Cardoso ’19: What Democrats can learn from the Portuguese

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Approximately three weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee concluded its selection process for its new national chairperson by electing Tom Perez ’83 P’18, former President Barack Obama’s former secretary of labor and the so-called “establishment favorite.” In an admirable gesture of unity, Perez suspended the rules and chose his opponent, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, who represented the progressive wing of the party galvanized by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, to serve as his deputy chairman.

The display of solidarity, touching though it was, belied the ferocious proxy war over control of the party that their respective campaigns represented. Indeed, since Sanders’ loss to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, the Democrats’ intraparty divisions have been intensifying. Prior to Perez’s victory, ideologues from both factions assumed an almost existential dread at the thought of losing an election for what is largely a ceremonial chairperson position. Alan Dershowitz, United States consitutional lawyer, for example, threatened to leave the Democratic Party if Ellison was elected, warning that his success over Perez would lead the party down the path of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party (read: it would be unelectable). On the other hand, many progressives have claimed that Perez’s election simply confirms that a moribund Democratic Party is choosing to ignore “the people” in order to perpetuate the same centrism and closeness with the financial industry for which they so despised the Clintons.

By embracing this intraparty polarization, however, Democrats are dooming themselves to electoral failure. Squabbling over ideological purity on the left will simply create an opening for right-wing parties, perpetuating a trend that has been crystallizing in Western liberal democracies over the past several years.

Enter Portugal. Despite the virtual collapse of the European left over the past several years, Portugal remains the only Western European nation with a stable center-left government. Referred to pejoratively as a geringonça — which in English roughly translates as “the contraption” on account of its ostensibly unstable and improbable composition — the current Portuguese governing coalition cobbled together all of the country’s left-wing parties, from the center-left Socialist Party to the far-left Portuguese Communist Party. What makes the geringonça both so remarkable and so unlikely is that its constituent members had to sacrifice fundamental ideological positions, like a commitment to revolution against the capitalist order and withdrawing from NATO, to form a governing coalition.

Indeed, the European left has looked to Portugal as a model for reemerging as a potent political force. In recent months, Lisbon has been somewhat of a pilgrimage site for center-left candidates throughout Europe. Benoît Hamon, the French presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, recently stopped by the São Bento Palace for a photo-op with Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, remarking that “what’s happening in Portugal inspires me so much.” And so it should — if Hamon’s left-wing competitor dropped out, it is possible his Socialist Party could at least make a competitive showing. Similarly, Martin Schulz of the German Social Democratic Party visited Lisbon last June to meet with the Portuguese premier. Theoretically, though more improbably, if Schulz was able to broker a similar deal with the German left-wing parties, he would be able to oust the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the upcoming election.

The relevance of the Portuguese contraption to the U.S. Democratic Party cannot be overstated. The Portuguese left was able to shelve what most fairly assumed were insuperable differences in ideology to form a unified government. By comparison, the race between Perez and Ellison — the two are, by all accounts, ideologically identical — had all the tragicomic trappings of a race between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python.

Ultimately, the electoral systems of Portugal and the United States are too different from one another for the Democrats to wholly replicate the Portuguese experiment, but the fundamental principle underlying the contraption is exportable. If the Democrats learn to place a greater premium on winning elections than maintaining the ideological purity of the party, they might just yet save themselves from electoral oblivion.

Anna Murphy ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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One Comment

  1. Great article and I get the point you’re making, but there’s one important difference between the U.S. and Portugal. Or rather, two important differences. One, we can’t really form coalition governments. Two, more importantly, the Democrats are not the left in this country–there is no left. The left isn’t engaging in an ideological purity test; the left is trying to reform the Democratic party from center-right Democrats. There is virtually no left in this country and what we’re left with is a center/center-right and a far-right party. You might think I’m exaggerating, but consider how these respective parties stand on the relevant social/econ issues relative to where European parties do.

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