Razor-thin margins of the 2020 presidential election left many Democrats scratching their heads in dismay at the almost 49% of the population who supported Trump, wondering what had gone wrong. In a three hour long conference call, Democratic Party leaders identified their scapegoat — it was progressives who had tanked the 2020 elections for them.
Democrats are quick to dismiss their own failures. In 2016 the same accusing fingers pointed at so-called identity politics as the reason for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Centrists linked arms with the American Right in denigrating the unique challenges of marginalized people and the idea of inviting them into the Democratic Big Tent.
2020 was no different. Democrats wasted no time channeling their inner Joe McCarthy, admonishing that “socialism” was responsible for soft Democratic performance and that support for abortion, LBTQ, trans rights, and gun control was too “divisive.”
Repeated attacks like these demonstrate that progressives will never find a permanent home in the Democratic Party. As Joe Biden begins assembling his cabinet and planning his first 100 days, we will see exactly how party centrists intend to reward progressive contributions to his win.
For almost four years I was a Democrat. But from almost the moment I joined the party I discovered — at least at the state level — an inert, ineffective and undemocratic organization, entirely focused on fundraising for political machines and lazy incumbents, whose business is conducted mainly in the dark.
Nick Martin, writing in the New Republic, describes his unhappy relationship with his home state, North Carolina, but also his disappointment in the half-hearted efforts of the NC Dems. Martin also describes his grudging admiration for the clear, persistent, and ruthlessly effective messaging of Republicans:
“You don’t have to understand much about electoral politics to grasp that the Republican Party’s ground game in rural North Carolina was leagues beyond whatever slapdash operation the Democratic Party rolled out of the back of the shed. The GOP understood that it wasn’t going to pick up enough votes in the state’s bluer hubs to beat Biden in the state, so they organized the hell out of their base…”
Democrats scratch their heads in wonder at evil geniuses like Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove, and marvel at the Republican long game. But what Martin describes in his article is no magic formula but instead simple common sense — organize the hell out of your base, appeal to their values, make them excited to vote, and use the base to magnify and echo the message. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And Republican values don’t change, no matter how unpopular they are. And Republicans don’t apologize for them.
In her response to the Democratic Party’s most recent Joe McCarthy moment, progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered a few observations of her own. Reviewing the unsuccessful ground games of several Democrats who laid blame for their losses at the feet of a party supposedly too “socialist,” Ocasio-Cortez noted that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee failed in its digital messaging — right in the middle of a pandemic — by blacklisting political consultants who work with progressive primary challengers and who actually know how to deploy social media effectively. In Ocasio-Cortez’s view, some of these Democratic losses were self-inflicted.
Readers may recall the “Better Deal” that Democrats rolled out in 2017 following Hillary Clinton’s defeat — but most likely not. The intended reboot of the Democratic Party was dead the moment Schumer and Pelosi’s press conference ended. Democratic messaging then — as it still is now — was timid and vague and nobody, much less Democrats themselves, believed a word of it.
On the left side of the party, progressives proposed concrete programs — Medicare for All, rescuing students from lifelong debt, and a Green New Deal. And they made efforts to explain their policies, not just the social but the economic benefits. Elizabeth Warren famously had a plan for everything but faced an uphill battle in the primaries because many in the Democratic Party, including almost everyone on the primary debate stage with her, thought she was too “socialist.”
Love ’em or hate ’em, we know exactly what progressive Democrats stand for. This cannot be said of centrists, whose campaign promises are rarely convincing. If this sounds harsh, just look at the Massachusetts Democratic Party platform. It sounds fairly progressive but when you see how Massachusetts Democrats actually vote you realize the platform is nothing but a cynical heap of verbiage, revealing only that its professed values ultimately mean nothing.
And voters have taken note, especially in the three counties that comprise the 9th U.S. Congressional District. Bristol, Plymouth, and Barnstable counties are slowly moving from purple to red, and the party’s answer to this rightward drift is to accelerate it.
But Democratic failures are also structural, particularly at the state level. If you voted in the September Democratic primaries you may have noticed that there were almost no challengers to incumbents who, for the most part, vote pretty much like Republicans. Town Democratic committees in Massachusetts have long since given up holding weekly or monthly meetings and only emerge from hibernation during presidential elections. Bob DeLeo runs the Massachusetts House exactly like Mitch McConnell does the U.S. Senate. Neither is a force for good.
And when the stakes are high for marginalized people, most Massachusetts Democrats are nowhere to be found. In 2016 the Massachusetts Democratic Party couldn’t be bothered to challenge Bristol County’s white supremacist sheriff. And Massachusetts Democrats still haven’t passed comprehensive police accountability legislation or the Safe Communities Act. Or thrown enough support behind efforts to get rid of a racist flag and racist school mascots. And Democrats wonder why groups they take for granted, including Black voters, were induced to vote for Trump in small but surprising numbers.
All over America Republicans are taking control of state houses. State Democratic parties are lying half-dead on gurneys and have to be shocked back to life. The party needs to become a bottom-up organization again. But throughout the Democratic Party it is political machines, consultants and donors who wield the power, fighting challenges to incumbents, failing to revive state and local committees and resisting party reform. And all power flows from the top. Again, the party’s wounds are self-inflicted.
There are obvious and commonsense ways of addressing the state party’s structural problems. Bob Massie, who is gunning for MassDems president Gus Bickford’s job, just released a plan to reform and revive the party. It’s worth a read.
But my guess is that Massie won’t have any more luck fighting headwinds in his own party than Keith Ellison did when he made a bid as Chair of the national DNC. Democrats hate change as much as Republicans. And they hate progressive change even more.
It seems inevitable that the Democratic Left will eventually be forced to build itself a new political home. But for the moment we can all breathe a sigh of relief that within a few months the country will no longer be run by a mentally ill fascist whose midnight Tweets re-traumatize us daily.