The Democratic Party has always prided itself on having a “big tent.” But representing a diversity of interests is different than representing conflicting interests. As President Obama’s Second Inauguration approaches the divisions within the Democratic Party over wealth inequality and social justice are boiling to the surface.
As President Barack Obama approaches his second inaugural on Monday, he presides over a party that has largely papered over its divisions for the past four years thanks to the president’s commanding popularity.
But almost as soon as the echo of Obama’s inaugural address fades and he becomes a lame duck, Democrats are going to have to face a central and unresolved question about their political identity: Will they become a center-left, Democratic Leadership Council-by-a-different-name party or return to a populist, left-leaning approach that mirrors their electoral coalition?
Calling the DLC “center-left” is a bit of a misnomer. The correct division is between Corporate Liberals and progressives. Those that genuinely believe (or are paid to genuinely believe) that the growth of Corporate Power in American society is not only a positive development but necessary for progress. On the other side are the progressives who believe the power of capital – particularly finance capital – has grown to the point of suffocating democracy and the possibility for progress. No easy divide to bridge.
“The real struggle within the Democratic Party is where you stand on income inequality and whether the government needs to be a part of fixing that problem,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The demographics that the Democratic Party must attract are the people who need responsive government.”
In no debate is this divide more clear than on entitlements where Corporate Liberals have decided to swallow right-wing talking points whole despite all evidence to the contrary. They also have, to an embarrassing degree, embraced Wall Street’s worldview on debt. After bailing out the banks – making private debts public debts – the Corporate Liberals have sided with the Republicans to now extract debt payments from the lower classes to pay off that odious debt.
AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer was even blunter.
“There’s no denying that there are two Democratic parties,” said Podhorzer. “One that has a fair amount of allegiance to Wall Street and to the notion that it’s no big deal to raise the retirement age or cut benefits. They see the Democratic coalition of the future being more upscale. But there’s a big part of the party that still sees Democrats as still being anchored by downscale.”
And of course the Corporate Liberals’ biggest blind spot, the environment. Despite lofty goals and rhetoric climate change remains unaddressed in any meaningful way. By his own metric Obama has failed on one of the biggest issues of his time.
It will be interesting to see how this divide plays out for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. Neither side of the divide has a compelling reason to lay down.