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The progressive/moderate battle in the Democratic Party

Jun 20,2022 - Last updated at Jun 20,2022

While the GOP’s internal battle revolves around Trump and Trumpism, the conflict playing out among Democrats is between moderates and progressives and comes in two distinct forms.

The first is between candidates seeking to broaden the party’s appeal beyond its “base”, and those who believe the path to victory is expanding “base” turnout.

This was on display in Pennsylvania where the popular progressive lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, a Bernie Sanders supporter, was running against moderate congressman Conor Lamb. Fetterman’s agenda matched Sanders’ on most issues, except that Fetterman is not opposed to fracking, a popular Pennsylvania industry. Fetterman’s persona is as compelling as his progressive politics; at 6’8”, with a shaved head, he looks more like a professional wrestler than a politician. His direct, plain-spoken approach is appealing to the very middle-class, non-college educated, white ethnic voters long ignored by Democrats. Lamb, on the other hand, looks like a congressman out of central casting, well groomed, polished, and a bit too careful. In fact, the main theme of Lamb’s campaign was being “more electable” than Fetterman.

Many establishment Democrats favored Lamb, believing that a liberal social agenda plus courting “the Obama coalition” (of Black, Latino, Asian, young and educated women voters) is the path to victory. This approach has left Democrats losing elections in Midwestern states and handed white working-class voters to Republicans on a silver platter. Fetterman, on the other hand, courted that Democratic base, but expanded it by making it clear to white voters that he’d also fight for them. Fetterman decisively won the primary with more than two-thirds of the vote.

In neighbouring Ohio, another Democrat, Congressman Tim Ryan, also courted working class voters and won a clear victory. Like Fetterman, Ryan made it clear that he understood their concerns about jobs and their dislocation in a changing economy. Both Fetterman and Ryan will likely face Trump-endorsed candidates in November. Their victories would not only help ensure Democratic control of the US Senate, but also demonstrate that Trump and the GOP’s hold over white working-class voters is vulnerable, if Democrats pay attention to them and their needs.

The Democrats’ moderate/progressive internal debate is also playing out in another, more convoluted way. While the Democratic establishment insists the party is unified behind Israel, more liberal Democrats are more favorable to Palestinians and conditioning aid to Israel; recent polling demonstrates this shift. In the last two election cycles, a few progressive congressional candidates have defeated more mainstream supporters of Israel.

An increased number of progressives are challenging moderate Democrats in congressional elections this year. While their views are more balanced on Israel-Palestine than their opponents, this issue has not been central to these contests, which have focused on progressive concerns like Medicare for All, climate change, and free public education.

To stop the advance of progressives in Congress, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC launched new political action committees (PACs), which have already spent over ten million dollars in just a few races to defeat progressives.

Ironically, though their sole purpose is to defeat “enemies of Israel”, their advertising campaigns never mention this, instead smearing progressive candidates as too radical, not supportive of President Biden, or not “real Democrats”.  Meanwhile, large donations to these PACs have come from Republican billionaires, and the largest PAC has endorsed over 100 Republicans, including supporters of Trump’s “stolen election” claim.

The results are mixed. The anti-progressive side has thus far won three competitive races and lost two, including a contest in Western Pennsylvania, where a charismatic Black state legislator eked out a victory, and another where a recount is underway.

While Trump and fear of alienating his base has created a fragile unity among Republicans, Democrats are struggling to unify progressives and moderates. The influx of millions in dark money expenditures may defeat a few progressives who support Palestinian justice, but also deepens the divide. Until Democrats can unify around an approach that appeals to their “base” and long-ignored white working-class voters, winning in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin will prove challenging. The outcome of this year’s internal party conflicts will not only determine who controls the Congress, but also set the stage for 2024.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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