The Republican Party in the United States has long had an anti-elite, populist-right faction. But since Donald Trump first won the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, that faction hasn’t just rebranded around his now-iconic campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again”; it’s taken over the party entirely. Despite Trump’s defeat in 2020, he’s easily won the nomination again this year—with no effective challengers to his leadership and no significant dissent from his polarizing style.

Meanwhile, as American politics has seemed more and more polarized as a whole, it’s become a matter of consensus among Republican partisans—and plausible enough to others—that the Democratic Party is now at least as “far-left” as the Republican Party is “far-right.” After all, from the early days of the anti-Trump “Resistance,” Senator Bernie Sanders, a key figure of the Democrats’ old left, became more popular than ever; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a generation of young leaders from its new left became more prominent than most American politicians; and progressives started driving the Democratic agenda on a range of high-profile issues from immigration to sex and gender.

Yet Biden himself is hardly an avatar of the progressive left. In fact, very few senior Democratic leaders have anything to do with the progressive left at all. And the platforms critics on the right most associate with it—from defunding police to distributing monetary compensation for slavery and its long aftereffects—struggle for traction within the party almost as much as they do among Americans generally. So if progressives don’t really dominate their party, who, if anyone, does?

David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of Political Science at Boston College. As Hopkins explains, the Democratic Party is constitutionally unlike its counterpart: While Trump has reshaped the Republican Party, its politics remains a fusion of conservative social ideas and pro-business economics. The Democrats, by contrast, are a broad coalition of rivaling groups. Those who supported the neoliberal Hillary Clinton for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016, for example, had very little in common ideologically with those who supported the socialist Bernie Sanders. Which means the party’s leadership always ends up having to balance these kinds of factions against each other—and small groups can wield more power than mere numbers might suggest they would.

Still, Hopkins says, the Democratic coalition is changing. It’s becoming more ideologically uniform; its voters’ ongoing reaction to Trump is accelerating this change. And the whole dynamic is altering the American political landscape …

Gustav Jönsson: How would you describe the influence of the progressive left when it comes to shaping the politics and policy priorities of the Democratic Party today?

Christopher Burns

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