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Democrats’ ‘civil war’ is more civil than war

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his state

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his state of the state address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany, N.Y., January, 3, 2018, left. New York Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon responds to a question during a news conference in Albany, N.Y., March 26, 2018, right, Credit: Hans Pennink / AP - Frank Franklin II / AP

A civil war seems the sort of thing you’d recognize up close. I keep reading about such a war among Democrats, with the left locked in a vicious battle with the center. I’ve looked for it. I still don’t see it.

There is conflict, of course. The Democratic Party collected around 66 million votes in the last presidential election. Not each of those voters is completely, perfectly in sync with the other 66 million.

That has consequences. In California, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein faces a Democratic primary challenge from Kevin De Leon, a state senator. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is being challenged for re-election by actress/activist Cynthia Nixon.

But these high-profile contests are exceptions, not the rule. And the extenuating circumstances are pretty compelling. Feinstein is a moderate who has been in the Senate for a quarter century during which California evolved into the nation’s most liberal state. The state party declined to endorse her officially at its convention in February. She also turns 85 in June.

Cuomo lacks his late father’s rhetorical gifts, which had the effect of convincing liberals, for a time, that something big was stirring behind the dull grind of governmental gears. The son has never been much loved. And Nixon is fresh and feisty and smart.

Yet in polls Feinstein has consistently led De Leon by more than 20 points. A New York poll released this month had Cuomo leading Nixon by 3 to 1, with the support of 68 percent of Democrats. Polls can change. And from Nixon’s fast start, and Cuomo’s lackluster tenure, it wouldn’t be surprising if she did far better than Cuomo opponent Zephyr Teachout did in the 2014 primary. But without a far more vitriolic, bitter and clearly defined contest for power, it’s not clear that closer races - even upsets of incumbents - take us closer to civil war.

Perhaps more telling is the lead in national polls of Joe Biden over Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden has run for president twice before and failed to gain traction. The former vice president is even older than Donald Trump. So a groundswell for Biden, who spent eight years working beside a president whom many on the left found enormously frustrating, would be noteworthy. Unless the name “Joe Biden” on a poll mostly serves as a placeholder for “Mainstream Democrat to be named later.”

Some civil war talk is likely a product of bothsidesism - the desire of pundits and reporters to find symmetry in increasingly asymmetrical political parties. Republicans have accommodated themselves to chaos and corruption so surely the Democrats must be ready to combust, too.

Except that the Democratic Party is not much like the Republican Party. As Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol wrote in a much-discussed article about surging grassroots Democratic action in suburbs and small cities, sightings of a Democratic Tea Party, let alone a smash-everything Trumpist-style rampage, are largely chimerical. The movement against Trump is led by plenty of level-headed people, especially women. Here is how Putnam and Skocpol (who has previously studied the Tea Party among other things) described it:

This is not a leftist Tea Party, because newly engaged suburban activists hail from across the broad ideological range from center to left. It’s not a Sanders versus Clinton redux, because that “last year’s news” divide is flatly irrelevant to the people working shoulder-to-shoulder in the present. It’s not an Occupy Wall Street-type questioning of liberal democracy, because these activists believe laws can make good government as strong and transparent as possible.

Democrats will certainly nominate some lefty candidates. Lefties are part of the party - and they can win in select districts, too. But the party will also nominate candidates like Conor Lamb in more conservative places. That’s evidence of a coalition, not a war.

Democrats passed enormously consequential legislation during their brief, empowered reign in Washington in 2009-2010. There is disagreement about how far to go next; battles over single-payer health care and other issues are already engaged. But there is practically universal Democratic support for building on Barack Obama’s record, and pushing for more aggressive gains on health care, the environment and financial regulation.

They know that Trump’s corruption and relentless attacks on democratic institutions must be repelled first. The chaotic divider of America will remain a uniter of Democrats as long as he is in office. If there is a Democratic civil war to come, it is off in the distance - hopefully a brighter place - in which Trump and his coterie have met whatever fate awaits them.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.