Dissecting the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is more nuanced than a simple moderate versus progressive dichotomy

Pinning down the categories that make up the Democratic Party can help analysts and voters better understand the nuances that differentiate elected officials. Image Credit: Mark Makela/Getty Images

It’s kind of amazing that America, a country of 330 million, effectively has just two political parties. There are plenty of structural and historical reasons for this diarchy, but it’s still rather absurd to think that a person’s entire array of political beliefs can be slotted into one of two categories: Democratic or Republican. In a raucous and divided country like America, there is far too much diversity of thought for a single descriptor to tell us all that much about a person’s set of beliefs.

Even when we get a bit more granular and try to describe the types of Democrats and Republicans, we usually stay pretty superficial. These days, Democrats are classified either as progressive or moderate, and Republicans are either MAGA or anti-MAGA. But these slightly more specific categories also fall short: Simply slapping a single label ahead of someone’s party—“moderate Democrat” or “MAGA Republican,” for example—does not give the diversity within the parties the appropriate consideration.

To really understand the different wings within the Democratic and Republican parties requires a more nuanced taxonomy—one that is specific enough to identify the discrete wings of the parties, and yet not so unwieldy that it becomes totally useless. This kind of classification is important both for analysts and voters: It helps analysts understand the power dynamics within the parties, while it helps voters understand with more nuance the kinds of candidates they are supporting with their votes, money and time.

This is one attempt at a taxonomy for the Democratic Party, which sorts the party’s elected officials into five camps.

#1: The Progressive Populist Influencers

A progressive influencer. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among a group of Democrats with outsized influence on political discourse. Image Credit: Dimitri Rodriguez/Wikimedia Commons

We can start with the progressive populist influencers—think about Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush. This is the group that can be relied on to stake out the most progressive position on any issue. They are often critical of the Democratic Party, and they see themselves as outside agitators trying to drag the party leftward. They are responsible for the party’s most ostentatious stunts and ambitious ideas, like Abolish ICE and the Green New Deal.

Rather than focus on the grunt work of legislating, this cohort seems more interested in driving media attention to their causes and raising their own personal profiles. They are performative, active on social media and are some of the most recognizable figures in American politics. Although only a very small number of Democrats actually fall into this category, their impact in political discourse is greater than their numbers might suggest, which is why three of the four politicians above (Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib) are all more famous than the current leader of House Democrats, Hakeem Jeffries.

#2: The Progressive Populist Workhorses

Similar to the former group, the populist workhorses typically support the party’s most progressive and populist ideas. Compared to the influencers, however, the workhorses are typically more focused on the substantive work of legislating.

Because they are interested in getting real work done, the workhorses are more friendly toward the party establishment, and therefore are typically able to achieve positions of greater influence within the party than the influencers. Similarly, because they place a higher value on advancing real legislation, the workhorses are typically more open to compromise, even if it requires ideological tradeoffs.

In this group are figures like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Katie Porter, all of whom are progressive but willing to work within the congressional machine and do the unglamorous work of legislating.

#3: The Progressive Weather Vanes

Weather vanes. Both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris tend to follow Democratic opinion rather than lead it. Image Credit: The White House/Wikimedia Commons

This group of legislators, which tends to follow Democratic opinion rather than lead it, is perhaps the largest cohort within the Democratic Party. At the moment, these legislators tend to be progressive, since that’s where the base of the party is at. But if the winds changed and it seemed politically advantageous to adjust their ideology, they would likely find it within themselves to adapt accordingly. You can find politicians like President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senator Chuck Schumer, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Governor Gavin Newsom and Stacey Abrams in this category.

Given their ability to conform to popular opinion, many of these politicians have been able to climb the rungs of power within the party. Unlike the members of the former two groups, the progressive weather vanes rarely criticize the Democratic Party too harshly, for fear that doing so could hurt their good standing. After years or decades of playing it safe, many of these figures are some of the most recognizable and powerful people in politics.

#4: The Suburban Moderates

Perhaps the most important electoral shift ushered in by Donald Trump was the realignment of educated suburban voters away from the GOP and toward the Democratic Party. This trend started in 2016, but really took off in 2018 when suburban voters swung hard toward Democrats. That shift delivered the party a collection of victories in suburban districts, won by candidates who campaigned as commonsense moderates with the fortitude to resist extremism on both sides of the aisle.

Today, there is a collection of suburban moderate politicians who represent a discrete force within the party. They typically appeal to educated voters who dislike Donald Trump and are concerned with the radicalization of the Republican Party. And rather than focusing on the more divisive and progressive ideas, this cohort is more concerned with core Democratic issues that have some bipartisan appeal like healthcare, abortion rights, gun control and protecting Social Security. In this camp are Democrats like Representatives Abigail Spanberger, Elissa Slotkin and Lucy McBath.

#5: The Rural Moderates

Rural moderate. Sen. Jon Tester is among a shrinking group of Democrats encouraging the party to take socially and economically moderate policy positions. Image Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

As late as 1996, the Democratic Party was popular among rural voters, many of whom considered the party’s economic agenda as more aligned with working-class interests than that of the business-friendly GOP. But starting in 2000, as Democrats began to appeal more to educated voters with socially progressive ideas, these voters began shifting toward the GOP. This trend accelerated with the rise of Trump, and now rural voters are overwhelmingly Republican. Even so, there are still enough rural Democrats left to make them an important cohort within the party. Among this shrinking cohort of rural moderates are Senators Joe Manchin and Jon Tester and Representative Jared Golden.

Typically, these rural Democrats encourage the party to take more moderate stances on both social and economic issues. This can often earn the wrath of the party’s more progressive corners, but Democrats as a whole probably benefit electorally from rural moderates occasionally bucking the party and restraining the party’s more extreme instincts.

What’s interesting about these cohorts is that none of them have anything close to dominance over the party. Each of the five groups is influential in some ways, and weak in others. The “influencers,” for example, have great sway over the party’s image, but little actual impact on the legislation that makes it through Congress. The “rural moderates,” by comparison, have an effective veto over what legislation can pass the Senate, but have relatively little authority over the party’s image. The other three groups fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Ultimately, that is the kind of nuance that gets lost when we rely on the simplistic “moderate versus progressive” framework. So as we approach the final year and a half of Biden’s first term and the 2024 elections, political watchers should resist falling back on that convenient but lazy dichotomy. Instead, they should take the time to understand where the different power sources and affiliations lie within the Democratic Party.

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