the depleted bench of candidates on the state level, it is an even more open question as to what the path is to return Democrats to power.
To gain a better perspective on how party loyalists and activists feel about this intraparty struggle and how Haverford is impacted, I spoke to two political groups on campus whose politics are left of center to get their reading as to what the state of the left is. I spoke to members of the Haverford College Democrats and the Bi-Co Anti-Capitalists. The Haverford Democrats are well established, with 9 senior members and an email list of about 200 people, as I was told by multiple members. Their focus is to advocate for and elect Democrats by getting members of the Haverford community mobilized around progressive issues. The latter group was formed after the election of President Donald J. Trump, and is smaller, with about thirty members. Their focus is mainly to raise class consciousness of Haverford’s campus, and to provide a space where their members can have discussions free from the stigma they believe Haverford’s campus has for them and their views.
When asked about why the Democratic Party lost the 2016 election, the responses were actually fairly similar.
“I think there was a not a big economic focus,” said Josh Fried ‘18, co-head of the Haverford Democrats“[Another factor] was liberal elitism, that sense of not emphasizing with working class voters.”
One member of the Bi-Co Anti Capitalists reiterated those sentiments.
“The Democrats ran a candidate who could not relate to working people.”
On Haverford’s campus, both of these groups have seen upticks in support. Recently, the Democrats hosted an event with Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach, who gained attention for criticizing President Trump in fairly cutting personal terms. “We thought barely anyone would show up,” Fried said. “We ended up having a ton of people come to the event. It shattered expectations…To see so many people at Haverford come out to hear a state senator speak. It’s amazing to see that grassroots activism.”
Another member told me, “It actually made me optimistic about the resistance. I saw people who usually aren’t interested in politics actually show up and want to get engaged.”
The same was true for the Anti-Capitalists.“It’s difficult to call yourself an anti-capitalist,” Alicia Lopez-Torres ‘20 said. “It’s hard to critique your reality. We are engaging with the community. We have a public relations committee that advertises on campus and makes the signs. One of the problems with leftist groups is that they don’t focus on intersectionality, which we try to do.” Multiple members praised the group for giving them a space where they can say things that are not usually said on Haverford’s campus.
In terms of activism, the group is more detached from electoral politics. “We want to help working people’s movements, like BLM, the Fight for 15, and support unions,” said Luke McGowan-Arnold ‘20. The group is focused on localized projects where they have more influence.
The message of fairly universal obstruction of President Trump’s agenda has been echoed by the Bi-Co Anti-Capitalists. Multiple members told me they view Trump as a dangerous autocrat who not only will implement policies they disagree with, but also will undermine democracy in the U.S. McGowan-Arnold freely called him “a fascist who represents the ruling class.” Many members told me that his cabinet appointments and statements regarding the press are in the words of one member, “deeply frightening.”
This type of activism both groups are employing is reminiscent of the Tea Party Revolution of 2010. Republican party activists not only targeted Democrats but also threatened their own party with primary challenges if they were not sufficiently opposed to then President Obama’s agenda. The protest movements happening around the country in town halls is imitating that model purposefully, in many places.
“The one good thing about the Tea Party was it [taught] us a lesson about grassroots organizing,” said Rachael Garnick ‘17 of the HC Democrats. “This is an unprecedented moment, and we need to resist.”
The race for the head of the Democratic National Committee revealed tensions within the party. Many establishment Democrats supported Tom Perez, and more progressive Democrats supported Keith Ellison (Although it should be said that Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and other moderate Democrats did favor Ellison). The final vote was 235-200 in favor of Perez, who immediately suspended the rules and placed Ellison on the DNC leadership as Deputy chair. The party wanted a display of unity, and is hoping to revitalize its organizing strategy to rebuild its bench. A number of reforms to make the budgeting process more transparent and less reliant on big donors have already begun to take shape.
On campus, there was a slightly different take of the DNC chair race. One member of the Haverford Democrats blamed the rancor surrounding the event on the media. “I think it became a boxing match,” Garnick said. “Perez is a good guy, but it shows the insider Democrats are still in control of the party and that they have not learned their lesson. The Dems need to break their bonds with big-money politics.” A Democratic strategist recently told me, “There was no reason for Perez to be elected. It doesn’t mean anything in terms of policy, but Ellison would have meant much more symbolically, and it would have energized young people and helped demonstrate the party was adapting to their needs.”
The 2018 midterms will pose a challenge to the Democratic party. They are facing an uphill battle in the Senate with ten Democrats up for reelection in states that President Trump won. The party has significant ground to make up in governorships and state legislatures. The 2018 election will be the last chance for Democrats to get elected before the 2020 Census is taken, and new congressional districts are drawn. In most states whichever party controls the statehouses and governorships at that point will have advantages in drawing new congressional district lines to favor their party. Those district lines will remain in place until the next census is taken in 2030.
There is growing pressure for Democrats to move to the left or be punished electorally. A new Super PAC, called “We Will Replace You”, was started recently by former aides of Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt) campaign. It’s mission statement reads in part: “Elected officials tend to take the path of least resistance on most things—unless you create a political cost for them. Demonstrating that we won’t accept anything less than full opposition—by showing Democrats just how many people are willing to back primary challenges to Democratic collaborators and enablers of Trump. Any Democrats who would give legitimacy or support to Trump do not represent us and must be replaced by people who will stand up for our lives, our values, and our democracy.”
Interestingly enough, there seemed to be support for this idea among the groups I spoke to, despite the concerns about intra-party warfare breaking out. “I would want more progressive options, except in a few cases,” said Fried. One member of the Bi-co Anti Capitalists said to me, “ Absolutely they should be challenged. If there are Democrats who actually won’t sell themselves off to the largest donor that run, I would vote for them and campaign for them.”
When it came to collaboration between the two groups, there were fairly definitive divides. “I like them personally, but I disagree with them ideologically. Our enemy is Trump,” said Fried. “We need to beat the Republicans [in the midterms],” said Garnick.
“The Democratic Party is a party of the 1%,” McGowan-Arnold said. “The Democrats don’t represent working people anymore.”
While in numbers the Bi-Co Anti-Capitalists are few, they represent the views of many people on Haverford’s campus, and young people around the country. “I think they fail to realize that they can’t implement their policies from the outside,” one member of the Haverford Democrats said.
In this moment, the institutions of the U.S. are being challenged by the right and the left. The “establishment” Democrats see themselves as pragmatic, using the systems we have to bring about change, however incremental that change is. Radical progressive activists see themselves as disrupters, ready to take over the Democratic Party or reject it entirely if it does not move farther to the left. It is unclear which of these forces will prevail and where the American left will go. However, these issues will shape not just Haverford’s campus but the entire landscape of American politics.