Rise of the Progressives

Not for the first time, the Democrat party appears to be splintering along factional lines. It has a long history of this actually.

In 1860, anti-slavery Northern Democrats and pro-slavery Southern Democrats split at their convention and each nominated a candidate for President with the Southerners favoring John Breckenridge and the Northerns backing Stephen Douglas both running on a “split ticket.” The now-dissolved Whig and Know-Nothing parties formed the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee. Meanwhile, over at the newly formed Republican Party Abraham Lincoln won the nomination in a brokered convention on the 3rd ballot. Lincoln went on to win the election with a plurality of the popular vote (40 percent) but a majority of the Electoral College. Of course, the result of this election was the Civil War begun by Southern Democrats who attempted to secede from the Union in protest of Lincoln’s victory.

It happened again in the 1880s, when the Jacksonian, small government Democratic party was pulled apart by its Progressive Wing, led by William Jennings Bryan, who believed in a greatly expanded role for the Federal government for social justice and resistance to the emerging political influence of large corporations. Bryan was nominated three times by the Democrats, losing twice to McKinley and once to Taft. Progressive Democrats did not win a presidential race until Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

Young “hippie” standing in front of a row of National Guard soldiers, across the street from the Hilton Hotel at Grant Park, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, August 26, 1968. Source, Wikipedia Commons

Chaos in Chicago

In 1968, the Vietnam conflict had the country badly divided. Then-President and Democrat Lyndon Johnson had badly slipped in the polls and in failing health (he’d had a heart attack in 1955) decided not to seek a second term. The Democratic party fractured in four main factions all vying for control of the party and having their candidate as Johnson’s replacement on the ticket.

One faction consisted of labor union bosses and State party machine politicians represented by Mayor Daly of Chicago. A second faction represented blacks and other minorities, Catholics and non-interventionalists. A third faction represented segregationist Southern Democrats. The fourth faction was comprised of college students, college professors, and elite upper-middle-class whites who had embraced Marxism and believed that they were the future of the party.

This Marxist faction and the Establishment Party faction led by Daly would come into violent conflict at the Chicago convention. Anti-war protestors for the Marxist faction rioted outside the convention center and Mayor Daly responded with a massive police presence with dogs, firehoses and tear gas. Hundreds of injuries and arrests were reported and it was all broadcasted on TV.  The taint of this violence stuck with Chicago for nearly 30 years with neither party holding a party convention in that city until the Democrats returned in there in 1996 to nominate Bill Clinton.

The spectacle in Chicago has been blamed for the party nominee, Hubert Humphrey ultimately being defeated, but he was not helped any by the fact that factionalism resulted in the Southern Democrats splitting off again, forming a new party called the American Independent Party and nominating segregationist Governor George Wallace, who took 13 percent of the popular vote. In the election, neither Nixon nor Humphrey won the majority of the popular vote with Wallace in the race but Nixon won a clear 301 Electoral votes.

What is shaping up now for the Democrats as they march towards their party convention in Milwaukee this July is another bitterly contested convention between party factions.

The New Left Factions

I see three major factions right now.

  1. The Establishment Progressives who embrace Crony-Capitalism and are represented by candidates like Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg.
  2. The New Progressives, which seek to replace the Establishment and be its new leaders, represented by candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Liz Warren.
  3. Neo-Marxist Progressives, which are hostile to capitalism, the Constitution and pretty much everything in American society as it is. They are political revolutionaries calling for a total rework of the country’s political and economic system. This faction is represented by Bernie Sanders who is a holdover from the Marxist faction of 1968.

The most militant and committed of them seem to be the Neo-Marxists and the Establishment and New Progressives will probably ally against them in the coming months. Within the Democratic Party apparatus, there are already signs of that happening with pending rule changes on how delegates vote at the convention. To tell which way the establishment of the Democratic Party is leaning one needs only to look at how it handles its Super Delegates who are the real deciders in that party’s nomination process.

Bernie Sanders Supporters in Iowa
Source, Wikipedia commons

Super Delegates Hold the Real Nominating Power in the Party

Super Delegates are Establishment Party insiders who are not pledged to vote with state delegates at all. They represent more than 16 percent of the total delegates and are themselves a voting block at the convention. In 2016, the Democratic Establishment faction changed the rules in the Nevada runoff and denied credentials to some 60 Sanders delegates, denying him that state and its pledged delegates in a narrow win for Clinton. Many of these Super Delegates voiced support for Hillary in advance of the convention as well. Sanders ended up at the convention with 46 percent of the pledged state delegates with Hillary at 54 percent, holding a clear majority but then the Super Delegates entered the fray. Rather than split along the same 46-54 line as the pledged delegates, a whopping 71 percent voted for Hillary and just 6 percent voted for Sanders.

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This year the Democratic candidates, and there could be three or four of them, may arrive in Milwaukee without anyone having the clear majority needed to win the nomination on the first ballot. The Democratic Party changed its Super Delegate rule for 2020 to exclude them from voting on the first ballot unless the first ballot shows a clear winner by a majority. In the brokered convention, which the Democrats are obviously anticipating, the Super Delegates of the Establishment will then come into play and vote as a block to pick the party nominee. And that is not likely to be Sanders.

Being denied the nomination twice by internal party machinations will not sit well with the militant Neo-Marxists supporting Sanders and we may see a repeat of the violence of 1968 all over again, with the same result: a Democrat Party nominee whose campaign is crippled by convention violence, and the Neo-Marxists staying home on election day in protest.

While a second term for Trump is by no means assured, historically presidents showing good economic growth, and stability overseas generally win a second term. A fractured Democratic party along deep ideological divisions will help Trump immensely in that effort. Democrats could help themselves if they knew more about the history of their own party, so they don’t repeat it.