Blame polarising primaries for Democrats’ shift to the far left

Morgan Schondelmeier
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As candidates vie to appeal to a Democratic base, they are having to conform to the primary electorate’s idea of an ideal Democrat (Source: Getty)

As an American working in Westminster, I often get asked about the differences between US and British politics.

Obviously, the entire American political spectrum is shifted to the right, we’re still fighting hard battles on social issues, and there is the added interplay of state level policies.

But there’s an obvious similarity. The divide between parties is seeping deeper and deeper into public consciousness. Trump and anti-Trump, Brexit or no Brexit, open or closed – as we can’t help but notice, this intensifying polarisation can make politics a nasty place where not much gets done.

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There’s been a lot of talk about how to heal these divisions. But this misses the point: the structure of our political systems makes this almost unavoidable. And there’s no clearer example of self-imposed divisions than a leadership contest.

American presidential primaries look a bit like party leadership contests in the UK: a large group of politicians fighting it out for the favour of their party members.

And they fall into the same trap. By overburdening the field with too many voices, candidates are forced to pander to their voting populations in order to curry favour.

The people who vote in primaries, by their nature, are more invested in politics than the rest of the electorate. The effect is clear: politicians must abandon nuance and take more hardline stances in order to appeal to this narrower electorate.

Take the Republican primaries in 2016. With 17 major candidates, it was a vicious, hard-fought battle for notoriety. Presumptive nominees had to keep getting more and more extreme just to be noticed.

Do we really think that there would have been so much focus on building a wall on the southern border if Donald Trump hadn’t dragged the conversation that way?

It was all anyone else could do to keep up with hardline stances on immigration – runner-up Ted Cruz had to altogether abandon his support for increasing the number of high-skilled visas in order to remain in favour, and it still wasn’t enough.

In the end, the most radical candidate of all succeeded, by making far-flung promises – on walls, Muslims, and China – that don’t resonate with the majority of the nation.

That might feel like ancient history, but the same phenomenon is occurring now with the Democratic primaries. There are already 25 major candidates – and the story is beginning to look similar to 2016.

As candidates vie to appeal to a Democratic base – which has been pushed further to the left by Trump’s presidency – they are having to conform to the primary electorate’s idea of an ideal Democrat.

Increasingly, staple policies from the Democratic playbook like healthcare reform and gun control aren’t the ones making headlines.

Instead, we get policies like the Green New Deal. Proposed by darling of the left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it has been raised up as a benchmark policy that presidential candidates must endorse, or risk being shunned.

While appealing to some with its radical ideas for saving the environment, the Green New Deal’s stringent opposition to any market or capitalist forces make it essentially economically unviable.

On a pragmatic basis, getting it through Congress would be almost impossible, and even if it were enacted, it would prove far less feasible and popular than its advocates are implying. Yet hundreds of hours are being devoted to championing it.

See also free university education. First brought onto the scene by Bernie Sanders (who is so far to the left of the Democrats that he isn’t even in their party), it is now a litmus test for candidates.

Those who are wary of this extreme policy, which sounds progressive but would require a radical dismantling of the entire American university system, are being forced to justify their position.

A reasoned critique isn’t enough; Amy Klobuchar received widespread backlash, even though she had alternative – and arguably more practical – proposals for lessening the burden of tuition and debt.

Finally, look at reparations – payments to African Americans as recompense for slavery. Suddenly this is supported by several major candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

Why? Because one candidate – self-help guru Marianne Williamson – is running her campaign almost entirely on the platform of giving up to $500bn to reparations programmes.

Candidates who denounce this idea for what it is – blue-sky thinking with no practical implementation prospects – risk being painted as uncaring towards minorities.

Time will tell where this primary will end up, but even moderates will have to pander to a staunchly left-wing audience in order to win.

This is not to say that politicians are nebulous creatures without principles. Just like in the race to be Tory leader here in the UK, many of the Democratic candidates have more nuanced opinions than the black and white options they’re being forced to choose between.

But in a competitive landscape with a very small and specific voting population, the conversation will naturally discard nuance.

We talk a lot about the damage that polarisation does to democratic institutions. Primaries indicate that such polarisation may not be a bug, but a feature.

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