Can the Democratic Party Heal Its Divisions?

Allies of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders attempt to find common ground as the primary race drags on. 

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Democratic establishment wants peace. Hillary Clinton has made that clear, calling for voters to rally around her so she can defeat Donald Trump. Even staunch defenders of Bernie Sanders seem to have had enough of discord. “What we hope and what we all want is a unified party,” Raul Grijalva, one of the rare members of Congress to endorse the Vermont senator, said on Wednesday inside the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

Democrats had gathered at the luxury hotel in an attempt to find common ground. It was the first step in putting together the 2016 Democratic Party platform, a blueprint intended to reflect the values and ambition of the party for the years ahead. Over the course of several hours, individuals appointed by Clinton, Sanders and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, heard testimony on immigration and criminal-justice reform, gun safety, the importance of countering Islamophobia, and the pressing need to deal with poverty.

For a party in the midst of a presidential primary election, the affair was surprisingly civil. “I think he’s being polite,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said at one point in response to a question from Cornel West, a Sanders supporter and critic of the Obama administration who once called the president  “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” There were no bursts of outrage, no yelling, no death threats.

The split between Sanders and Clinton threatens to obscure the mutual understanding between supporters of the rival candidates. The public forum convened on Wednesday for the party platform served as a reminder that many on the political left agree on the problems, even if they disagree about precisely what should be done in response.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t deep cracks and fissures within the party—just that the divisions facing Democrats can’t neatly be summed up by allegiances to the presidential candidates. Some Clinton supporters, for example, are just as disturbed by the idea that special interests have infiltrated the Democratic Party as the most ardent Sanders voter. “The Clinton supporters I know are ... all are very concerned that the party has lent its brand to the lobbying and commercial interests of the country, and have pandered to their beliefs, and their money,” said Stan Merriman, a 79-year-old resident of Wilmington, Delaware, who showed up to the event wearing a button with the Clinton campaign logo encircled by a heart.

Merriman and his 65-year-old wife, Julie Jackson, are concerned that the Democratic Party has grown corrupt and overly dependent on special-interest money, but they support Clinton, not Sanders. They see her as more experienced and capable. Beyond that, they stand with Clinton for the simple reason that they are loyal Democrats. “The party is no more perfect than the people that make it up. You forgive people and you do that with the party, too,” Jackson said, adding: “It’s like the old saying: ‘They might be a son of a bitch, but they’re our son of a bitch.’”

For other voters, loyalty is not a given. Some progressive activists warn that trust must be earned and emphasize that the burden of creating unity falls to the party. “When young people have a hard time distinguishing between their adversaries and their allies, that’s going to be an issue and the DNC needs to figure that out quickly,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, the policy director for the nonprofit Environmental Action who showed up outside the hotel to call for a fracking ban in the party platform.

The platform is an imperfect mechanism for change since it is non-binding. Still, it will still act as a statement of priority, and offers an opportunity for party leaders to show disaffected voters that their concerns are taken seriously. “This is supposed to be the overall idea of the Democratic Party, a document that says this is where are are,” said Tara Houska, the national campaigns director of the Native American environmental organization Honor the Earth. “It’s something that says this is what we want.”

The Democratic race has entered a sort of zombie stage. The contest is lurching forward, but party power brokers are signaling that the primary is effectively dead. Sanders defiantly remains in the race, but Clinton has already declared. There are some indications that a negotiation of the terms of surrender is underway. Sanders is slated to meet with President Obama on Thursday. Conversations are reportedly taking place between top officials from each campaign.

Yet while Democrats may be eager to win over Sanders supporters, they won’t want to alienate moderates voters they will need to win the general election. Trying to strike that balance inevitably creates tension. At one point during the forum, Lucy McBath, the mother of slain teenager Jordan Davis, insisted that “we know how to protect the rights of responsible gun owners while keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, violent criminals and people with severe mental illness.”Later on, however, platform committee member Bonnie Schaefer  flatly stated she doesn’t think “anyone should have a gun.” The exchange underscored the challenge facing Democrats as the party sets its agenda, and decides how to frame it.

Of course, it will be impossible to please everyone. But the risk for Sanders and Clinton supporters alike is that once party leaders believe unity has been achieved, at least superficially, they may stop paying attention to dissenting voices. Democrats are likely to come together in the face of a common enemy during the general election. Yet even if the party appears to knit itself back together, that alone will not necessarily signal that the fears and concerns of voters will have been adequately, or in any substantial way, addressed.