By Sam Rosenthal

The Democrats’ inability to legislate reveals the irreconcilable conflicts of their competing caucuses

As the dust settles on a bruising Election Night for Democrats, recriminations are already flying between the progressive and “moderate” wings of the party. While corporate moderates are laying the blame on progressive resistance to passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, progressives are pointing out, again, that Democrats have not delivered wins on their most popular policy items. For once, though, both sides do agree on a larger framework: Tuesday night’s losses stem from a failure to legislate. 

Unfortunately, there is no end in sight for intraparty stalemate. Last week, after furious public negotiations, Democratic leadership cruised into the weekend projecting optimism about the likelihood of passing the comprehensive “Build Back Better” budget reconciliation bill and the infrastructure bill in short order. However, after a weekend interregnum marked by ominous silence, Sen. Joe Manchin blew that narrative up Monday afternoon when he announced he would not consider the larger, sweeping budget bill until House Democrats agreed to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. This, of course, has been the sticking point for progressive legislators all along, so Manchin’s pronouncement all but ensured another descent into the quagmire. Then, Speaker Pelosi announced the reinsertion of several policy points that were apparent non-starters for the Manchin/Sinema wing of the party. Today, voting rushes ahead on both major pieces of legislation, without any apparent guarantee that they will pass. Where this ends is anyone’s guess. 

After Tuesday’s losses, all eyes are now turned to the 2022 midterms. Sadly, Democrats find themselves perilously close to the end of another cycle of governance without major achievements. Absent any major legislation to trumpet as they stump for reelection, many Democrats are understandably worried about their prospects next year. 

Irreconcilable Differences

Election Day 2021 is quickly becoming another data point in the body of evidence for the long, slow failure of Big Tentism as the Democrats practice it. After Joe Biden won the Democratic Party nomination in 2020, Democratic leaders tried to create some intraparty comity by forging a “compromise platform.” The platform fight, of course, presaged much of what was to come. While paying lip service to some progressive priorities (e.g., offering “support” for universal healthcare, while declining to add it as a priority plank), most of the platform that emerged was standard corporatist Democratic Party fare. Progressives, though, more eager to defeat Donald Trump than to battle their own party, went along with it. Progressive priorities would be addressed after Trump was defeated, party leadership promised. 

The tension that was put aside to forge the unity platform has now exploded into full view. As the Build Back Better Act has been slowly stripped of quite popular, pro-working class priorities, progressives in and outside of Congress have begun to cry foul. “Moderates,” led by Joe Manchin, have cynically leveraged the Senate’s fundamentally undemocratic rules to adopt a position of non-compromise.

democratic party big tent is split, bernie wing on one side and corporate funded wing on the other

Fundraising is Politics

None of this should be surprising. A quick look at fundraising data for the competing wings of the Democratic Party reveals that moderates and progressives simply serve different masters. 

Consider the fundraising landscape for Joe Manchin as compared with Bernie Sanders, the two effective poles of the Democratic Party in the Senate. Both ran for reelection to their Senate seats in 2018. In the year before that election, Sanders raised more than Manchin, but did so largely via relying on small donors. Of the $10.5 million Sanders raised in that cycle, nearly $8 million, about 75% of the total, came from donations under $200 (known as small, non-itemized contributions). Manchin, meanwhile, relied on small donors for just 4% of his fundraising haul (about $355,000 of a total $7.9 million). The rest of Manchin’s warchest came from large donors, who made about 68% of his haul, and, of course, from PACs, which contributed just over $2 million to Manchin’s campaign during that cycle. Sanders, meanwhile, netted just $129,603 from PAC contributions in the 2018 cycle, accounting for a measly 1% of his fundraising. This is all, of course, before even addressing Manchin’s considerable personal wealth and stake in the fossil fuel industry that Democrats claim to want to regulate. 

This fundraising pattern also obtains in the House of Representatives, with more conservative members of the party caucus heavily reliant on large and corporate donors, while progressive members are dependent on many small donations to fund their campaigns. To this point, Democrats have been hamstrung by trying to satisfy both donor bases. Unfortunately, this is an impossible task. There is no legislation that both lowers prescription drug prices and enables pharmaceutical companies to continue to increase their quarterly earnings. No law can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while allowing the coal industry to thrive.  

Slow Collapse

Unfortunately for Democrats, both small donor and big donor plus PAC donation models are apparently here to stay. Without one fundraising model going extinct, it’s very hard to see how these two oppositional wings of the party will ever find enough common ground to fill out a robust legislative agenda. And so the big tent will continue to slowly collapse, through a likely Republican rout in 2022 that could continue into the 2024 cycle too. Even if they manage to hold onto the presidency in the next cycle, it’s not clear how the Democrats can resolve the conflict in which they’re currently embroiled.

For progressive activists, Tuesday’s results should not induce despair or a return to the drawing board. Rather, progressives should stay clear-eyed about the power of concentrated capital and recognize that the corporate Democrats and that wing of the party will not be dependable allies in any long term struggle. Instead, progressives should do what they have been doing: organize, make demands, and make smart decisions about which battles to fight — and which corporatists to challenge in Democratic primaries.

There are still victories to be found, especially at the local level, and in areas where progressives can make their case, on a policy basis, to the U.S. public. After all, progressive priorities are the most popular parts of the Build Back Better Act. If only the Democratic Party could do something popular for a change.