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Why the Fight Over the 2016 Democratic Primaries Hasn’t Gone Away

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In some corners of the Internet, the hostilities that began during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries appear to be as heated today as they were three years ago. That isn’t typical. The 2008 primaries, for example, were just as hard fought—and at times nasty–but the animosity that simmered between Obama and Clinton supporters was largely forgotten by the time the general election was settled.

According to widely held conventional wisdom, this dynamic endures because the Sanders campaign exposed a serious ideological rift in the Democratic coalition between pragmatic, center-left Democrats and their more progressive rivals. Those who subscribe to this theory portray the conflict as a “battle for the heart and soul” of the party.

It’s true that there are real and substantive ideological disagreements within Democratic and progressive circles, something that’s being highlighted as the 2020 candidates carve out their positions on immigration, Medicare for All, and more. Big, schismatic and often unwieldy coalitions are inherent to a two-party system, and the 2016 campaign did highlight intra-coalition disputes over ideology, policy and strategy that long preceded those primaries.

But the evidence suggests that while the Democratic coalition writ large differs on specific policies and tactics, it is relatively unified in its ideological turns. Progressive strategist Sean McElwee is overly confident when he says, “the progressive domination of the Democratic Party is palpable,” but it is true that a major shift has taken place, and the party is in a far more progressive place than it was twenty years ago, when the dominant faction within the coalition was calling for smaller government, less intervention in the economy, and lower taxes. None of the 24 presidential candidates in this campaign opposes reproductive freedom or brags about having an A rating from the NRA. Earlier this year, Pew found that Democrats are “largely united on immigration, same-sex marriage and race.”

Those who supported Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton in 2016 also didn’t fit neatly on a left-right axis. According to the cumulative 2016 primary exit polls (conducted in 27 states with diverse electorates), Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin among primary voters who wanted the next president to pursue “more liberal” policies than Obama, but he also won narrowly among voters who favored “less liberal” policies. (Clinton won the largest group–those who wanted the party to continue the policy agenda that Obama had pursued during his two terms in office.) 

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