Democrats at sea as confidence falters during challenging week

America Letter: Surprise at Joe Crowley’s defeat signals Democrat distance from voters

It’s been a difficult week for Democrats. The party began the week on the political high ground, as it continued to bask in the fallout from the Republicans’ disastrous policy of family separation at the border. But by mid-week a confluence of events had put the Democrats on the backfoot, severely shaking the party’s confidence as it heads into mid-term election season.

By Monday, the controversy over press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders's ejection from a Virginia restaurant had escalated. Video footage emerged of Californian congresswoman Maxine Waters, a Democrat, urging a crowd to confront Trump administration officials.

Claiming "God is on our side", she urged people to "push back" and "create a crowd" if they saw anyone from the Trump administration in a public place. Her comments sparked uproar from Republicans and existential soul-searching from people on the left, who pondered the question of civility in modern politics and whether the best way to respond to Donald Trump's vitriol was to fight back or to channel their inner Michelle Obama – "when they go low, we go high".

Worse was to come on Tuesday. In one of the biggest political upsets of recent times, Democratic stalwart Joe Crowley was defeated by a first-time political candidate in a primary election in New York. Crowley, a prominent Irish-American on Capitol Hill, is the quintessential Democratic insider – the fourth most senior Democrat in Congress, and touted as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi.


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (28), a Bernie Sanders volunteer, swept to victory. Virtually no one in the Democratic leadership saw it coming, despite a New York Times editorial warning Crowley about taking his voters for granted after he sent a replacement to face his challenger in a debate.

State of chaos

As Trump reacted with glee to Crowley’s demise, the New Yorker congressman’s defeat suggested a Democratic party in chaos.

While Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was a powerful, positive sign of the emergence of a new generation of intelligent, energised citizens, the unexpected nature of her victory suggested that the Democratic establishment had become removed from its voters.

Though analysts correctly cautioned against extrapolating too much from the New York primary – more centrist Democrats have won primaries in other parts of the country – the Crowley defeat reawakened nightmares of the Clinton-Sanders divides of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Yet again, the Democratic establishment misread the energy on the left of the party. And yet again they faced an ideological conundrum – a left-wing candidate may have the support of many Democrats, but they are unlikely to win over any swing voters or discontented Republicans in a national presidential election.

As Democrats mulled the question of their future direction, the supreme court reared its head in several unexpected ways as it closed out the final days of its current term. Its five-to-four ruling in favour of Trump’s travel ban on Tuesday was a blow to moderates. An opinion the next day ruled against public unions extracting fees from workers who choose not to join the union

But it was the announcement of Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement on Wednesday that could have the most serious implications for progressive politics in the United States.

His retirement gives Trump an opportunity to appoint the second supreme court justice of his presidency.

Judicial ideology

While Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed last year, directly replaced a conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, Kennedy's replacement is likely to shift the ideological bent of the court to the right, given that the retiring justice took a liberal stance on some issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

With Democrats holding a minority in the Senate, it seems there is little they can do to halt the appointment of Trump's nominee. Ironically, Democrats may be haunted by the fact they changed the senate rules in 2013 to effectively allow presidential nominees to advance with a simple majority of 51, a rule that was tweaked by Republicans last year to include supreme court justices. "I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you'll regret this," Mitch McConnell intoned in 2013. As he prepares to confirm the second supreme court judge in two years, his words prove prescient.

With a poll this week showing Donald Trump’s popularity among his base at 90 per cent, Democrats are nervous. The record number of candidates running in November – particularly women and minorities – has sparked talk of a blue wave in the midterms. There is no doubt that Trump’s election has sparked a wave of political activism and energy. For Democrats, the real question is how to channel that energy effectively.