Who will be the ‘bridge’ for the Democrats?

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The ideological rifts within the Democratic Party are widening, not shrinking. House progressives have revolted against Speaker Nancy Pelosi — 24 of them are openly calling for her ouster next congressional year — and the much-anticipated “blue wave” in 2018 is sure to usher in progressive candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are ready and willing to shake up the Democratic leadership in Congress.

If Democrats achieve a House majority in 2019, they will have to figure out how to govern a divided caucus and pass legislation that pleases both moderates and progressives.

{mosads}The best solution to this problem would be for a current leader, ideally a moderate figure such as Pelosi, to reach out to incoming members of Congress — ones fresh from the campaign trail and emboldened by ambitious ideas of Medicare for all and free tuition at public universities — to build unity and heal the wounds that linger since the 2016 Democratic primary.


The last time a Democratic leader reached out to prominent, young liberal in such a way, it yielded the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1954, Democrat Lyndon Johnson from Texas assumed the position of Senate majority leader and needed support from liberals in Congress — or, at the very least, needed liberals not to distrust the southerner, who, up to that point in history, had an abysmal record on civil rights.

Johnson turned to Hubert Humphrey, the junior Democratic senator from Minnesota, dedicated liberal, and civil rights advocate. Humphrey came into the Senate in 1949 pushing for end to Jim Crow segregation at a time when the Democratic Party was controlled by southern racists. He got nowhere. Every piece of civil rights legislation Humphrey proposed ran into a southern wall.

But Johnson saw Humphrey had political talent, and the two cemented a fraught, complicated, but ultimately productive partnership. Johnson appeased the southerners, while Humphrey convinced liberals that Johnson was not an ardent segregationist. Humphrey, like many liberals, was not always pleased with the results that came from their alliance — particularly in 1957, when the Civil Rights Act of that year was watered down by the southerners — but accepted that without Johnson’s knowledge of the Senate, and his power, he would just be another liberal “bomb-thrower.”

The two men then worked together to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Humphrey devised strategies to neutralize the southern intransigence toward the bill, while Johnson cajoled reluctant members of the GOP to support it. This was politics at its finest: when strange bedfellows operated in support of legislation, albeit imperfect. (The Civil Rights Act did not address racial barriers to voting.)

These successes did not come without a struggle. As with Johnson and Humphrey, any gesture of compromise today between the left and moderate wings of the Democratic Party — whether initiated by Pelosi or not — will be met by dissension. Pelosi will be labeled a “radical” by the right, and on the left, an opportunist aiming to dampen the popularity of socialist ideas; Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters will call her a “sellout.” But if the results bring Americans closer to affordable (if not universal) health care, a more humane immigration policy, better jobs that pay a liveable wage, and the protection of civil and human rights, the criticism by liberals will, over time, be muted.

So far, Pelosi has not taken this route. She has been unwilling to take risks on progressive legislation, and is resigned, if not antagonistic, toward the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and the left wing of the Party. “We have an array of genders, generations, geography … in our caucus and we’re very proud of that,” Pelosi said as a counter to Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity, but she has yet to embrace the conflicts that go along with that diversity in a way that is beneficial to the party. Pelosi has viewed Ocasio-Cortez as an enemy, rather than an ally.

This is a mistake. While the Senate of the 1950s is not the House of 2018, the leadership dynamics still apply. Building a coalition has been, and always will be, complicated. But recognizing common interests is an essential part of it, even when political differences within the party appear seismic.

This is true for both wings of the Democratic Party. Pelosi’s problems signal Democratic moderates must accept that the new progressives are here and they are not going anywhere — indeed, they are likely coming to Congress in 2019. But new members of Congress are going to discover what established Democrats know: governing is hard, and it requires allies. Progressives cannot rely upon themselves alone; moderates, or centrists, still control the reins of the party. This, too, is a reality.

This has been an endemic issue for the Democrats, at least since the 1950s. Recent attempts to achieve bipartisanship on legislation have not worked for the Democrats — there are too few like-minded Republicans in Congress. Rather than looking across the aisle for votes, Democrats need to find leaders receptive to building bridges within their party. It is the only way for the party to achieve success in a polarized age.

Michael Brenes is senior archivist at Yale University overseeing manuscripts and archives, and a historian specializing in the political and international history of the Cold War. Before coming to Yale, he taught American and international history at Hunter College, City University of New York and Seton Hall University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Price of Loyalty: Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and the Struggle for American Liberalism.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Democratic Party Factions in the Democratic Party Hubert Humphrey Liberalism in the United States Lyndon B. Johnson Nancy Pelosi

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