WASHINGTON — The pitched battle looming over the Supreme Court, along with a jolt to the Democratic leadership at the ballot box Tuesday.
For Democrats, the transformation could prove as consequential as President Donald Trump’s consolidation of power in his own party and the conservative movement’s tightening grip on the federal government.
“The Trump presidency has changed the dynamics in our party,” said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, acknowledging that he could not recall a similar grass-roots uprising since he was elected to Congress in 1982.
The party’s traditional leaders absorbed one blow after another in the past week. Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., a 20-year incumbent and potential future House speaker, was unseated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina political newcomer; Congress made clear it cannot pass even a limited immigration measure for the children of immigrants in the country illegally; and the Supreme Court handed down rulings that undermined the labor unions that are a backbone of the Democratic Party, while also limiting abortion rights advocacy and upholding Trump’s travel ban.
And then Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, effectively handing Trump the opportunity to cement a conservative majority on the bench.
Trump’s divisive and often demagogic presidency has ignited much of the liberal upheaval, driving many left-of-center voters on to a kind of ideological war footing. That has translated into a surge in outsider candidates in the midterms who are pressuring Democratic leaders to support an ambitious liberal platform that includes single-payer health care, free college tuition and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
But this insurgency, which is both encouraging and alarming Democratic officials, is not merely aimed at pushing the party farther left ideologically. There is a deeper divide over how far to go in confronting Trump and attempting to thwart his agenda.
At a strategy session held over lunch last week, Senate Democrats settled on a careful strategy for the coming Supreme Court confirmation battle. They would drop their demands that Republicans not appoint a replacement for Kennedy until after the midterm elections, senators decided, and instead would highlight the threat to abortion rights and health care to try to mobilize opposition to Trump’s appointment.
“I’m sure many of them believe we have the power to stop this,” Durbin said of the expectations his party’s enraged base for Democrats blocking the court pick. “But the grim reality is that we have some power but not the power to stop this.”
But a few hours later, on the ground floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, nearly 600 women clad in suffragist white were arrested in a demonstration against the separation of migrant children from their parents — and they said they wanted their senators to do nothing less than lie down on the tracks to stop Trump’s nomination.
“I want to see this Congress actually follow our lead and resist in a real way,” said Winnie Wong, one of the organizers of the sit-in. “This kind of resistance can create a blockade and stop what will be a fast-track appointment. Imagine a world where you had the chamber do a civil disobedience, what that would that look like.”
With former President Barack Obama evincing little appetite to reclaim a leadership role and no clear 2020 presidential front-runner, Democrats lack a commanding figure to oversee strategy and help bridge the internal fissures in the party.
And while relentless confrontation with the White House and noisy protests might animate the rising Democratic coalition, they will not lead to success at the polls if the party cannot harness the fury.
“The key is translating these public demonstrations and marches into electoral activism and then government activism,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
The tumult also extends to how Democrats should set themselves apart from the right.
On the activist left, there is a deep hunger to wean Democrats from their ties to corporate America, one of Ocasio-Cortez’s clarion calls. There are also rising demands that leaders encourage, and even participate in, the sort of extreme measures of confrontation that took place on the floor of the Hart building and have been on display at restaurants where Trump aides have been shouted down while dining. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House minority leader who is facing a growing revolt in her own caucus, was criticized on the left when she denounced such tactics.
And as the Democratic National Committee moves to eliminate superdelegates — the elected officials and party elites who help determine presidential nominees — there is widespread expectation that traditional power brokers should cede more authority to the activists on social media, often millennials and people of color, who are increasingly steering the party’s agenda.
“We have to pay attention to our base,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who was the only lawmaker arrested at the immigration protest last week. Pointing to a series of special elections and primaries, including Crowley’s, that she said showed a rising liberal coalition flexing its power, Jayapal added, “That energy, combined with the real threat of a second Supreme Court justice that could strip away women’s reproductive rights and a lot of other rights that people have come to rely on — I think it is an even bigger call to action.”
The turmoil on the left mirrors that of Republicans in the first two years of Obama’s administration, when Democrats controlled all the levers of government and left the Tea Party-inflected Republican Party to thrash around in impotent protest, raging with an energy that eventually propelled it back to power.
But some Democrats see the moment in even more sweeping terms, akin to the era following the Vietnam War and Watergate, when the reaction to a controversial Republican president triggered a moderate and liberal backlash. That movement delivered dozens of new seats, but it also unleashed a generational changing of the guard that jolted party leaders.
Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, elected in the Democratic wave of 1974 and a leader in the effort to reinvent the Democratic Party in the 1980s, said Democrats were approaching an overdue moment of reckoning with their own limitations. The party, he said, had failed for years to define a forward-looking vision. The pressure of the midterm election — heightened, he said, by the Supreme Court vacancy — could create a new moment of definition.
“There almost has to be a generational renewal of belief systems,” said Hart, a two-time presidential candidate, who is now 81. “When we were in power, under Obama and Clinton, I don’t believe party leaders did what should have been done, and that is come up with a manifesto for the 21st century.”
Hart said Democratic voters were plainly hunting for fresh inspiration. “There are fountains of energy all over the place,” he said. “There’s a big searchlight going on right now for the next generation of leadership in this country.”
What worries some Democratic elders, though, is that activists will harbor unrealistic expectations of what sort of policies newly elected progressive lawmakers can push through in a still-divided capital.
“They say to new members, ‘You won because of us,'” said John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to Pelosi and the author of a new book on the Watergate Babies. “Actually no, typically you win because you were able to win moderate voters disgusted with incumbents.”
There is also a group of younger Democrats uneasy about the party drifting too far left.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said he understood that Democratic voters were “furious and scared at the same time,” but he also said he wished his party had a moderating influence to counter Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the democratic socialist who has been at the front end of the party’s turn left.
“Bernie is fighting for his principles on what direction the party should go,” he said, “but we don’t really have anybody doing it on behalf of moderates and other Democrats. It has become a one-sided conversation.”
There is no question that Democratic leaders have been tugged toward a brand of more unadulterated progressivism. But there are fewer levers of power at their disposal to impose discipline or tilt their proposals toward the political center. They lack legislative earmarks to hand out, or withhold, and their ability to raise large sums of money matters less in an era in which liberal fundraising is moving online.
And with the decline of unions, one of the last pillars of top-down authority in their coalition is on the wane. The public-sector unions stung by this past week’s court decision had been one of the movement’s remaining power centers.
For Democrats in Washington, the process of renewal could be a painful one.
Across much of the left, Crowley’s defeat was welcomed as readily as if he had been a Republican, rather than a conventional machine Democrat. And Ocasio-Cortez has embraced the insurgent’s mantle, vowing to help other liberal upstarts and even endorsing other challengers to Democratic incumbents.
One of those challengers, Ayanna Pressley, a member of the Boston City Council who is aiming to oust Rep. Mike Capuano, D-Mass., a long-serving liberal, said the party’s base had been in a fighting mood for months. But the combination of Trump’s provocations, the Supreme Court’s lurch and the insurrection in New York has rocked liberals to the core, she said.
“The party and our democracy are at a crossroads,” Pressley said, adding matter-of-factly, “These times require disruption.”
At least one veteran Democrat has gotten the message: Capuano. Last week, in the aftermath of Crowley’s loss, the Massachusetts lawmaker began circulating a memo highlighting his differences with his soon-to-be-former colleague. “Capuano Is a Strong, Proud Progressive,” the memo reads. “Crowley Is a Moderate.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.