Democrats are having a unity problem. That’s familiar territory for them

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As the White House tries to try to move forward on agenda items, moderate Democrats Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have emerged as key players. They have clashed with party leaders and progressive members.

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Politics
Moderate Democrats Flex Their Power In The Senate, Making Progressives Impatient

Throughout its history, the party has featured dissent and even radical differences of viewpoint. It has been defined by these internal contrasts and conflicts as often as by its achievements.

Division has played out for generations

It has often been easier to understand the Democratic Party as a series of shifting coalitions rather than a cohesive, disciplined unit. That long-term tolerance for turmoil may even help to explain how this party — or at least this party label — has stuck around so long. At two centuries plus, these Democrats are the oldest political party still functioning, not just in the U.S. but in the world.

The divisions have at times played out in marquee presidential races, as when the liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged the re-nomination of Jimmy Carter, the more centrist Georgia Democrat who happened to be the incumbent president in 1980.

More often, the tensions that permeate the party’s past have been part of the ordinary, daily business of Congress. For generations it was understood that in Congress, the Southern Democrats would go their own way when they felt their regional or ideological interests were at stake.

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Months after his challenge to the incumbent President Carter had failed, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) makes a belated gesture of unity in the closing moments of the 1980 National Convention.

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In August 1968, as the Democratic Party met in Chicago for its presidential nominating convention, tens of thousands of protestors swarmed the streets and the turmoil penetrated the convention hall, where delegates opposed to the war in Vietnam disrupted the proceedings.

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  • Transcript

    • NPR

    Jefferson was the first president associated with what became known as the Democratic Party. Before that, he and his confreres were simply the «anti-Federalists» or, for a time, the Democratic-Republicans.

    But Jefferson himself was no fan of the party concept. «If I could not go to heaven but with a party,» he once confided, «I would not go there at all.»

    Jefferson prided himself on an agrarian ideal of society, believing it morally superior to life in cities. He was followed in the White House by two more Virginia planters who had enslaved workers, James Madison and James Monroe, making it four of the first five presidents who did so. The seventh, Democrat Andrew Jackson, also relied on slavery.

    Soon the Democratic Party would be known as «the party of Jefferson and Jackson,» and in some states it continued to call its annual party events «Jefferson-Jackson dinners» well into the 2000s. But by then the party had long since shifted its base to the cities, to which most of the population had moved.

    A party that grew and divided with America

    In the 1800s, as the young Republic grew, the arrival of immigrants from Germany and Ireland and elsewhere in Europe introduced a new strain of Democrats who quickly came to matter in the politics of their cities and states. They were especially important to the growth of the cities in the Northeast and Midwest.


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    The Democratic Party was the place where the nation’s E pluribus unum concept was put to the test. And while the party, like the country as whole, idealized the «melting pot» notion in the abstract; in practice the melting was often strained.

    In addition to the North-South regional rivalry, the Democrats had to deal with deep and competing devotion to different definitions of Christianity. The party began with ties to the Protestant denominations that were well established in the South and in rural America, but it was soon closely associated as well with Catholicism in the cities. The 20th century political scientist Richard Scammon liked to say that the two most important events in any American election year were the Civil War and the Reformation.

    The sectarian intraparty tensions have eased somewhat in recent decades, largely because Southern white voters have absented themselves — gravitating to the Republicans, especially in rural precincts. Many departed their ancestral party after it backed the civil rights bills and embraced other movements toward social change. Other older voters in the South brought their GOP habits with them when they migrated from other parts of the country.

    But the historic differences have never gone away, and it is still possible to find Democratic politicians working an older Democratic moderate-to-conservative playbook. This may seem mandatory to them in states that have become highly Republican in voting patterns, such as West Virginia.

    Once a reliably Democratic bastion, West Virginia twice delivered crushing majorities for Donald Trump and has but one Democrat left in Congress – Joe Manchin, who has been the principal stumbling block for party unity in the Senate.

    Other Democrats currently at odds with their party leadership have their own constituency stories to tell. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, once considered a liberal activist, has become highly conscious of her state’s economic interests and the past success of Arizona senators who billed themselves as independent centrists and party mavericks – especially the late Republican John McCain.

    Among the House Democrats who have vowed to resist parts of the Biden program are several from Texas and elsewhere with ties to the traditional energy industry in their districts. They have questioned Biden’s moves away from fossil fuels and their party’s passion for renewables.

    Such members may regard the immediate interests of their constituencies, including donors as well as voters, as preeminent. They are willing to bear, as a badge of independence, the irritation and wrath of their party leaders and colleagues in Washington.

    Students of party history can only say: Twas ever thus.

    • Democratic Party
    • Democrats
    • Congress

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