Analysis: Democrats find their voice in the protests against President Trump

Americans gather at Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., to protest President Trump's travel ban.
(Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images)

The fight over the future of the Democratic Party has been decided in the streets.

The swelling crowds at women’s marches and the chanting airport cadres who protested President Trump’s new immigration plan have pushed the party to the left after years of halting steps in that direction.

The protesters have quickened the outrage metabolism among members of Congress, encouraged disruptive tactics like the boycotts of hearings for Trump’s cabinet nominees and largely ended the debate over whether Democrats should work with Trump on occasion rather than universally oppose him.

Democratic senators took the rare step of filibustering Monday night against Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Their unified opposition and Republican defections ultimately forced Vice President Mike Pence to cast the deciding vote Tuesday for her — the first time that has ever been necessary to confirm a Cabinet nominee.


Another fight blossomed Tuesday night over the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Later in the week, protests moved from airports and congressional offices to town halls as Republican incumbents home from Washington found themselves beset by resistance.

For Democrats, the weeks since Trump’s inauguration have defined the party as more liberal and more activist than it was even months ago. It is a both an ideological and generational upending similar to the one decades ago that gave many sitting party leaders power that they have been reluctant to cede.

While the new unity and intensity has brought energy to the party, it is also a shift that some Democrats fear is too radical for the party as it looks toward 2018 Senate contests in swing states.

Trump has electrified the Democratic progressive base like nothing that has happened in the last 25 years.

— Ace Smith, San Francisco-based Democratic strategist

Howard Dean, the former party chairman, said Democrats must embrace the priorities of the street or risk demise.


“This is their Edmund Pettus Bridge, their Kent State,” he said, referring to sites of civil rights and antiwar struggles that propelled earlier activists into Democratic politics. “A party composed of all of the activists in the ’60s and ’70s — they changed the world, but they can’t figure out how to hand this off to the next generation. The time for that is at hand.”

The risk, however, is that the fiery passions of the protesters might end up consuming Democrats, much as a grass-roots rebellion on the right, which started a decade ago, has caused warfare within the Republican party.

“The radical nature of this government is radicalizing Democrats, and that’s going to pose a real challenge to the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Democrat from Burbank.

“The more radical the administration is, the more radicalized our base becomes … and who knows where that ends.”

Evidence of the potential for difficulty appeared recently on the website of MoveOn, a liberal activist group.

“The public — which voted decisively against Trump — is demanding clear, principled, and total opposition to the Trump administration’s extreme and unprecedented agenda,” wrote Anna Galland and Ilya Sheyman, the group’s executive directors. “We hope Senate Democrats will hear that message  —  and quickly.”


Protesters angry that Democrats were voting for some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees gathered at the homes of several party leaders, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and minority leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.

At a CNN town hall last week, a student identified as Trevor Hill asked a polite but pointed question of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat from San Francisco. Even as Hill praised the party’s leftward moves on social issues, he noted that a poll last spring had found a slim majority of millennials opposed capitalism.

“I wonder if there’s anywhere you feel the Democrats could move farther left to a populist message?” he asked.

“I thank you for your question, but I have to say we’re capitalists,” Pelosi replied. She continued with a longer explanation of the nature of income inequality, but it was her somewhat dismissive opening remark that ricocheted across the Internet.

How far the party goes to satisfy its newly vocal activists is particularly important to Democrats up for reelection in 2018 in states won by Trump, including Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana. Each has a Democratic senator facing a potentially hostile electorate next year.

If the election focuses on national issues and positioning — a safe bet, given Trump’s dominance of American politics — the leftward pull could hurt in those states, risking a Senate with fewer Democrats than the 48-seat minority the party has now.


Party leaders in the past have given red-state Democrats some license to move to the center in order to strengthen their standing at home. But with protesters demanding liberal purity, those officeholders are caught between activists who, if displeased, can hurt a candidate’s support among the party faithful and more moderate voters who are needed to put them over the top.

A similar tension helped cripple Hillary Clinton, as a not-insignificant chunk of Democrats last year found her too centrist and too tied to Wall Street elites to support. Barbara Boxer, the liberal Democrat who retired from the Senate in January, suggested the lowered turnout for Clinton among some groups should be a warning sign for today’s protesters.

“I think the marching is good. I think the activism is great,” she said. But, she added, what “people haven’t seen is that what happens when you demand perfection is that you get a disaster,” she said. “My view is that people should see the price that they have to pay and that the country has to pay if you all demand perfection and marching to a particular ideal.”

To many Democrats, however, the desire for more vocal, passionate and leftward voices trumps that concern. Some of the party’s potential 2020 presidential candidates have rushed to airports to protest the Trump immigration ban and to the stages of the women’s march to rally supporters. Trump’s nomination last week of federal appeals court Judge Neil M. Gorsuch to the open Supreme Court seat was barely official before Democratic emails flaying him appeared in inboxes.

The fervor at the protest rallies contrasts sharply with the reaction to Clinton through much of the 2016 campaign. She tabled blunt passion most of the time in favor of an approach more carefully calibrated to appeal to a wide range of voters, and her support was, in turn, more measured.


“We didn’t have a message in 2016; we had a slogan,” said Ace Smith, the San Francisco-based Democratic strategist. “Politics is never about how people are; it’s about how people feel. The Hillary Clinton campaign was run by a bunch of people executing a paint-by-numbers strategy, and at the end, they didn’t realize you don’t win campaigns with an algorithm, but rather you win with passion and positions.”

Clinton did move incrementally to the left during the presidential contest as she adopted some policies of her challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders. But her long political and financial associations left her suspect among many who had been drawn to Sanders.

One problem for Clinton and other Democrats of her generation and ideology is that the issues important to many Democrats have shifted. She was in line with them on social issues that used to define the party’s ideology, but was playing catch-up on income equity, worry over the high cost of education and distrust of corporations and Wall Street.

Not by coincidence, the biggest roars at Sanders’ events followed his criticism of her ties to Goldman Sachs, the giant financial firm.

Concern about those issues — and a surge in liberal views — had been growing for years, but debate over them was masked under President Obama.

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In 2000, a Pew Research survey found that 27% of Democrats called themselves liberal. By 2015, the percentage of self-described liberals had risen by 15 points. The biggest leap — 8 points — occurred between 2010 and 2015. (At the same time, Republicans have grown more conservative and the once-vibrant center has nearly vanished.)

Since the election, Democrats have tussled over how to rebuild from November’s stunning defeat. The options were to carve a path toward the white working class and suburban residents of middle America or toward the Obama coalition of urban, young and minority voters—or to sharpen a message that appealed to both.

But Trump’s presidency has shunted that debate aside — at least for the moment —in favor of a unified front against the new president.

“Trump has electrified the Democratic progressive base like nothing that has happened in the last 25 years,” said Smith, the San Francisco-based strategist. “As depressing as what he’s doing is, he’s building an army that’s going to fight him.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker



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