The Democrats' Central Dilemma: How to Talk Micro, Not Macro

Professor Julia Azari weighs in on the rift in the Democratic Party.
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Bernie Sanders speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: John Pemble/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: John Pemble/Flickr)

All is not copacetic on the political left.

Last week, while speaking at Netroots Nation, the annual liberal meeting, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders hit the first major public relations snag in his campaign. While going over his usual platform talking points—namely, economic and education reform—Sanders was repeatedly interrupted by #BlackLivesMatter protestors, who demanded that Sanders (and Martin O'Malley, who was also delivering a stump speech that day) actually say the names of black people killed by police officers. The idea was to have the candidates address issues of racism candidly, concretely, and not in relation to the abstractions of economic policy.

While the Netroots demonstration wasn't exactly how he'd foreseen his big moment at the convention unfolding, for Sanders the Black Lives Matter protestors actually presented a unique opportunity: to convince black Americans that he isn't just about taking on Wall Street and expanding Social Security, that he is also a candidate who can stand against racial injustice. But by almost all accounts, Sanders whiffed on the opportunity, preferring to talk policy over people—which, again, sidestepped the point of the demonstration in the first place. (He wasn't as bad as O'Malley though, whose awkward rebuttal was that "white lives matter," too.)

To the Black Lives Matter movement's credit, their rally did indeed inspire a renewed vigor in campaign speeches. As Time's Sam Frizell points out, "Hillary Clinton repeated her calls for body cameras and improved early childhood education, and wrote 'Black lives matter' in a Facebook post. Martin O'Malley promised to roll out a comprehensive plan to reform the criminal justice system, and Sanders has repeatedly brought up race on the campaign trail."

In an enlightening analysis, Marquette University political science professor Julia Azari attributes much of this disconnect to Sanders' brand of populism, which is more interested in "identifying groups on which to blame society's problems ... and advocating for procedural changes that putatively give the people more of a voice," writes Azari, who's also the author of Delivering the People's Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate. Further, as Vox's Matthew Yglesias explains in an examination of Azari's post, "[Black Lives Matter] charges that public sector institutions—in this case, specifically the ones focused on law enforcement—can perform poorly for reasons that are not explained by underfunding or by 'revolving door' corporate capture. If that's true of police departments, then maybe it's true of schools and mass transit systems and any number of other public agencies." In other words, Democratic candidates like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are too concerned with fixing the macro, but not enough the micro—that is, the everyday—elements.

Why this divide? Why are liberal candidates so seemingly inept at addressing race in a real and meaningful way? And why is inequality too often discussed on a systemic—but not necessarily tangible—level? I spoke with Azari about this sadly unsurprising divide within the Democratic Party.

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What are the two conflicting movements within the Democratic Party? And why are they so conflicting?

In a lot ways they're compatible, if you frame them in terms of justice or fairness. But if you frame them in terms of their broader theory of governance—which is what ideology is—then their logics aren't all that compatible. The economic populism movement has really focused on "if the people just had access to power, than we'd get better outcomes." But actually the idea where the people have access to power—really, populism—is what's brought on some of the policies that have led to what the Black Lives Matter people are protesting. This took people on the left by surprise. On the other hand, the tension between the populist worldview and racial justice activists goes back fairly fair, if you think back to the late '60s, when the Democratic Party was much more ideologically divided. The implicit comparison from my piece is the Republican Party, where you have the ideological backbone of the party, that's a coalition across social and economic issues.

Julia Azari. (Photo: Dan Johnson)

Julia Azari. (Photo: Dan Johnson)

And I think when you mention the social and economic factions, my hunch is this is a relatively recent phenomenon, that parties have distinct social and economic factions. The way people thought about social and economic issues wasn't the same as how we think about them now. There's debate historically among political scientists about that. That's my initial hunch, that the thing with the Democratic Party is that what's emerging now, you're coming to the end of the Reagan era, you get these two factions that want to do something different, and want to form the core of the Democratic Party. I think that they're going to get in each other's way as the backbone of more liberal, re-invigorated Democratic Party. I'm not sure that the Black Lives Movement has the goal of being an exclusive part of the Democratic Party. It's a protest movement; it wants to disrupt institutions.

Is there any historical explanation for this?

For sure. The Democratic Party has been the party of civil rights for not terribly long. The year 1948 is the turning point for civil rights in the Democratic Party. Before that, Democrats were historically a party of racism. Now, that's not the case anymore. But I still think it's kind of a patchwork coalition. It's a bunch of different movements that all have really distinct logics of how to do politics and what the problems are with the country, and how to solve them. Whereas I think, at least for a while, the Conservative coalition, which really took off in the '70s, has been able to weave together a pretty cohesive narrative of what they're after, who they are, and how they're [joined] together.

Why are Republicans so much more successful in creating this narrative?

Different elements of the Democratic Party broadly agree about justice and what should be done. When you get the Sanders movement, the problem is the economic elite, and campaign finance. With this particular racial justice movement, their argument is that the problem isn't the institution; it's the carceral state. Those are two different narratives.

Economic and social conservatives have done a good job of weaving together this story of nationalism and what America is, and preservation, and tying it all together, even though they're all different priorities. The Republicans have been effective in doing so with ideas; the Democrats have been much spottier in achieving that goal. You have a lot of different senses of what it means to be liberal.

I don't think the Republican Party is without contradiction. Part of what I was trying to respond to is whether there's asymmetry between the parties. Whether Netroots provides this ideological core in the same way as CPAC does for Republicans, and I think this illustrates why they don't.

You mentioned political parties' tendency to dominate on a 40-year cycle. How does the ascendence of the Democratic Party factor in Black Lives Matter, a still-somewhat fringe social movement?

We're coming to the end of one [40-year cycle]. For Democrats, that means we're going to see something new coming out of the party. And we're already starting to see that. The beginning of this is these social movements that are first a little fringe-y, and then they gain access to mainstream power in the party. That's what we're seeing now, in the beginning stages. I think It will take a couple election cycles.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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