Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, August 8, 2016
Today's Democrats finding their place in the party
Bucks Democratic Chair John Cordisco
Michele Spinelli has been a registered Democrat since she could vote.
Lately, though, the 49-year-old recently unemployed Bensalem resident and single mom has trouble connecting with her political party.
“I always thought a Democrat was for the lower and middle class — do what is right for them. But I don’t feel that anymore,” she said. “I don’t understand the issues anymore because I don’t hear them.”
Betty Rodriguez, 56, a longtime Democratic Bristol councilwoman, and the only Latino on the board, wants her party to do more to elevate strong minority members into leadership roles.
“Sometimes, I am disappointed because I only see politicians looking for minorities, I hate to say it, when there is an election,” said Rodriguez, a supporter of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “I see myself encouraging and instilling in people that we can get what we want, but we have to go out and work for it. You can’t sit home and say, 'I want.' You have to come out and vote.”
In one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern U.S. history, some Democrats say they increasingly feel left behind. Some see the Clinton-Sanders divide as insurmountable, while others say the rift is a temporary situation and not a sign of an ideological divide within the party.
“The Sanders movement definitely showed a desire by many for a more progressive agenda, but obviously not enough people supported that for him to win,” said Jackson Schlesinger, a Moorestown, New Jersey, resident and registered Democrat. “I would certainly like to see the party trend a little more toward the left on certain issues, but considering the gulf between the two parties currently, it's really no question that my values and principles are more in line with the Democrats.”
Schlesinger, a 21-year-old University of Vermont senior studying international relations, said he plans to cast his first-ever presidential ballot for the same person he voted for in the primary: Hillary Clinton. But it’s a decision grounded more in fear than full confidence in the former New York senator and U.S. Secretary of State.
“Donald Trump absolutely terrifies me,” Schlesinger said. “I get the sense with Hillary nothing will happen, which I don’t think is a bad thing. It would be another four years of moderate (politics), probably to the right of Obama. I think we would be safe and the economy would probably function normally.”
RIGHT, LEFT OR CENTER
Lower Makefield resident Paul Roden, a soon-to-be retired training manager who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said he doesn’t believe Democratic leadership is addressing the issues he cares about, such as a single-payer health care system and a ban on fracking. He described high-ranking Democratic leaders as DINOs — Democrats in Name Only — and cited what he called their focus on more moderate, centrist political stances and candidates.
“The leadership is not in touch with the rank and file,” Roden added. “They’re light years apart, I hate to say.”
Still, Roden accepts that compromise is part of politics. So he plans to support Clinton's candidacy while continuing to push for the party to adopt more of Sanders' political agenda.
While Democrats like Roden believe their party is losing its liberal edge, political scientists say the recently unveiled 2016 platform is the most liberal in recent memory. The document includes policies Sanders pushed in his primary campaign, such as opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial trade agreement between the U.S. and Pacific Rim nations, a “reasoned pathway” to legalization of marijuana, an end to the death penalty, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and an aggressive climate plan.
The latest platform is further left than the plan Democrats offered 26 years ago, when former President Bill Clinton ran for his first term. That platform was criticized as a move away from “old-style liberalism rooted in the political orthodoxy of the New Deal and labor unions," according to a story in The New York Times. Among its positions: a capital gains tax cut for people who make long-term investments in new technology, a restoration of “family values,” including a greater emphasis on “work, family and individual responsibility,” and a rejection of the assumption that government can provide a solution to every social problem, according to The New York Times.
Mark Hines, 59, a Moorestown Democratic Committee member, acknowledged Hillary Clinton is more of a moderate than President Barack Obama on issues involving the economy and foreign policy, but she is "substantially" more liberal than the Republicans.
“The Republicans have had a very significant swing to the hard right in the past eight years, where the party is literally unrecognizable to many moderate New Jersey Republicans, and increasingly out of touch of real concerns of the average voters," Hines said. "The Democrats have been much more consistent with much more subtle shifts left and right."
Lingering tension between the Sanders and Clinton camps is reminiscent of the rivalry between Clinton and Obama supporters during the 2008 presidential primary, Democrats and political scientists pointed out. At one point after that race, polls showed 51 percent of Clinton supporters vowed they would not vote for Obama in the general election, leading some to question if the party would be able to unite for the general election.
ON COMMON GROUND
Gerald Pomper, a Rutgers University professor emeritus who specializes in American politics and elections, sees the Clinton and Sanders divide as a reflection of the party’s move toward a more consistently liberal ideology over the last 20 years. He said that has created more discord with moderate party members. Such internal rifts are surmountable, he said, pointing to recent voter polls showing less dissatisfaction with primary outcomes among Sanders supporters than was the case among Clinton supporters in 2008.
On a smaller scale, the Sanders/Clinton discord illustrates what Pomper and others see as the overall growing polarization among American voters.
Polls and studies show more Americans identify exclusively as Republican or Democratic and show greater intolerance for opposing party views. It’s a trend clearly seen in the last U.S. presidential election, Pomper said, when 90 percent of voters who identified themselves as Democrats voted for Obama and 88 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Mitt Romney. The American National Election Study found that ticket splitting — where voters pick candidates from both parties — in presidential elections dropped to a record low in the 2012.
“Nearly everyone recognizes the common interests and goals of the Sanders and Clinton supporters and how they differ so very much from what the current manifestation of the Republican Party offers,” Moorestown's Hines said. “Bluntly, nearly all Democrats are fully appalled as (to) how the Republican Party has metamorphosed into a party of hate and unrestrained anger.”
Hines added that he already sees Democratic leaders making a greater effort to be more inclusive and he has seen “substantial” cooperation between Sanders and Clinton supporters since last month’s primary election, where Clinton secured 79 percent of New Jersey’s 126 Democratic National Convention delegates.
In Bucks County, Democratic Party Chairman John Cordisco said he's seeing more unity among Democrats than he has seen in previous presidential elections. At the opening of the Democratic Coordinated Campaign Office in Doylestown two weeks ago, 150 people showed up to volunteer, many of them new faces, Cordisco said.
Cordisco, a Clinton delegate, believes Sanders' popularity, especially among young people, lies in his message.
“If you took the message away from Bernie Sanders, I don’t think he would have enjoyed the type of support that he received,” he said. “Young people are concerned about their future, their tomorrow, not the person who is leading it.”
Det Ansinn, the Democratic president of the Doylestown Council, believes many younger voters dislike Clinton because they know her as part of Washington's status-quo oriented establishment, which many blame for a lack of systemic change. They aren't aware of the progressive policies and programs that Clinton fought for during her husband’s two presidential terms, including the first major push for national health care reform, he said.
“They didn’t see the kind of fights the Clintons had, the struggles they went through. How boldly she pushed Hillarycare,” Ansinn said. “They didn’t see any of that. The memories they have are of the Hillary who sent our folks off to war.”
Michael Berkman, director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, an interdisciplinary research center at Penn State University, said the differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as politicians is generally superficial.
“I’m not convinced its ideological, as much as it is stylistic and a sense of authenticity and being part of the old, rather than the new,” said Berkman, a Penn State University political science professor.