Student Panel Talks Future of the Democratic Party

The event was put on by the University of Chicago Political Union.

By Yao Xen Tan

University students gathered Thursday to consider the future of the Democratic Party after the party's embarrassing rout in this month’s elections.

The panel discussion at the Institute of Politics involved members of both UC Dems and College Republicans. The event was organized by the University of Chicago Political Union.

The panel included third-year Daniel Jellins from UC Dems and first-year Jonah Ullendorff, a College Republican registered as a Democrat. Fourth-year Kaan Ulgen voiced an international student’s perspective on the issue. David Abraham, executive director of the Political Union, moderated the discussion.

Jellins started the discussion by describing the new reality faced by the Democratic Party. “Being the opposition party gives us a different opportunity to propose ideas and to really stand against what’s obviously going to be coming from the other side. There’s different ways in which an opposition party fights back,” he said.

Regarding what the party’s priorities should be in the coming years, Jellins said, “It’s twofold. I think we should oppose most things if not all things they [Republicans] propose forward. I feel as if what we’ve heard over the last week is we should be conciliatory, we need to empathize—and that sorts of lends itself to compromise. If we can really think about ideas that will help the lowest amongst us, minorities, LGBTQ+, immigrants…we can come across as proposing ideas that are helping them. That lifts everyone up.”

“The sort of quasi-corporatism of the Democratic Party needs to change. It really needs to be more of a grassroots, localized movement. If we change those types of structures you change the way you look at ideas and propose ideas,” he said.

The discussion then turned to the intricacies of shifting views and changing mindsets. Ullendorff suggested that the Democratic Party has some thinking to do.

“I think if we [the Democrats] go more towards the center we can get more Independents. A lot of the polls showed that a lot of people were undecided until the last week. What I don’t want to see happen is Trump to take it really far right and Democrats taking it really far left. Trump for example appointing people like Steve Bannon, who, let’s be honest, is racist,” Ullendorff said.

Ulgen agreed that the party’s future lies in the political center.

“Going to the grassroots, that’s not where the middle of the country is. The Democrats lost rural white voters. It’s about moving towards the center. Clinton lost because she did not move towards the center—she moved towards the left. If she had moved towards the center policy-wise, she would've lifted much more suburban Republicans to her side. You cannot say you’re the defender of liberal democracy, and then not give anything to those Republicans in order to do so,” Ulgen added.

Jellins disagreed. “I’m not all that comfortable with ‘left,’ ‘right,’ and moving between them. These are ideas, beliefs, what people believe is wrong and right,” Jellins said. “I’m not so much scared for what Trump will do, but how people believe in him and those ideas. We should be ‘moving to the left,’ coming up with ideas, then selling those ideas to people. Yes, you are struggling, but what Trump was selling was not who you should blame. You should be looking to us as ‘yes, we have solutions to your problems.’ I think that’s a different way to go about it.”

Ullendorff suggested a historical parallel based on a discussion he’d had with IOP director David Axelrod: in the 1980s, the Democratic Party had drifted too far to the left to be politically viable. “A lot of the stuff that’s radical is a lot harder to defend, whereas when you go more towards the middle, it gets a lot easier to defend,” Ullendorff said.

“I think Donald Trump showed you can win with the indefensible,” Jellins responded.

Ulgen suggested that the Republican and Democratic situations were not totally analogous. “I feel like this is a thing. Republicans when they go right, they have xenophobia and things that appeal to the emotions of people that they can get votes in. [The] Left doesn’t have that. I think that’s a huge risk if you’re trying to get that, and you might just give Trump the historic majority if you go that way. I don’t think that’s a risk worth taking,” he said.