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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (left) speaks with Kerri Evelyn Harris. Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist, beat a long-serving incumbent to become the Democratic Party nominee for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Harris, who holds similarly progressive views, recently lost the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat for Delaware.

Voices / Column

Will Democrats repeat the mistakes of the past?

It’s time for party leaders to hand the baton to younger, more-progressive figures with demonstrated leadership skills and experience

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

If you’re a Democrat worried about the midterm election or simply an American worried about the country’s future come 2020, you are not alone.

There is mounting consternation about how the Democratic Party will win over voters given the pressing issues before us, and a growing concern regarding how the party’s present leadership will ultimately select a viable nominee for president.

Pundits, left and right, have begun posing arguments about whether Democrats will again self-destruct before the November election by dividing and polarizing centrist Democrats and more progressive members of the party. That behavior, along with Russian interference, cost us the Electoral College vote that brought us Donald Trump in 2016.

* * *

The arguments run something like this.

Conservative voices believe that, in the words of John Daniel Davidson, writing in The Federalist recently, “the party’s left-wing base is setting the stage for defeat.” Davidson suggests that the left isn’t taking into account the importance of the Electoral College, and he thinks that backing such ideas as single-payer health care and renewable energy by “Sanders-esque” candidates creates “identity politics that threaten to turn what should be a successful midterm election for Democrats into an embarrassing debacle.”

As an example, Davidson refers to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young woman who won NY-14 (and NY-15 by write-in vote) as a “self-styled ‘socialist’ Democrat.”

There it is, that misunderstood label — “socialist” — which conservatives are quick to align with “European welfare states” that believe in health care for all, public education, safe and modern infrastructure, and criminal-justice reform.

Countering conservative voices that gleefully announce the coming self-destruction of Democrats, more moderate views suggest that while Dems are shifting to the left, they are not about to self-destruct.

As a subhead over a piece by Sahil Kapur put it in Bloomberg Businessweek, “Moderates continue to win primaries, with the ‘resistance’ avoiding the suicidal tendencies of the Tea Party.”

Kapur acknowledges that Democrats face a “rebellious activist flank that risks pulling their party to an unelectable extreme by defeating Establishment-friendly candidates,” but he seems reassured that so far, the left wing of the party hasn’t created a civil war. Progressives, he argues, “have found ways to move the policy conversation to the left, without attacking moderates.”

* * *

I’m not convinced we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

While labels like “socialist” and “progressive” are used in unnecessarily alarming ways, I don’t quite share Mr. Kapur’s optimism. I worry that we could be heading for another Democratic disaster, a concern that has less to do with policy differences than personalities, egos, and demographics.

While I agree with much of what Bernie Sanders espouses, I fear a reprisal of his divisive behavior, repetitive rhetoric, and ego-driven campaign.

I believe that without Bernie — who has yet to declare himself a Democrat, or to show his own taxes — Hillary Clinton could have won the Democratic support she needed to win the election. No matter what issues one has with her, or with centrist politics, it’s hard to deny that we’d be in a far better place than we are now had she gone to the White House.

In my view, the days of Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, and Chuck Schumer are over. (I exclude Joe Biden, who speaks to, and for, the 99 percent, provided he run for office with a young, progressive running mate, preferably a woman or person of color.)

These notable leaders have served us long and well, and we are grateful. But it’s time for them to hand the baton over to younger, more-progressive figures with demonstrated leadership skills and experience.

* * *

We all have ideas about who the new leadership might include, and that’s fine. What matters is that we, and the old guard, give them voice and support them in this uncertain, critical time.

I am reminded of Beverly Sills, the opera star who had the good sense and the grace to stop singing before she lost her melodious voice. Her loyalty then was given to music, the Met, and the newcomers she mentored as they advanced their own careers.

The most important things right now, it seems to me, are new leadership, lessons learned, and policy perspectives that derive not from political posturing and ego-driven personal gain but rather from fresh vision in a time of possibly dangerous uncertainty.

This is a time that calls upon leaders to speak with, and not simply for, the poor, the marginalized, the “other.” It is a time that requires a full understanding of the intersectionality of critical issues and an articulation of those issues that is cohesive, constructive, comprehensive, and conversant with the realities of our lives across the economic and ideological spectrum.

I firmly believe that Democratic success, not just in the voting booths but in a 21st-century world, rests in grasping lessons learned throughout political history and in trusting and supporting fresh leaders who reflect our values and our interconnections across cultures, ethnicities, race, class, age, ability, and gender within the context of our times.

Who better to define the methods and the messages of these tenuous times than Democratic leaders who understand the goals and speak the language of millennials and generations X, Y, and Z than the newer generations on Capitol Hill, in state capitols, and at all levels of governance, no matter what labels with which they choose to identify themselves politically?

That kind of change leads not to self-destruction but offers instead new hope and possibility.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #478 (Wednesday, September 26, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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