Fighting for the soul of the Democratic Party

By | June 3, 2018

It does not surprise me that the tagline for the Poor People’s Campaign is “a national call for moral revival.” In politics, given a choice between money and morality, you know which will win. It’s also no surprise that the demands of this campaign are not strictly economic but target racism, the environment, criminal justice, voter disenfranchisement, healthcare, foreign policy, militarism, budget priorities, and democratic institutions. The very existence of this movement is a clue that, for all their lofty platform planks, Democrats simply haven’t been listening to America’s most vulnerable people.

Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local. Perhaps. But local politics are now national. Dozens of Congressional primary races highlight the ideological wars being fought within the Democratic Party — viciously and with considerable help from out of state donors.

UMass Amherst political science professor Raymond LaRaja writes that, for all the Democratic Party’s disagreements, “if there is one thread that links party adherents today, it is a view of themselves as outsiders trying to gain for themselves and others a share of the fruits of American democracy and capitalism, which have been denied to them by social status.” But there any agreement ends.

In this authoritarian age a lot is at stake. Democratic Party centrists think they can tinker with and improve Capitalism, while progressives and socialists know that only radical change — and a stronger defense of democracy — will make life better for working families. These are irreconcilable philosophies that must eventually end in divorce. But for the moment — here we are together in a very odd bed.

Unlike Republicans, who abhor heterogeneity and tightly enforce party discipline, Democrats function more as a coalition than a party. LaRaja writes, “Coalitions do not make it easy to come up with coherent campaign slogans. But a more profound problem of Democratic pluralism is that the party can be biased toward a few moneyed and highly organized factions who do not reflect the broader rank-and-file. These factions include pro-environment groups, abortion rights organizations and public sector unions. They may champion important causes, but their dominance over the party’s agenda has a powerful impact on who runs for office as Democrats and what kinds of issues get pushed in government.”

No surprise, then, that the “moneyed and highly organized factions” run their political races differently too. Since their objective is to win and not necessarily fight for principles (either during or after an election), Democratic centrists run campaigns based on “viable candidates” while progressives are more interested in principles. Centrist Democrats won’t waste a dime on a candidate who can’t win, and they will look for one who can — even if he is barely distinguishable from a Republican.

Progressives, on the other hand, are willing to see their candidate go down in flames — if only for the chance to have her issues heard by voters or to keep the party from sliding even farther to the right. And progressives often have to fight the good fight with little or no support from Democratic Party institutions like the DNC or DCCC. This too is an irreconcilable difference that must eventually end in divorce.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) doesn’t yet have a Fifty State strategy but is trying to get there. It previously conceded elections in some states and put all its chips on “sure things” in others. The DCCC’s “Majority Makers” program is targeting dozens of Red districts thought to be winnable. The special Alabama Senate election of Doug Jones provided the party with new energy — but lowered the bar for its candidates. The DCCC doesn’t even conceal its bias toward Blue Dogs like Henry Cuellar over progressives and has even gone out of its way to sabotage the campaigns of progressives like Laura Moser. In the New York primary DNC Chair Tom Perez endorsed Andrew Cuomo, breaking a promise that the DNC would never again interfere in a primary election.

Last April I attended a meeting of Marching Forward in Dartmouth. The group was recruiting campaign volunteers after deciding to support four swing state Congressional candidates in the midterm elections. Three of their four candidates were DCCC “Majority Makers” — Andy Kim (NJ-03); Mikie Sherill (NJ-11); and Perry Gershon (NY-01). Volunteers would travel to these swing states and essentially take their marching orders from the DCCC.

It’s difficult to begrudge Marching Forward’s efforts. After all, each of their candidates is challenging an especially noxious Trump Republican. Each was chosen, like genes for therapeutic treatment, to target a specific defect in a specific Congressional district with precisely calibrated politics and personal attributes. Andy Kim, for example, is a former Defense Department analyst; Mikie Sherill is a decorated Navy helicopter pilot and “get-tough” federal prosecutor; and Perry Gershon is the Chief Investment Officer at Jefferies LoanCore Capital Markets LLC. None is what anyone would call a progressive. And the number of DCCC candidates waving military and national security resumes should worry everyone in post-911 America.

These candidates, to use LaRaja’s words, all want “peace, protecting the environment, separation of church and state, guarding the right to an abortion, and quality of life issues like eating locally-grown food.” But generally absent from the campaigns of these genetically-engineered DCCC candidates are issues important to brown, black, and poor people. Each represents the Clintonite wing of a Democratic Party that Thomas Frank describes in “Listen, Liberal” — gatekeepers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, prosecutors, the security establishment, technocrats.

Of course, the U.S. Congress is not the only battlefield. Republicans must be fought in state houses too. EveryDistrict has an approach similar to the DCCC’s, but aims to put more Democrats in state government, neglected for decades by the DNC. And who in their right mind would wish for EveryDistrict to fail? In 26 of 50 states Republicans have a trifecta — total control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. In contrast, Democrats have only 8. EveryDistrict’s strategy is to pick horseraces it thinks it can win, and Democratic winners twill then make the state more liberal. At least that’s the theory.

The Bernie wing of the Democratic Party consists of idealists, progressives, and socialists. Funding their candidates are various PACs that endorse and support progressive campaigns and/or candidates of color — people with a serious personal stake in making real change. They include: Color of Change, Democracy for America, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and The Collective PAC. They don’t take corporate money, they don’t have much support from the Democratic Party, and their campaigns are funded by individual donations. Sometimes even their campaign videos are self-produced, as in the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is challenging Blue Dog Democrat Joe Crowley in the NY-14 Congressional primary.

Massachusetts primaries will be here in roughly 90 days. The primaries and the general election will provide more clues about the future and the soul of the Democratic Party. Last September I pondered where Democrats were headed:

It’s still a bit early to definitively answer the question of what kind of Democrat represents the future of the party, but we should know by the time the Democratic primaries come around. If Reagan Democrats like Keating remain unchallenged, and a slew of Baby Keatings appear on ballots, then we’ll know the party’s true character — regardless of whatever lofty language is written into the platform.

We are indeed knee deep in Manchins, Joneses, Heitkamps, Moultons, and Baby Keatings. But I no longer think the future of the Democratic Party can be divined so quickly or easily. The fight for the party’s soul could take a decade — after all, it took the Tea Party twelve years to turn the GOP into a bunch of goose-stepping kleptocrats. This fight will continue as America becomes browner and poorer — and as our democratic institutions struggle to recover from the shocks of years of authoritarianism.

If you compare the two videos in this post there are obvious differences between Democrats. The America I want to live in will not be led by PAC-reliant, flag-waving technocrats but by courageous working people with moral centers and very personal stakes in an inclusive democracy. But for now we may need the technocrats — and they us — to keep the Republic from sliding even further into the abyss.