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National Opinion

Crowded Field: Disagreement and Diversity Among the 2020 Democrats

The election of Barack Obama seemed to be the start of a new America. For the first time, the United States truly seemed like a country overcoming racism and bigotry, a country where anyone—no matter who they were—could accomplish what they set their mind to. It was an historic moment.

Then came the elections of 2016. Donald Trump appealed to the ‘silent white majority’ by promising, among other things, tax cuts, the renegotiation of NAFTA and the return of manufacturing jobs, a border wall to combat what he deemed an illegal immigration “crisis,” a Muslim ban in the name of national security, and the repeal of Obamacare. After such an unexpected and devastating defeat, the Democrats are readying for the 2020 elections. And they want to bring back the American promise that Obama represented in 2008.

Since Hillary Clinton’s loss, however, it has become more and more difficult to decipher how the Democrats will carry out this promise. They have failed to show the American people which mechanisms and ideologies represent them and their efforts as a party. Although it is clear that the Democrats are running against Trump and what he stands for, to have a chance of winning the general elections, they must be wary of falling into the trap of being only characterized as “anti-Trump” candidates, or even becoming the “anti-Trump” party. Whether it be the party or the candidates, the Democrats need to find and embrace their own positive message—one that will stand for something and mobilize not only their left-wing base, but also the independents and swing voters that were lost to Trump in the last presidential election.

During these past few years, Democrats have increasingly embraced a more progressive agenda. Championed, in a way, by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, progressive ideologies have captured the hearts and minds of many constituents. This move toward more progressive policies, however, has not unified the Democratic Party’s message. Rather, it has led the Democrats to represent a much wider spectrum of political opinions than they have in recent years. As of today, 12 Democratic candidates have officially announced their bid for the 2020 nomination. Some predict that this number will eventually approach two dozen. Although they are all running as Democrats, these candidates do not represent a single ideology. Both individually and as a mix, they represent the lack of agreement within the party itself, as well as the widening array of (increasingly progressive) ideologies that now characterize the Democratic electorate.

It is imperative to note how interaction between the Democrats’ anti-Trump drive and their own internal ideological disunity has helped create such a large Democratic pool. Such a crowded field, in a way, represents the solidification of the conditions created by this interaction. Passion geared toward defeating Trump naturally incentivized people to run. Widespread disagreement about exactly how to do so and how to govern afterward—caused by the widening progressive spectrum that represents popular ideologies—has dramatically amplified this incentive. How will these two propelling positions will affect both the primaries and the general election. In order to win, does the party need to solidify its message forcefully? Or will the wider spectrum that these candidates exemplify strengthen the Democrats’ prospects in the general election by appealing to those swing voters that were lost to Trump in 2016?

As the primary grows, the coming election’s central issues are beginning to come into focus. Quickly intensifying, is the issue of PAC and corporate cash in politics. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is likely to renounce super PAC money, while Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also claim they won’t accept PAC funds.  The shift away from corporate and PAC money is candidates’ way of showing the American people that they no longer stand by the power dynamics of the corporate-funded politics that have dominated the party system. In a way, this push says to candidates, “either you renounce big money with strings attached and can honestly claim to be running for the people, or you take their money and show your constituents whose interests you actually represent.” Where each candidate will fall regarding this topic will be imperative not only to winning the primaries, but also to being able to regain some of the independents that the Democrats (represented by Hillary Clinton, the establishment’s candidate) lost to Trump in 2016.

As a party, the Democrats should set their sights early on winning over the independent vote that is imperative to their success in 2020. Winning this constituency in the general elections will largely depend on the Democrats’ ability to win back the trust that has been lost due to the link between big money and political influence. Because a lot of this trust relies on the Democrats’ response to outrage regarding the ‘undemocratic’ influence of large corporations and special interests, individual candidates’ actions and choices regarding this topic will determine the fate of the whole party once the primaries are over. It is therefore integral that that the ideological spectrum that characterizes the party right now does not intensely divide it. The party, not just each candidate, will have to choose who they want to be and what they will support. To win lost faith back, Democrats—both the party and the candidates—will have to decide whether they will risk super PAC millions to make the people feel like they have a voice again.

Candidates are appealing to the same sense of forgottenness that Trump addressed in 2016. They are championing the ‘forgotten’ people (like Trump did), and are doing so by asserting their commitment to them over special interest money. Harris, for example, is running on a message to put the people first. She is calling for unity during a time when partisan divisions have left millions of Americans craving it. Warren is running through a similarly emphasized appeal to the people. In what some would call a ‘leftist political appeal,’ she is calling out Trump’s attack on the middle class, promising to be a candidate for the workers of America—an anti-corporate candidate. Calls like these are echoed, in a way, by Booker and Gillibrand, who have also admitted that they oppose corporate cash in politics and are not currently looking for PAC money. Will it be the push against strings-attached money in politics that brings about the change that never came in 2016? Will the party come together behind this?

Although it is difficult to predict what the growing rift within the Democratic Party itself will mean for the upcoming elections, there does seem to be potential in unifying under the banner of ‘for the people.’ Maybe the question will change from, ‘what is the Democrats’ agenda?’ to ‘how will the Democrats implement the people’s agenda?’ The Democrats have a chance to win over the faith of the people, despite the seeming internal ideological factionalism. Will they step up to the challenge?