Are There Two Kinds of Democrats?


Most commentators distinguish two main kinds of Democrats, whether they are talking about citizens, candidates for president or members of the House and Senate. There are progressives and moderates. Said differently, there are liberals and centrists.

In the race for president, a progressive is Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts; a moderate is former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. These days, there are many more presidential candidates who fall into the progressive or liberal wing of the party. The days of Clinton Democratic centrists are long gone, although there are some presidential candidates in this space.

Political categories are useful but they are not mathematical compartments. Not everyone agrees to the same taxonomy. There is always a continuum on the political spectrum, and the current convention is to draw a line between the two basic groups. Within these groups, there are the more- or less- progressive and the more- or less-centrist.

It’s hard to get away from these categories because without them it makes it more difficult to compare and contrast candidates once you start talking about more than one issue. If you are lining up two candidates on 10 issues, it helps to be able to group them as progressive and centrist if the candidates have positions that are predominantly in one category.

It may be, however, that pitting the progressives against the centrists is just another example of the binary nature of American politics. We thrive on dualisms in the United States — American pragmatists like John Dewey said that Western philosophy and culture thrived on dualisms, to our detriment, for 2,000 years. Fact and value. Thought and action. Mind and body. Individual and society.

Our politics thrive on the dualisms, especially our two-party system. In all of the European parliamentary systems there are at least three major political parties.

So why divide the Democrats into two groups? Is it our love for dualisms? Are we addicted to them?

Why not divide the Democrats into three categories? First, there are the centrists or the moderates. Second, there are the progressives or the liberals. And third, there are the super-liberals (which includes the socialists). The third category, like the first category, is not heavily populated. But it has some very prominent, and loud, members, notably Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Yes, Sanders should really not be in the same group with progressives like Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Ben Cardin, Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Reps. Rosa DeLauro and Nita Lowey. For that matter, Warren doesn’t belong in that group either. Nor does Ocasio-Cortez belong with the liberals.

When we divide the Democrats into three categories, things become clearer. If you are really at the extreme, if you really blast President Trump and most Republicans for most everything, if you indict the capitalist system on a daily basis, then you are really a super-liberal or even a socialist.

If you work within the establishment but you stand for core liberal values, if you want a very strong national health insurance plan and possibly single payer, if you demand stronger gun control laws, are fiercely pro-choice, oppose charter schools, if you support a $15 minimum wage, oppose pushing back the age eligibility for Social Security — if you embrace these things you are really a progressive, a liberal.

But if you balk at two or more of these policies, if you oppose single-payer national health insurance, if you say you are pro-business, if you support the coal industry, and if you frequently say that we must compromise with the Republicans, then you are probably a centrist of some form.

There they are — the super- liberals, the liberals and the centrists. Those are our three camps. Sure, some politicians do not fit neatly into one of these categories, but the trichotomy has virtues over the dichotomy. The dichotomy seems forced, and it also creates constant warfare between two sides, Red Coats and Blue Coats.

With three camps, it is more subtle and complex. There is no knee-jerk reaction against one enemy. There is still disagreement and tension. That’s not at issue. The point is that the conflict within the Democratic party is currently oversimplified.

As the Democratic nomination for president goes forth, it would be fruitful not to view the race as a boxing match, arm wrestle or football game between two camps.

As it turns out, there are aspects of our politics that are more aligned with European parliamentary democracies than we thought. Not every aspect of our politics is a duel between two sides of a dualism.

Dave Anderson is editor of “Leveraging:  A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework.” He has taught at the University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University and The George Washington University.

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