That’s all I could think as I watched the three-day spectacle that was the 2020 Democratic National Convention. And I didn’t just mean that the pandemic that had forced the convention, along with everything else in American life, to more virtual landscapes. I meant it was never supposed to be like this––a Democratic party desperately trying to unify against a Republican incumbent whose campaign, and subsequent victory may not have even seemed possible just five years ago. This is not a new observation, by any means. But it’s one that is critical to understanding the dilemma the Democratic Party faces in today’s fractured political sphere.
The theme of the Convention this year was that the Democratic Party is a ‘big tent’ party––that is, a party that appeals to a large range of viewpoints. This isn’t new rhetoric––historically, both Democrats and Republicans have both liked to talk about building a ‘big tent’ party. But this the election cycle that it perhaps holds true––hyper-polarization, along with Republicans’ continued support of Donald Trump has moved the Republican party further to the right, narrowing its appeal. And while polarization is by no means a strictly Republican phenomenon, it has become clear that the Democratic Party holds the last vestiges of the moderate wing of American politics. In branding the Democratic Party a ‘big tent’ party, Democratic leaders have recognized this shift.
But the fact remains––it was never supposed to be like this. The Democrats (or even the Republicans for that matter) were never supposed to represent such a wide variety of platforms. The ‘big tent’ rhetoric is a direct response to the failure of our stringent two-party system. It is the only thing that can explain away AOC and John Kasich speaking at the same convention. This approach, borne out of desperation to salvage what remains of American politics, is ultimately one that may tear the Democratic Party apart. The Democrats’ ‘big tent’ is being pulled in two different directions. Some see the Democratic party as the last safe haven for moderate politics from the firestorm of polarization that is the Trump platform––which is why John Kasich and other anti-Trump Republicans spoke alongside Hillary Clinton and other centrist Democrats. Others, mostly younger voters who identify more with the progressive wing of the party, expect Democrats to do more––to reckon with the events over the summer, to push for reform that has been denied for decades. Both are noble and essential goals––and this is the Democratic dilemma. How will Democrats reconcile these two opposing wings of the party?
In an ideal world, the answer would be that they wouldn’t. If we were to free ourselves from the confines of the two-party system, the Democrats would only comprise of center-left voters. The progressives have their own platform, completely independent of the Democrats. AOC even hinted at this in a recent interview. But more importantly, in order to get anything done in such a system, coalition-building would be a necessity, and may even work to heal the polarization divide. But of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and all wings of the Democratic party are desperately trying to maintain a sense of unity until November. Only time will tell if their carefully-constructed tent will hold out long enough.