Trigger warning: terrorism, islamophobia, racism
As I noted earlier this week, Republicans and other conservatives have essentially fallen over each other to trot out different versions of the same reaction to the attacks on Paris. They’ve prescribed more war, more hostility towards people of differing backgrounds, and more authoritarian state surveillance and controls. It’s basically a parade of what they have been pushing since the 9/11 attacks if not earlier, with the major shifts overt that time having just being about how overt or subtle they are with the policies they have in mind.
Within the US, the Democrats on the other hand, as a kind of quasi-left-ish coalition, have been inharmonious with one another. In New Hampshire, Governor Maggie Hassan was the only Democratic governor to join the rush to declare refugees would not be welcome in their state. A series of Senators – Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein, Joe Manchin, and Harry Reid – publicly called for greater oversight and potentially even a moratorium on accepting asylum-seekers from Syria and other affected countries. As with more issues than many want to admit, there is a wing within the Democratic Party that differs from the Republicans not much on policy and more on volume and style.
Of course, the loose coalition that makes up the Democratic Party in the US has plenty of other circles, some of which have made it quite clear that they are not going to sit quietly on this issue. Among other moved by that was President Obama himself, but he was joined recently by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Tammy Duckworth.
This brings to light a more mild version of the divisions within the Democratic Party which former presidential candidate Jim Webb made obvious earlier this year. There is a quite clear split here within the Party, and it’s not just the comparatively rural and White voters of Appalachia who have maintained a different Democratic Party with different responses to racially-charged issues. For every Webb, Manchin, and Reid, there is a Feinstein, a Schumer, or another Democrat from a comparatively urban and diverse state.
Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 win is enlightening on this. Beyond her indigenous ancestry, it explains why she falls into a group more commonly filled with people like Obama and Duckworth who have more constant and direct experiences with being racialized and profiled. It also explains how her opponent, Scott Brown, was even able to win in Massachusetts in the first place – because he appealed to the same type of constituencies that continue to empower Feinstein, Schumer, and others in “blue states”.
Courtesy of the Election StatSheet, here’s how her win in 2012 was distributed across the state of Massachusetts:
The bulk of her support came from the core of the Boston area (9.0 percent and 23.8 percent margins), with a smaller bump from the Springfield area in the western part of the state (6.3). Since this is New England, she also picked up slim margins in some of the comparatively rural parts of the state. Massachusetts residents have already picked up at this point on who that means drove her win to success: in the urban centers, people of color and the poor; in the rural west, the younger and more academic-minded.
What’s more remarkable is that Brown received a large amount of support in spite of the blue tilt felt across the state. It was concentrated, as the map shows, in the immediate environs of Boston.
The nearby suburbs of the state’s largest city are known for their wealthy and White demographics, but are by and large understood as still quintessentially “Massachusetts”. Whatever local preference towards Democrats, they pulled the lever for Brown to the tune of a more than ten point advantage. That part of the electorate, no matter their liberal bona fides, votes in the name of their personal bottom line. That can prop up a unique Brown-type Republican that goes a bit less directly on social issues and emphasizes economics, as well as the Schumer or Feinstein style of Democrat, who prioritizes security and spending over reforms or even moments of basic charity towards refugees.
Brown’s initially successful election (in 2010) primarily with the support of this group is not as much as a fluke as one might think. With the Republican base increasingly hostile towards a moderate wing seen as Republicans “in name only,” many Republicans have sought to triangulate between appealing adequately to the radicals and this constituency. This has been woven into the rhetoric and policies of Scott Walker and John Kasich among others – with the intent to create a smooth passage through both the base-driven primary and the general election (which tends to call for a broader coalition).
In some ways that echoes the efforts of many Democrats during the Clinton years, when the progressive base was labeled as electorally inadequate to win, but also indispensable. A certain portion of the Democratic Party never stopped doing that, even as the “Warren wing” emerged as a viable alternative to that somewhat convoluted centrism.
One question this leaves is whether these moderates are viable in the long term. That’s often presented as a party-unique question, but with increasingly viable constituencies outside of this group, few prominent politicians necessarily need their vote. Typically well-off but not necessarily wealthy on the scale of those who bankroll modern campaigns (and tend to have more eccentric political ideas), they’re also not financially necessary to the electoral process. What’s more, if a centrist Democratic wing and a centrist Republican wing will compete over their votes, it’s unclear that any useful collection of votes could coalesce around their specific interests.
That circumstance might lead many to expect a breakout third party, motivated by a kind of economics-light libertarianism. So far, that political bloc has been able to maintain a shocking amount of power without forming a third party. Instead they play kingmaker with their ability to deliver the votes necessary to enact their policies with shifting group of situationally-aligned co-supporters. They can rely on more radical Republicans to support them on most tax policies. They can rely on more radical Democrats to begrudgingly bail out banks or other industries to keep the country’s metaphorical lights on.
In terms of a vision of what different parts of politics or the economy could look like, they can’t lead, but they can still get most of what they want and leave everything else to die out in a committee as a “partisan” or “extremist” idea with inadequate support. For that matter, since they’re representing people who are, more or less, comfortable with things as they are, they don’t really need an idea of how to change the country. Intermingled with that comfort is a certain concern though: someone could muck everything up. So, this a political group that while somewhat ambivalent on social policies is more than happy to hear out extremely conservative views on race, religion, and civil liberties the moment security becomes the focal issue for any number of voters.
So, the Democrats who already have fallen in line with the majority of Republican governors or are speaking the same way as many conservative commentators have revealed a lot about themselves. Their willingness to act so cavalierly on security issues speaks to the interests they seek to protect and the ways in which those targeted by security systems don’t look like their constituents. They’re a unique class of Democrats, motivated by underlying economic and racial factors, that may make their politics incompatible with the broader Democratic Party’s in this era of the ascendant Senator Warren and President Obama.