Power  /  Argument

The Past and Future of the Left in the Democratic Party

Centrist Democrats who blamed the left for election losses would do well to remember the people who have fought for and shaped the party’s history.

This history of the left within the Democratic Party is presently obscured by moderates immobilized by visions of appealing to a well-defined bloc of center-leaning voters—dreaming that a cadre of virtue-minded crossover GOP voters will save the party on Election Day. This isn’t a new fiction; Democrats have long sought to attract voters with bipartisan rhetoric that simultaneously distanced the party from the left while appealing to the “center.” In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton told voters, “The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal; in many ways it’s not even Republican or Democratic. It’s different. It’s new. And it will work.” These moderates campaign and govern the way they do because they are haunted by the ghosts of George McGovern and Ronald Reagan. They implicitly accommodate and impart the conservative notion predominant since the 1960s that Americans dislike “big government.” The Democratic Party has resisted forming a meaningful alliance with politicians and activists on the left; and it has ceded ground to moderates reluctant to grant institutional space to leftists to build coalitions within their ranks.

The results of the 2020 election prove that this strategy is a failure. It fails to capitalize on left-wing sentiments expressed by liberals in the electorate who do not yet identify as leftists but echo left positions on issues like policing. For just as in the 1950s and ’60s, prolonged periods of racial and economic inequality over the past 20 years have pushed liberals leftward, which has forced the party to reckon with America’s inadequacies on issues of class and race, the limits of unfettered capitalism, and the party’s inability to deliver economic rights and social justice to Black Americans, women, and immigrants. The Democratic Party will fail to produce meaningful change for its most vital constituents if it continues to reinforce rigid intraparty boundaries and static notions of the left that excludes figures willing to join and lead multiracial movements for social justice. Its claims to inclusion will be gestural and moot, setting the party up for long-term failures beyond 2020.

The liberal-to-left lineage in the Democratic Party has a long history that dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Du Bois, for instance, first sought to redress racial inequality through racial uplift, mobilizing an educated class of Blacks to lead the movement for racial justice. In 1912, Du Bois encouraged his readers to back Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson because of his campaign’s promise to support the cause of Black people in the United States. “Under Wilson came the worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that we had experienced since the Civil War,” wrote Du Bois in his 1956 essay “I Won’t Vote.” Looking back at his history of voting, Du Bois concluded that “there is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say.”