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Are Democrats Dysfunctional Or Just Disagreeing?

Narrow majorities and an ambitious policy agenda have proven to be a tough combination for Democrats. In the past few weeks, congressional Democrats have been involved in a number of talks among party factions and with the Biden administration over the fate of two major bills: their bipartisan infrastructure bill and their $3.5 trillion spending plan. At this point, too, both progressive and more moderate Democrats have threatened to walk away from the deals — one reason why so many headlines are declaring that Democrats are in disarray. Moreover, regardless of the outcome of these specific bills, it is likely that struggles between moderate and progressive members of the party will continue to be an issue going forward.

But does this mean that the internal fault lines in the Democratic Party are likely to be detrimental to its functioning? Or are we just seeing healthy negotiating in a party that represents a diverse array of constituencies and interests?

On one hand, the resonance of the “Democrats in disarray” trope is due to the media’s interest in covering conflict, and as was true historically, the Democratic Party remains a patchwork party. Coalitions have certainly changed — gone are the days of the uneasy “New Deal Coalition” between civil rights supporters and the movement’s opponents — but Democrats must now balance a multiracial coalition that is multifaceted in what it wants politically.

For instance, the past several election cycles have featured debates between progressive and moderate Democrats over how far to the left the party should go in its stance on raising the minimum wage, creating a universal health care system and addressing climate change. Splits in the Democratic Party are further complicated by the fact that support from voters without a college degree, who tend to be less likely to identify as liberal, is declining, while college-educated voters, who tend to be more liberal, are growing in influence. These ideological divides are also evident by age: Younger voters, who are generally more progressive — especially on issues like climate change — are another important constituency shaping disagreements on economic and cultural issues in the party.

Yet, no matter how uneasy the coalition of progressives and moderates might be at times, Democrats are overall much closer ideologically than they were previously. Additionally, negative partisanship means that no faction in the Democratic Party is likely to defect to the Republican Party or do anything that would help Republicans electorally (like splinter off and form a new political group). Finally, the nationalized nature of our party politics means that all members’ fortunes are increasingly tied to the party brand.

That said, even though there is less ideological diversity in the Democratic Party today — very few Democrats identify as conservative, for instance — the question of just how liberal Democrats are willing to go is still a big one that can cause a lot of problems for the party. As underscored by the recent negotiations over infrastructure and the budget, it’s possible, too, that some of these ideological fights are pretty muddy. In the House, there’s the progressive faction, represented by Rep. Pramila Jayapal; the moderate faction, represented by Rep. Josh Gottheimer and the eight other House moderates who have worked to limit the spending in the bills; and the faction of “mainstream” liberals, who are ready and willing to cut deals, represented by leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Three ideological factions is certainly challenging to manage, but it also makes sense for a party that represents such a wide range of constituencies. Often, compromises can be found to honor different preferences and priorities. On Friday, for instance, President Biden and Pelosi said that voting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill must again be delayed until Democrats are able to make progress on their party’s spending plan. This move was a victory for progressives in that they had threatened to tank the bipartisan bill without being able to also vote on the Democrats’ ambitious budget. Cutting the spending plan’s $3.5 trillion price tag — something moderates in the party have long pushed for — also points to the limits of what progressives will be able to demand in future negotiations. Remember, though, this big-tent party approach to politics isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of governing.

There is a more concerning possibility that Democrats are divided not only on questions of policy but also on an establishment versus anti-establishment dimension. Hints of this appear in the efforts of Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to cultivate political reputations independent from — even in defiance of — their party. Anti-establishment rhetoric has sometimes been a staple of the left, too. Sen. Bernie Sanders liked to use these appeals during his two presidential bids, presenting himself to supporters as a rebuke to the party establishment.

Former FiveThirtyEighter Harry Enten and I wrote about this phenomenon in the Republican Party in 2017, and four years later, it doesn’t seem like it was a positive development for the GOP. That’s because unlike policy, “outsider status” isn’t something that can be easily solved by compromise. As a result, the Republican Party has become less open to dissenting views and a big-tent approach to policy and instead more dominated by a loyalty to former President Donald Trump.

It’s possible a similar fate could befall Democrats. After all, Democrats’ two major bills could still fall apart, suggesting that the party’s differences are a serious hindrance to accomplishing Biden’s agenda. It’s also possible that some Democratic factions distrust the party’s leadership enough to create a permanent fault line around “outsider” status, as the Tea Party movement did for the Republicans. However, the lack of a polarizing internal figure like Trump works in Democrats’ favor, and most congressional Democrats seem to at least want legislative victories, not just take public stances.

So what will determine whether intra-party disagreement proves to be a healthy back-and-forth among Democrats or a dysfunctional rivalry? There are a few things to look for. 

First, the depth of the policy disagreements. So far, it hasn’t seemed like there was much disagreement over the Democrats’ need to pursue both bills — just over the strategy and dollar amount. That said, within the party, you can still see the stirrings of disagreement around whether the country needs some of its basic structures overhauled — including the economy and income inequality, voting rights protections, and questions like admitting new states or restructuring the courts. These issues could become widely held Democratic priorities, or they could expose serious variation in the way different legislators and their voters view American politics. 

The other danger is that the divisions among Democrats start to look like those in the party system at large — that is, more splits rooted in social identities that are increasingly focused on winning rather than on identifying common goals. Put another way, if any faction of the Democratic party becomes more interested in messaging than legislating, it’ll lose incentives to compromise. In fact, the incentives will ultimately go the other way, making it more attractive to take a stand than to pass a bill. 

But the Democratic Party doesn’t seem close to this situation right now. While it may not always seem like it, the different factions in the Democratic Party still represent policy differences — not fault lines. That’s namely because ideological differences still don’t map perfectly onto the party’s different constituencies. Yes, some of the party’s moderates, like Manchin, represent constituencies further from the mainstream of the Democratic Party — places with more white, older voters. But this isn’t true of all moderate Democrats. Rep. Carolyn Bordeaux of Georgia, for instance, represents a majority-minority district that has substantial populations of Black, Latino and Asian residents. And while someone like Jayapal, who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, represents a far more diverse district with a lot of college-educated voters, Rep. Ilhan Omar, who isn’t that different from Jayapal politically, hails from a district with a much lower share of college-educated voters. As a result, ideological differences are not likely to create permanently warring factions in the Democratic Party — at least at this point.

Party divisions are inevitable in big-tent coalitions. Policy disagreements across the ideological spectrum are healthy: It’s arguably the efforts to flatten out these divisions among Republicans that have made the past few years so troubling for the Republican Party and its role in American democracy. The nature of partisan politics has also made it harder for internal factions to splinter from the Democratic Party. Trying to form a third party would tank electoral prospects and all but ensure Republican victories at the federal level. And Republicans are unlikely to go after progressives, regardless of how disgruntled that group might become with the Democratic leadership. This should allow progressives and moderates to form flexible coalitions in the long term, and hold off the biggest threat to party stability — one faction getting angry enough to leave altogether.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”