Washington, D.C. —
Fresh off the emboldening Democratic establishment victories in California and the likely one coming up in New York state, the two U.S. states with an outsized role in shaping the narrative of one of the two major political parties in the country, have decided not to run on ideas that would be politically popular to most of the country, Democratic, independent, and Republican alike.
Take tri-partisan popularity of policies like Medicare-for-All for instance, which enjoys broadly shared support in 42 of the 50 U.S. states.
Meanwhile, the sterling economy has made the Democrats shift gears to focusing on restoring checks and balances to the government, and a laser-focus on the public corruption of the Trump administration. Not a bad strategy in theory, but two problems with that:
1. Conceding the economic argument to the Trump administration is a huge mistake, especially considering the fact that the economy is average-at-best, poor-for-the-many, and only good in a universe of diminished expectations and acceptance of national decline.
2. The Democratic Party has its own problem with corruption too, especially in states like New York, where corruption has enjoyed a bipartisan consensus. New York’s status as a “blue state”, whatever that means, will contribute to undermining this as an electoral strategy. It certainly won’t persuade anyone, as many polls have backed up the fact that most Trump/GOP supporters don’t care about public corruption. And the Republican Party remains more behind this president than any party has been since World War II at the 500-day mark of a presidency, with the exception of President George W. Bush just after 9/11.
Also, this happened. In New Jersey, Lisa McCormick, a first-time candidate with no money, no endorsements, and no campaign appearances, captured 38 percent of the primary vote against Bob Menendez, a two-term U.S. senator who has raised more than $8 million and had the endorsement of every major Democrat in the state. Sen. Menendez was indicted on public corruption charges (which were dropped earlier this year) and recently was “severely admonished” by US Senate Select Committee on Ethics.
Make no mistake, the Democratic Party is the only current and viable vessel out of this long and potentially permanent national nightmare. That being said, all of the problems frequently cited by this website, its podcast, commentary and articles are still present, and are still on display, arrogantly so even, by the party itself.
- An aversion to actual competitive primaries, especially against average or poor incumbents in safe Democratic states and districts. Why does this matter? Because it is through safer seats, that long term bench-building and party-building becomes easiest and controllable. The Democratic Party has long had an addiction to political dynasties, incumbency and careerism where none is warranted, and from being unwilling to have an actual conversation with its base about the direction of the party.
- A party that is increasingly dependent on the young to be viable, is led by the old. Indeed, the gerontocracy of the leaders in the Democratic Party has long been a problem, and its a problem that the Republican Party has taken advantage of, first through active recruitment of younger candidates. The few times the Democratic Party establishment has gotten behind younger candidates, those candidates have been poor avatars of the growing consensus of their generation (see: Jon Ossoff).
- The party is still awful at harnessing grassroots energy. The party was mostly adversarial and awkwardly silent during Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and other movements, and while I’ve seen some improvement here, I’ve also seen a foolish tendency to come and take credit for grassroots victories. It’s highly embarrassing that state parties with next to zero social media following act like they’re the grassroots, while there is very real work going on. Simply put, the GOP let the Tea Party energy go through them, whether they wanted it or not, the Democrats often go out of their way to put up roadblocks to put out grassroots energy that ideally, could flow through them as a vessel. Make no mistake, if you’re waiting for change to come from the Democratic Party, we’ll be waiting forever. But that doesn’t mean change cannot be brought to it. And that change will happen faster if they get out of their own way.
- No new ideas nor desire to adopt popular ideas from progressives. While movement progressivism and the democracy movement have provided much in the way of pushing new ideas the past few years, the Democratic establishment has been slow to adapt any of them. I’ll give individual Democratic leaders like Senators Kamala Harris, Kristen Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and others credit for adopting popular positions in the past 18 months on health care for all and other issues, but overall — this adoption of new ideas is happening to slow. Notice that Harris, Gillibrand, and Booker are all relatively younger for a Democratic officeholder. It’ll probably be faster to continue to run viable primary challenges like the GOP did when they were in opposition. Until the party fears their base, they have no reason to adopt the change that we need and seek.
- They frustrate the small-d democratic process itself. In recent cycles, and in this cycle, despite strong grassroots developments around the country through groups like Our Revolution, Indivisible, etc., the Democratic establishment has continually frustrated the process by intervening before the voters have decided. Recently in New York state, DNC Chair Tom Perez intervened and endorsed Governor Andrew Cuomo for a third term. This story has been quite common this cycle. Cuomo has deep campaign coffers, support from the state establishment, has even helped pass a few progressive reforms, but he also has deliberately held up reform through the creation and allowance of the Independent Democratic Conference, which for years caucused with state Republicans and continued to do so the last few years. He also is backed considerably by big real estate interests who give unlimited sums to his campaign and continue to benefit through the LLC tax loophole. He also has shut down the investigatory board meant to crack down on public corruption in the politics of New York itself. Similar to New Jersey this cycle, back in 2014 he had a little-known and barely-funded challenger receive a surprising amount of support just by standing up — Zephyr Teachout. Teachout is a Fordham Law professor who literally wrote the book on public corruption (see: Corruption in America). Teachout ran for Congress last cycle and is running for NYS Attorney General in 2018 in the wake of Eric Schneiderman resigning in shame last month. At this point, the “very serious” and “very smart” people at the top leadership positions of the Democratic Party should strive to remain “actively and passionately neutral”, allowing the process to play out and the voters to decide. After all, if the establishment leadership was so good at what they do, they’d win more often.
- The question must be asked–does the Democratic Party even want to win? I say this because this is a time where left-leaning parties should be gaining steam considering there are Gilded Age-levels of economic inequality, and most Americans are one bad week away from being in poverty. Historically, and especially in modern times, the Republican Party has been the party of elites. The problem is, with but a few exceptions today, the Democratic Party has also become a party of elites. In a political system and political culture that is growing more and more distant from the common people, voting your pocket book may very well be the measly couple hundred bucks you receive from the Trump tax cuts, even though math and future attacks on Medicare and Social Security because of record budget deficits will say otherwise and say that decision was short-sighted. It’s an unsettling reality of our time, but voting with anger, fear, and frustration is going to give a slight advantage to those who hate stronger in an era where voter mobilization and active participation is fueled by hatred of the other side.
- In an era where the Republican Party has waged a war on facts, the tastes and sentiments of the Democratic Party seem ill-prepared to be an effective opposition party. It is a problem to be led in the Senate by a leader like Sen. Chuck Schumer, who voted against the Iran Deal. This undermines any effective opposition to that ill-considered move by Trump and co. This is similarly true on the issues related to the boomer bipartisan consensus. Whether it’s missile strikes against Syria, complete silence with few exceptions on Israeli snipers killing unarmed protesters who were at worst, throwing rocks, or repealing key provisions of Dodd-Frank (which will most likely lead to another Great Recession, the Greater Recession of 2021 we’ll say, that article and argument is to come at a later time).
- This is a terribly ineffective opposition party. They’re so bad that I almost wonder if they genuinely agree with the Republican Party on most of this agenda. Perhaps it is just the continuation of the boomer bipartisan consensus of forever war, tax giveaways to the rich, and unconcern about Gilded Age-levels of economic inequality. In the end, like Barzini before him, it was AL.com contributor Carson Starkey and his “should-be famous” refrain all along. Look at the Trump tax cut bill for instance. At the time of its passage, the bill had the support of 20 percent or fewer Americans, depending on the poll. At nearly this same time, DACA had the support of over 3/4th’s of the country. Yet the tax bill that continued the near-four decade long trend of wealth redistribution to the very top was pushed through, and DACA recipients owe their legal status in this country to judges, not to Democrats standing up for them. The brief time the Democrats stood tall and tough, shutting down the government over DACA, they caved in mere days. Throughout their time in opposition, the voters have clearly not punished the Republican Party for their numerous partisan government shutdowns, nor their consistent shunning of the democratic legitimacy of the only boomer President that was any good, President Barack Obama. Democrats in Congress could have done the same thing, if only to show the country and their base that they care. Maybe I’m being too tough on the Democrats here, maybe the timing of this message will not be well-received, but I cannot help but feel that any momentum toward a blue wave, despite the encouraging signs in special elections, despite the encouraging signs at the grassroots level, I have the creeping notion that it will be wasted. There is still a lot of time left, so consider it a warning. But if the election were held today — I do not believe the Democratic Party would pick up either the House or the Senate. The graphs below show a closing of the gap on the issues, on enthusiasm, and in the generic balloting (which Democrats have historically underperformed the general ballot polling anyway).
It ain’t over ’til it’s over folks, but as of today I see little evidence that a #BlueWave will come. While I hope I’m wrong about these warnings, and I look forward to having very #actuallysmart people I respect say otherwise this weekend on the AL.com podcast (back from the dead), I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it was going to happen.
To summarize and play the devil’s advocate, switching gears to an Against Trump campaign could end up being the right strategy because it a.) worked for the Republican Party these past eight years, and b.) President Trump is still very unpopular overall even after accounting for the uptick in his ratings. His personal approval lags behind his job approval, the opposite of President Obama (whose personal approval ratings typically were higher than his policies and job approval ratings). My worry is like the electoral college itself, where he is liked is strategically spread out throughout the country in a narrowly sufficient manner, the very manner which scored him and the GOP a surprise upset in the ’16 election.
And the greatest frustration of all won’t be a midterm disappointment, which I’m currently expecting, it’ll be the continued and predictable insistence from party leadership that it should keep driving the bus. Because at the end of the day, I do not think it is the willingness or unwillingness to compromise with their base or not that drives progressives crazy about the Democratic Party — it is their electoral track record.
Progressives of all stripes are not stubborn, at least not as stubborn as movement conservatives were from the days of Barry Goldwater to Mitt Romney (the last conservative Republican nominee, as it does a disservice to the word to consider Trump conservative, he’s personally and fundamentally an authoritarian nationalist to the extent you can pinpoint an ideology), but progressives do want to win and help bring this country back from decades of national decline in actual hard numbers, and decline in image. And to do that they need to have a legal vessel, a political party that can win elections and at least perform the basic tasks an opposition party is supposed to perform in a democracy falling into tyranny… and if it cannot, progressives need to stop compromising with a party leadership that doesn’t know how to win elections, and continue the long march toward taking over the Democratic Party the same way the Goldwater grassroots movement took over the Republican Party in the 1960’s. It is the best shot.
Final Note: In the many states where the national party, and most importantly (since most of the actual party organizing goes through state parties), the state parties, have “given up”, which are predominately red states — progressives have succeeded in more or less taking over the state party. And while there have been disappointments for progressives in most statewide races, that is to be expected. If you look down-ballot at the Congressional and state legislative seats, there is reason for optimism.
I said after the 2016 Election that this reform project would take six to eight years. I stand by that and there will be some growing pains along the way, but we’ll get there.