There are some howls of dismay against the candidacy of Keith Ellison for the DNC chair, from the left and the right alike. I thinks these are driven by a fundamental misread of the realignment (partial so far, but potentially huge if it continues) shown in the 2016 election.
The coalitions in 2016, on the whole, is not dramatically different from that of 2012: the “left” and the “right,” for the most part, are divided along the socio-cultural lines. Most of the voters who voted for Hillary Clinton are the same people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and most of the voters who chose Donald Trump are the same people who voted for Mitt Romney. Two significant changes that have taken place are that many working class folks, mostly in the North, have chosen Trump either by explicit action or inaction, while many wealthy folks, especially in the South, have chosen Hillary Clinton. The choice for the Democrats (and Republicans too) is simple: do you try to fight the realignment, by competing for the working class voters or do you go with the flow by competing for the wealthy cosmopolitans.
Here’s an interesting twist, whichever path one were to choose: being “moderate” is irrelevant for either of these fights. Spatial notion of politics, quite frankly, is wrong. Socio-cultural dimensions are drawn such that either you are of the left, or the right, with nothing in between. Economic dimensions are somewhat more fungible, but also increasingly binary–you are either for the working people or for the wealthy. It was in recognition of this reality that Trump built his winning strategy: moderating on the socio-cultural lines (which, in his case, was trying to look more “multicultural” by walking back his incendiary “racist” comments.) would have given him nothing while subverting his credibility with the socio-cultural right, while making a push on the economic dimension won him over the voters who cared about the economy, but not a great deal about socio-cultural matters. The same lesson applies to the Democrats: going hard left on the socio-cultural dimension is NOT a big deal. It does not matter if you are Keith Ellison or Joe Manchin. You are, in the end, a Democrat. You belong to the party of multiculturalism. If people are voting primarily on the matters of sociocultural concerns, they will vote against you. But many people don’t care about culture that much. They will vote economy, especially in the great expanse of the Midwest. If the Democrats can deliver on the economy, even if that means cooperating with President Trump, they can at least remain competitive with these voters, while maintaining a hard left rhetorical allows them to maintain credibility with the left.
The analogue might be to the triangulating campaign of Newt Gingrich. After being chastised from overreaching–which led to the government shutdown when he badly underestimated the resolve, and it turns out, the institutional bargaining leverage, of Bill Clinton–Gingrich became a champion of compromise when it came to actual policymaking. It was not just that Clinton was successfully triangulating, but that he had a willing partner leading the Republicans in Congress. However, Gingrich remained enough of a rhetorical firebrand that he retained enough credibility with the hard right–that is, unless they were in Congress during his Speakership, in which case they knew exactly what he was doing, which is why Republicans ousted him as their leader and replaced him as their de facto leader with a real, uncompromising firebrand, Tom DeLay–even if DeLay never officially took over the Speakership. The irony, of course, is that the left wing of the Democratic Party, under the right conditions, appears far more willing to cooperate with the Trump White House (and has far more to gain from it), while the alleged moderates do not. The divided nature of the Republican Party, even if they might nominally control Congress, makes the willingness of the left Democrats to cooperate meaningful and provides them a significant leverage, both against their intraparty rivals, in terms of expanding their power base among the working class of all creeds and ethnicities, and vis-a-vis the administration, who will need to find votes in Congress, and for which, they will need to deliver concessions. This will make for some interesting politics.