James “Alien” Carville, Financial Times
The contest for the Democratic nomination is being largely portrayed as an historic confrontation between the first ever electorally-credible African American and the first ever electorally-credible woman running for president of the US. That in itself is sufficient to warrant blanket coverage, consuming interest and at times hysterical commentary on what is without question an unprecedented contest.
However, all of the coverage is missing what is most fascinating about this race. It is not the biographies of the two remaining Democratic candidates, or the number of voters who have been energised by the primary process, but the way in which the rivals are erasing and redrawing the lines of demarcation that exist within the Democratic party.
Readers should keep in mind that in parliamentary, multi-party systems in which proportional representation allows parties to cater to smaller subsets of the electorate, contradictions exist mostly within the government. However, the US two-party system makes the parties so broad that it is all but inevitable that contradictions will exist within the parties themselves.
The contradictions within the Republican party are visible on the surface and, in the view of Democrats, have delightfully led to all manner of internecine hand-wringing. The evangelical Christian and social conservatives find themselves in a marriage of convenience (does this violate a marriage’s sanctity?) with economic conservatives, who in turn wonder about the single-minded obsession of the national security-focused conservatives. Consider it as the Pat Robertson Republicans versus the Rockefeller Republicans versus the Reagan Republicans. All represent different wings of the party and, as you might guess, a bird with three wings does not fly so well.
But the Democratic party, like any family, also has its own contradictions. Although the divide is less obvious, it is still significant and is a major factor (in addition to the talent and uniqueness of our candidates) in both the closeness and the caustic nature of the Democratic primaries.
There are two main parts of the Democratic party. The first and fastest growing is what I refer to (somewhat uncreatively) as “Party A” Democrats. Party A Democrats tend to be urban or suburban. They are traditionally better educated, white, more affluent, heavily female, socially liberal and reform-oriented. Examples are candidates such as Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean.
The other side of the party is a more broad coalition of working class people who are generally less affluent, less educated and look to the federal government to soften the harsher edges of capitalism. They tend to be either urban or rural. I refer to them as “Party B” Democrats. They favour increased funding for federal programmes from Medicare to unemployment compensation to subsidised student loans. This wing of the party has included labour unions, older voters, African-Americans and non-college- educated young voters. Party B Democrats have been much more responsive to classic “I’m on your side” Democratic rhetoric. Candidates from this faction include Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton and (uncomfortable as he seemed in this ideological space) Al Gore.
In the past, the less affluent, pro-government wing of the party has consistently won. But what makes this race so wonderfully complex and textured is that Barack Obama, an almost prototype Party A Democrat, reaches right into Party B and yanks out African-Americans – a group that makes up almost a quarter of the Democratic party. Hillary Clinton, whose message is almost exclusively Party B, pulls a significant vote among older, educated white women, who most of their lives have been firmly in the Party A camp. Those who dismiss this as identity politics fundamentally underestimate the impact – an impact that could be felt long beyond 2008 – of this contradiction within a contradiction in the traditional factions of the Democratic base.
Underlying all of this is the inevitable game of electoral chicken that is almost certain to erupt at the conclusion of the contest. The winner, with help from the loser, is not only going to have to bridge the fissures within the party but also to find a way to re-embrace those racial and gender identity voters who now find themselves aligned with a new wing of the party. If Mrs Clinton wins the nomination, do the Party B African-Americans who have embraced Mr Obama’s campaign feel comfortable remaining in the party and voting for Mrs Clinton? Conversely, are the Party A, older, college-educated white women comfortable embracing Mr Obama’s candidacy after supporting Mrs Clinton so fervently?
Only time will tell and it is certainly not as simple or easy as it seems. When you consider that African-Americans make up slightly less of the Democratic party as self-identified evangelical or social conservatives do for the Republican party (about 25 per cent), you get a sense of how serious this could be for Democrats. One can only imagine where the Republicans would be without that percentage of voters, and the same can be said of the Democrats.
As President George W. Bush could tell you, it is one thing to call yourself a uniter, it is another to actually unite people. For the Democratic nominee, it is going to be one demanding, difficult job requiring an inordinate amount of patience and skill. But then again, that is what a president has to do.