After Republicans defeated Democrats in many elections at all levels of government in the 2016 election, progressives, long understood to be covered under the umbrella of the Democrats, are questioning if remaining loyal to the centralized coalition is the best way to advance their ideals.
Northwestern’s Political Union and NU College Democrats debated this issue in a collaborative event Monday evening at the Buffett Institute. Junior Calvin Anderson staked the claim that the future of progressivism lies within the bounds of the party. Junior Sophie Chen then disputed his assertion.
It’s important to note that at the outset of the discussion, it was clear that both sides agreed that the Democratic Party is currently operating at an ineffectual level. That is, neither side made the claim that progressivism is being adequately served by the party right now, and the issue is merely one of voter mobilization.
This detail served as the catalyst for the argument. If the Democratic Party is failing progressive ideals now, why should they be trusted to improve their track record in the future?
“In its ideal form, the Democratic Party is the arm of progressivism that works to unite different perspectives across the liberal spectrum into a force strong enough to influence governmental policy,” Anderson stated in his opening remarks.
Anderson then cited the lack of an equivalent alternative to the power and resources of the coalition as the reason hope for progressivism lies in operating within the pre-established institutional framework.
Chen claims that this framework is no longer practical for generating real policy.
“They [Democrats] are mediators, peacemakers and not the aggressive politicians that the Democratic Party needs,” Chen says.
She used the relative centricity of the party platforms of the two most recent Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, to substantiate this claim. Chen stressed that the game Democrats should be playing is not an electoral one, but an ideological one.
Yet ideologies cannot manifest into policy without winning elections, and elections can’t be won without strong, widely understood ideologies--as evidenced by the loss of Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was criticized for lacking substance beyond not being Donald Trump.
The nuances of the debaters arguments is best understood by their viewpoints on the leadership of the Democratic Party.
“The fact that [Bernie Sanders] has to make his own branch within the Democratic Party is exemplary of the fact that they are not giving him the respect and the progressive leadership that he deserves,” Chen said.
Many of those present agreed with the sentiment that progressive voices like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are marginalized by the party so much so that they should abandon it completely.
Having already acknowledged that the party underserves progressive values, the for side made the distinction that Sanders and Warren are the voices that are pushing the party away from its current centrist position and towards a future of progressivism. Sanders and Warren do officially identify as Democrats, and thus are operating within the system whether or not the current system is affording their voices enough weight.
Moreover, the discussion was really about where change should be enacted. The disputing side believes that voters and voting patterns should evolve to accept a multi-party system. If everyone votes in their best interests, rather than strategically based on perceptions of party power, than progressivism is best served in a coalition separate from the Democrats. College Democrats argued that this is inconceivable based on the constitutional structure of the government, and that instead, the party itself should move further left as mandated by progressive ideology.
At the beginning of the discussion, voting was as follows: nine in favor of the party as the future of progressivism, ten against and 14 abstained. By the end of the debate, 17 of those present raised their hands in favor of the party, while 13 were against and four abstained.