Crisis From Within – Defections from The Democratic Party

The last two months of 2022 was nothing short of a roller coaster ride for the Democratic Party – from its ominous poll numbers in the early stages to the its former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s official departure to Senator Raphael Warnock’s win in the runoff election which ultimately delivered a 51-seat Senate for Democrats. To add more drama to the tight Senate margin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema switched her party affiliation from Democrat to independent shortly after the end of the midterm election, pouring cold water on the Democrats’ hard-earned victory.

“Removing myself from the partisan structure – not only is it true to who I am and how I operate, I also think it’ll provide a place of belonging for many folks across the state and the country, who also are tired of the partisanship.” The 46-year-old senator expressed her antipathy toward the two-party system as many independents do, with great caution not to make a complete break with the Democratic Party by asserting that she would not caucus with Republicans. In the name of fighting for the benefits of her constituents since she assumed office in 2019, Sinema has kept her elusive style even after her party switching, which is in stark contrast to Tulsi Gabbard’s blatant censure against Democrats when she announced her departure two months prior to Sinema. Admittedly, some politicians switch parties based on their political agenda and interests, and Sinema is surely one of them given the fact that independents account for a third of registered voters in Arizona, which may allow her to put together a coalition of independents, moderate Republicans, and her Democratic supporters.

However, put aside opportunism, ideological clashes between politicians and their parties is another important factor that causes party switching. The liberal Republican Senator James Jeffords decided to leave the “ever-more-conservative Republican Party” and became an independent. On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Representative Phil Gramm left the Democratic Party after being ousted from the Budget Committee by his fellow Democrats for his espousal of President Reagan’s economic policies.

It can be seen that changing party affiliation is not rare and cuts both ways. Nevertheless, the last decade has seen more party switching among Democrats than Republicans. Other than Kyrsten Sinema and Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang left the party and started the Forward Party. In the face of the pressure to impeach President Donald Trump, Democratic Representative Jeff Van Drew switched to the Republican Party in 2019. The former Democratic governor Mike Sullivan of Wyoming registered as a Republican and voted for Liz Cheney in 2022.This trend is even more conspicuous among the electorate – over the last year, there have been more Democrats switching to Republicans than the other way around, and more Democrats than Republicans registering as independents.

Some may argue that Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance in the 2022 midterm election is the counterevidence to the statement that their popularity is in decline. However, we should not underestimate the dampening effect of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Trump-endorsed candidates on GDP. The exceeding-expectation results delivered by the Democratic Party is not enough to belie the fact of how much they relied on young voters this time, and the young voters’ enthusiasm to support Democrats was already way lower when compared to 2020 presidential election and 2018 midterm election. A structural decline in party identification among Democrats seems inevitable.

Underneath Democratic politicians and electorate’s recent departure from their party, we should ask the key question – why Democrats are facing more “defections” than Republicans. First, Compared to Republicans, Democrats have a more diffused ideological spectrum with the majority of them identifying themselves as moderates. Meanwhile, quite a number of self-proclaimed moderates are actually either independents or Republicans, which makes inner conflicts more likely to happen among Democrats than Republicans. On the other hand, Republicans in general attach greater weight to in-group loyalty than their Democratic counterparts. A prominent example is Liz Cheney. Even after her removal from the GOP leadership, she did not switch her party as Phil Gramm did. Instead, she laser-targeted Donald Trump and vowed to fight back and rebuild a Republican party in accordance with conservative principles. Unlike Republicans, the loose ideological structure of the Democratic Party determines that it has less binding power when it comes to party loyalty.

Second, the Democratic party as a whole is becoming more extreme than before. Even though many pundits and scholars have accused GOP of radicalization, Democrats are no better – not only are many Democratic politicians out of touch on pressing issues that concern most ordinary people such as inflation and the economy, but their increasing ideological extremism is further alienating the mass public. The escalating “you are either with us, or against us” sentiments are prevailing in the form of the unfettered “woke culture” and “cancel culture”, which is putting more moderate Democratic politicians and voters between a rock and hard place. The moral foundations of the modern Democratic Party – empathy, harm avoidance, and fairness – are being supplanted by imposed fidelity test. Without the same level of ideological cohesion as Republicans, this would only backfire even more intensely than it already did.

The third factor could be less pronounced but no less consequential – age. The current average age of the Democratic Party leadership is way higher than that of GOP. The majority of Democratic House leaders are over 80 while most of their Republican counterparts are only in their 50s or even younger. The cumbersome party bureaucracy exacerbated by the aged leadership has constrained the development of politicians of the next generation, oftentimes leaving them to choose between following the party’s radicalizing path and going their own ways. Few Democratic politicians can share the same level of luxury of being at least self-claimed independent as Senator Mark Kelly. For those who cannot, the rational decision would be either leaving the party or keeping up with the party’s progressivism.

The Democratic Party seems to have noticed their party flaws they are faced with, at least partially. Warnings are issued and younger leadership has emerged. However, they still have to choose how to respond to the return of Donald Trump – accelerating their own radicalization or upholding their values and principles. The former may help their performance in the 2024 presidential election but sow more instability in the party, while the latter may not bring immediate benefits but alleviate the polarization the U.S. is mired in.

Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Tulane University. He received his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Liverpool and International Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCEi) from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include U.S.-China relations, American politics, political psychology, and political economy.