The Democrats Are Having A Quiet Civil War Right Before Your Eyes

It’s an awful lot quieter than the Republican civil war, the one that is pitting Trump’s white nationalism cultural wing against the Republicans’ Business wing. But it’s happening.

You saw it in the Bronx, where Ms. Oscasio-Cortez, who seemed as surprised as anyone when she won New York City’s Bronx 14th Democratic primary, beat a long-sitting incumbent. You saw it in Florida, where Andrew Gillium overcame the odds to race ahead of the Democrats’ establishment choice.

And before that, you saw its stirrings in 2016, when Bernie Sanders tried to take down Hillary Clinton.

But before we go any further, we need to make sure we at least have a common understanding of what’s being talked. We’ve done the Republican civil war; now let’s do the increasingly interesting Democratic one.

Let’s talk the pillars of the Democratic Party — and their self-destructive tendencies

Big pillars of the Democratic Party — the places where a candidate that aligns to that archetype might find the most support.

The Democrats are a simpler tent than the GOP in some ways. While the GOP is split between three pretty divergent poles — the Business conservatives, the Culture conservatives, and the Libertarians — the Democrats have only the Workers Wing and the Cultural Wing as their broad-based factions.

The Cultural Wing is then subdivided into Spiritual and Dogmatic factions. They’re not independent factions in and of themselves because they largely believe in and strive for the same policies; how they differ is how they go about doing so. More on that later.

The map above gives a broad explanation of both the geographies and power distribution of these pillars. It’s not absolute; it’s meant to show, relatively speaking, what kind of presidential candidate would be most likely to win each kind of state in the primaries. And keep in mind that the two of the three biggest states — Texas, California, and New York — are run by the Dogmatic Cultural Voters.

That’s important, because the Democratic Party, while most of its members are not terribly dogmatic, culturally speaking, nevertheless ends up pulled in that direction because its two biggest states are strongholds of that approach to politics.

It’s also important because Dogmatic Cultural Liberals tend to lose outside of their strongholds. And it goes a way to explain why Hillary got more votes in 2016, but still lost.

So just who are these pillars? Let’s delve in.

Remember, when you’re making a choice at the ballot, all the nuance of who you are as a person melts away. You get one choice, and your choices are forced into funnels that reveal your most important values. It’s not that you can’t believe two things at once; it’s that you can’t always choose them both.

So when you vote for a candidate in a competitive primary, your most important values rises to the top to dictate your decision. This is pretty consistent; if you’re a primary voter, you’re probably already a partisan, and if you’re a partisan, your mind is made up. You’re voting for abortion rights, for women, for immigrants, for LGBTQ rights, etc. Or you’re voting for economic issues, for more equitable taxes, for redistribution, for jobs, etc. From these choices, you fall into one of the three categories below.

The Cultural Liberals — and their Dogmatic and Spiritual factions

Cultural Liberals are motived by social issues — immigration, race, gender, abortion, etc. But how they approach such issues is split between the Dogmatic types and the Spiritual types.

The Dogmatic types have prescribed programs of social change, lists of demands, organized slogans, and specific targets. Because they have specific targets, they are forced to be highly focused — and because they are focused, they tend to come as exclusionary.

When Dogmatic activists chant “Black Lives Matter,” it comes off as if only black lives matter — or when they hashtag #MeToo, it looks an awful lot like they’re only talking about themselves, and not a broad group of victims. To those who do not directly benefit by these calls to action, it’s a political turn off.

Moreover, they can squabble with one another over whose issue is most important — the LGBTQ movements and Black Lives Matter have seen some of their activists scuffle over prominence, and Dogmatic activists often get suckered into “Oppression Olympics” semantics, as they seek to establish a clear hierarchy of suffering. The top, it is presumed, deserves the most attention and resources.

Dogmatically effective, but politically risky

Consequently, they are politically toxic beyond their strongholds. When Democrats hew too close to them, especially nationally, they lose. They are too busy fighting one another, and, failing that, everyone else in the United States, to be politically salient. While conflict and friction is good for activism, it’s terrible politics.

Then there are the Spiritual Cultural voters — these folks have a broad, loosely defined aspiration for inclusion and equality, but do not have a specific program to get there. They speak in the generalities of freedom and common humanity. Dogmatic activists generally dislike them; their wishy-washing approach to social change looks doomed to fail.

Because they believe so broadly in change, Spiritual Cultural voters can act like mirrors: you see what you want to see in them. While this frustrates the Dogmatic voters, it does not alienate wide swaths of the electorate. Democratic candidates who embrace this approach tend to win nationally.

But as you can see from the map, they dominate much of the South — an important characteristic, as it generally keeps them from being part of the LA-NYC mega-donor dinners, and thus excludes their voice from much of Democratic politics.

Hillary was a Dogmatic candidate. She had specific ways to talk about identity and social activism and had strong support from activists in her candidacy. She had detailed policy points and specific plans. Having spent much of her political career in New York, she has adapted to the traits that make many Democratic New York politicians successfully — the culturally Dogmatic approach to liberalism.

Popular though it was in such heavily populated states like New York and California, it was toxic in the Midwest. That helps explain the defections from voters who chose Obama in 2012 who then went for Trump in 2016.

That then leaves the last category — the Workers.

The soft belly of the Democrats — the Workers’ Wing

Worker-focused voters are economically driven. They are the ideological successors to FDR’s New Deal, and though they’ve taken a beating in the Culture Wars in America’s most recent Awakening, they are nevertheless a major part of the party, and can still organize, if not to much overall effect, into groups like Occupy Wall Street.

They are also the current weak point of the party, for many of them either stayed home in 2016, or, even worse, chose Trump over Dogmatic Hillary.

That’s because they see little to no economic value in the cultural programs of the Cultural Wing, and feel attacked by the demands of the Dogmatic sub-faction. Equality matters to them, but they see quality via the dollar, not through social justice programs. They see poverty as the greatest evil facing America, and economic inequality as the root of its major social ills. Racism, for example, is best undermined not by waging war on problematic language but by building a thriving middle class for all people.

They frustrate the Dogmatic voters the most because they either refuse to engage substantially with these issues or because they give an economic answer to a cultural question. Worker voters are tempted to say “All lives matter” because to them, all lives do matter, especially within a thriving middle class. To a Worker voter, an inspiring story of an LGBTQ person overcoming the odds is not necessarily their coming out story against a hostile culture, but of their ascension to middle-class normality. They’d be a lot like the characters of Modern Family.

Workers voters firmly believe they are on the side of social justice, but squabble endlessly with Dogmatic activists over how to get there. Their last president was Lyndon B. Johnson, a man who managed to combine the Spiritual wing and the Workers wing and produced policies like The Great Society and Voting Rights Act.

So now what? A cleve between the Dogmatic Wing and the Workers’ Wing.

Like the Republicans, these internal factions of the Democratic Party are taking advantage of a time in which America’s politics are up for grabs. The Dogmatic Cultural Wing made their strongest bid with Hillary in 2016. They were rebuked by the nation at large. But that does not mean they are finished.

Cynthia Nixon, running for governor of New York against established governor Andrew Cuomo, is a Dogmatic culturalist coming up the ranks. Kristen Gillibrand, the Dogmatic junior senator from New York, is said to be eyeing 2020. These are just two of the most prominent ones. They will continue to emerge from primarily New York and California to steer the party in their direction.

Meanwhile, Worker-friendly candidates are also emerging in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 defeat. Gillium in Florida is just one. Ocasio-Cortez in New York may yet be another, though she’s young enough, and new enough, to still straddle the line between the factions, and may yet end up becoming a more firmly Dogmatic politician.

In the ranks of Spiritual Culturalists, there is little to cheer. Obama caught a window in 2008, before the Culture Wars grew so white hot that the GOP’s Cultural Wing and the Democrat’s Dogmatic Cultural Wing took prominence in politics. For 2018, and perhaps as well for 2020, those voters looked for a Spiritual Culturalist will find few champions.

The Democrats are united currently in their disdain for Trump and their shock at losing 2016. Currently, the two factions that like each other the least — the Workers and the Dogmatic Culturalists — are holding fire against one another. But once the Trump moment passes, as it must, they are likely to go for one another’s throats. They may not be fighting as hard as the GOP civil war currently is, but that contest is there nevertheless, just under the surface. All they need is some time in government to bring it out.

Not hot takes on history, culture, geopolitics, politics, and occasional ghost stories. Please love me. (See also

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store