Democrats face simmering internal tensions

Climate change activists march during a July protest in Philadelphia.

Story highlights

  • John Burnett: Union workers becoming disillusioned as environmental groups have accumulated victories
  • Organized labor is one group that can bring organizational strength, extensive ground game to bear on elections, he says

John Burnett is a financial services executive and Republican strategist and strategic adviser to the New York Republican State Committee. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)From the start of the primary season through the nominating convention in Philadelphia, Democrats have attempted to show that any divisions that their party faces are relatively minor compared to the raucous infighting within the GOP that has caused Republicans to question the fate of their own party.

And to a large extent, the Republican Party is indeed undergoing a transformation, one that has forced GOP leaders to reckon with a surge populism that is challenging the party's establishment wing and its corporate allies. But Democrats are fooling themselves if they think that their party isn't facing deep-rooted conflicts of its own over policy, tensions that will have potentially damaging short-term and long-term consequences for the party.
John Burnett
The divisions are playing out on a number of fronts -- think the liberal backlash against Wall Street that Sen. Bernie Sanders seized upon to attack the ties he claims powerful banks and other financial institutions have to Hillary Clinton and other establishment Democrats.
    But there is one area in particular where the party finds facing genuine upheaval: environmental policy.
    Over the years, the Democratic Party's leadership has struggled to juggle the competing demands of two major constituencies that often find themselves openly at odds: environmentalists who voice growing concern over the national boom in energy exploration, and labor leaders who see energy projects as sources of much-needed jobs.
    Top Democrats have often sided with environmental activists, at the expense of organized labor. Not surprisingly, these activists include a number of the Democratic Party's most generous campaign donors, including Tom Steyer, who has backed fights against energy projects, including Keystone XL oil pipeline, despite the strong backing they had from labor.
    For union workers, who have historically made up a loyal voting block for the Democratic Party, a sense of disillusionment has arisen as environmental groups have accumulated victories with the approval of leading Democrats like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom opposed the Keystone pipeline -- the last straw for many in the labor community.
    Now, these tensions, among other factors, are forcing the Democratic Party into the position of having to chase labor support this election. Nowhere is this more evident than in the industrial Midwest, where Donald Trump's populist appeal is giving him an opportunity to cut into the overwhelming support Democrats have enjoyed in the labor community.
    And the reality is that the problems for Democrats would not fade with a Clinton victory. The brisk pace of natural gas exploration in the United States, along with a spate of other energy projects, are likely to force more showdowns between labor leaders and environmental activists that a Clinton administration would almost certainly be forced to mediate.
    The tensions between the Democratic Party and labor have already surfaced loudly this election. In May, several unions that make up the AFL-CIO demanded that the confederation of labor organizations pull its support from a Steyer-related political action committee, even though the committee's main purpose is to support Democratic candidates on the ballot this year.
    "The AFL-CIO has now officially become infiltrated by financial and political interests that work in direct conflict to many of our members," presidents of eight building trade organizations said in a letter to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka asking him to sever ties with Steyer.
    The ground troops that environmentalists have deployed include organizations like, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and others that receive ample funding from wealthy donors such as members of the Rockefeller family, who oppose fossil fuel use. And with Election Day just a few months away, these organizations are ramping up their attacks on energy companies.
    Environmental groups, for example, are intensifying efforts to derail the construction of the Dakota Access project, a pipeline stretching for more than 1,100 miles from North Dakota to Illinois that has the backing of major unions such as the Laborers' International Union of North America.
    But perhaps the most vivid demonstration of the divide in the party played out on the Democratic Platform Committee as it debated issues like climate change. Bernie Sanders reached into the most ideologically zealous wing of the environmental community to pick Bill McKibben -- an activist who once backed a one-child policy -- to serve on the platform committee.
    The proposals by McKibben, who has accused ExxonMobil of climate fraud and "unparalleled evil," reflected the ambitions of an invigorated environmental movement: a ban on fracking, a tax on carbon, a climate test for new energy projects, a ban on fossil fuel extraction on public lands and a prohibition on government ability to use eminent domain to seize private land for fossil-fuel projects.
      In the end, though, the McKibben proposals were defeated, reflecting the influence of more moderate Democrats on the platform committee, primarily those aligned with the Clinton camp. McKibben explained afterward that every member of the platform committee agreed on the goal of eventually moving the country to clean energy. "But every measure I put forward to actually get us there went down," he said, barely hiding his frustration with the Clinton faction of the party.
      Whether they want to admit it or not, Democrats have a significant problem on their hands. Organized labor is the one group within their party that can bring organizational strength and an extensive ground game to bear on the elections. The last thing Democrats needs is for members of the labor community to sit this race out -- or even worse.