Democratic Leaders Concerned That Popular Ideas Might Take Over the Party

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Democratic leaders have chosen not to run on ideas and a platform more appealing to the general electorate, citing fears that they’d lose control of the party.

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. 

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Medicare has for years been one of the most popular programs in the country, expanding it to everyone as favored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has fallen on deaf ears for most of the Democratic establishment. Sen. Senators as you know, is largely seen as discredited for “not being a Democrat”(TM) or something… meanwhile, real Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) are openly considering supporting President Trump in 2020. #HesNotEvenADemocrat

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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. 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).

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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.

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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. 

Conversations from the Ghost of America’s Future Past

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It’s the next night after the 2018 midterms and Carson and Troy recap what we just witnessed….

It’s nine o’clock on a Wednesday night, #HipsterJesus walks into a Brooklyn coffee shop that also serves alcohol at night (because of course they do) and in the corner the camera pans to Carson Starkey and Troy Olson. Carson is nursing a bourbon, and Troy, who had not drank alcohol in eight months, is drinking a Brooklyn Lager and talking about “Joe, Jane, and Union John.” His arms are moving wildly before Union “pounder of pavement” Carson interjects about the 2018 results:

Carson

That was a fine impersonation of the season 2 episode of The West Wing.

Troy

Right. The midterm episode. All that money spent by both sides. Few districts change. Here we are at the end of the road and Dems have barely climbed over the 200 seat mark. The GOP can only deal with 13 defections now…

Carson

Democrats lack a uniform message in Congress, other than restoring what Barry achieved in his first 2 years and refraining from destroying health care.

Troy

So many campaign groups started up in the wake of the ’16 result, so much grift, so few results. My flight to the nonprofit sector was well timed, where we… actually help people out. A foreign concept to investment bankers and real estate financiers and developers and inheritors of extreme comfort.

Carson

The disgruntled citizens… mostly disgruntled and white… are sad that NAFTA still exists. Because Mexicans and The Wall. And WalMart still pays badly. President Trump hasn’t made a deal to fix poverty because the Chamber is busy repealing minimum wage laws.

Troy

But what did we expect? As the Margin of Error pointed out last year, only people that went to Harvard and Yale think Donald Trump is a populist.

Carson

I’d like to think that it’s possible for me to get a job with Sherrod Brown’s presidential campaign as a policy analyst or speech writer. But that’s not certain post-2018. I’m inclined to stay in Minnesota now that Tom Emmer is governor. Too much work to be done here.

Troy

Well it’s good that he won’t have his senate duties to distract him from the campaign trail if he does run now that Senator Josh Mandel is in office. (Troy takes a drink of his lager, then a drink of tea, alternating) At what point did it set in for you that there would be no wave in ’18?

Carson

When Democrats settled on defending Heidi Heitkamp as the least bad option. And she lost. Because that’s what red states mean… tough terrain.

Troy

All those polls showing a generic ballot lead of 10 percent probably hurt. We still won the total ballot by 6 percent but that is not enough in a gerrymandered America.

Carson

We’re still in deep minority position across the states. Republicans outspend Democrats 3 to 1 in the legislatures and governors’ mansions. Which for the GOP, creates an endless pipeline of nutty Sam Brownback-style candidates. Infrastructure being what it is…

Troy

I wish the D-trip heeded our calls to think locally.

Carson

Colin Peterson will assume leadership of a rural think tank designed to “help” Democrats. Mostly to spew nonsense about the importance of the 2nd Amendment and why women are uppity.

Troy

What do you make of the surge in third parties on the left in safer seats? This falls along with my theory that although activism and involvement is at an all-time high, it’s independent and separate from the Democratic establishment, as may have given up on the party. Registration and caucus/convention turnout was down… people seem to be doing what Bernie is doing… a wait and see approach. Neither building the viable third party that is more progressive and populist nor effectively taking over the Democratic Party. Hurry Up….and Wait.

Carson

Well they can’t find regular access to parties, jobs in campaigns or activist groups. I don’t blame them for avoiding the regular channels of political organizing. Lord knows we’re familiar with that. Even if the WFP is a smaller outfit, it’s a platform for ideas. Ones that people believe in.

Troy

Right. I’m relatively convinced that if a neoliberal beats a progressive in the 2020 primary the party is done… sure it’ll limp along for a few more cycles, propelled by boomer lefty outrage… but the numbers will dwindle and so many younger folks will want out. And the resulting aftermath, well if you are well read on political problems in developing countries, if I may use that term here in the way academics and researchers have used it, you’ll know that revolutions are led by under and unemployed professionals and intellectuals. It’ll be fascinating to see neoliberals, Dukes and Earls that had the right last names and believe in the “magic”, let’s call in the Force, against a bunch of Han Solos cynically claiming that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster…

Carson

Maybe the residents of Williamsburg will be ready to join the military when Tom Cotton becomes President, if only to revolt and re-enact Les Miserables.

It was getting late and Carson had a plane to catch tomorrow morning at JFK, and a campaign to plan for. It was a foggy night and he walked slowly and carefully… with the magic of Bruce Springsteen in his ear and the words of the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone saying “we all do better when we all do better.” Troy watched from sidewalk and the scene looked not unlike this….

Public Integrity Alliance v. Tucson, and the 21st Century Battle for American Voting Rights

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Public Integrity Alliance, Inc. v. City of Tucson, a pending petition before the U.S. Supreme Court, challenges the Constitutionality of ward district lines in municipalities.

The 14th Amendment was passed nearly 150 years ago. The Equal Protection Clause later went on to expand the scope of the Bill of Rights and apply it directly to the states. “Equal protection of the laws” has been cited in landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954). It is one of the most important parts of our Constitution as it currently stands. Today, it could save our democracy and continue to inch us closer to a “more perfect union.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Public Integrity Alliance, Inc. v. City of Tucson (Public Integrity), responding to their writ of certiorari. This case will provide a fresh and interesting precedent for advancing electoral and voter advocacy projects under the Age of Trump. Public Integrity advances the following issue:

Whether the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment permits the City of Tucson to exclude certain registered voters from the primary election for a citywide representative based solely on the geographic location of such voters’ residence within the city.

The City of Tucson employs a “hybrid” municipal electoral system. Primary elections are conducted under ward district lines, while  general elections are conducted citywide and on an at-large basis. Early indications from the Court are that this system violates the “one person, one vote” maxim of the equal protection clause, disagreeing with the 9th Circuit below. The Court’s decision to hear Public Integrity is based on previous rulings holding that geographic location is not a “permissible basis for distinguishing between qualified voters”, Gray v. Sanders (1963), and Smith v. Allright (1944), in which future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that Texas’s Democratic primary system allowed whites to structurally dominate the politics of the one-party South at the time. The Smith ruling unmistakably connected the primary process to the general election as one continuous electoral event for purposes of the 14th Amendment.

If you want to have better outcomes outcomes, you have to control the rules. In recent years, the Republican Party has mastered using voting and election laws to control political outcomes. While the Democratic Party was writing articles and speaking of “demographic inevitability” the GOP was actually rigging the system in its favor, through use of Voter I.D. laws, gerrymandering, and recently, chipping away at key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Democrats should have been fiercely defending this unconstitutional and overtly political usurping of our democracy and defending all constituencies, but they were complacent, far too assured of their historical inevitability.

There is, however, another issue that is nearly as old as the Republic itself percolating behind all of this. The two party duopoly. Nowhere is this more evident than in closed electoral systems, as opposed to open electoral systems. Whereas taxpayers fund primary states, the party pays for caucuses and conventions. Herein lies the difference. It is quite clear, that closed primary elections are unconstitutional. While the Constitution affords great latitude to states and localities in elections, there is no mention of political parties at all. Our nation’s first President, George Washington, warned against factionalism and the growing influence of political parties. For many historical reasons, political parties were not only inevitable in our system, they have often served as the primary organizing tool for American citizens to reach shared goals. Parties have had a special role to play in American history, achieving high heights, but also being attached and at times, the chief driver of tragic consequences. As we wind down the 6th party system and into an unknown and yet to be completely characterized 7th party system, it is important to go back to our roots. On behalf of the “We the People”, the public, and the U.S. Constitution – it’s time to fight back.

Public Integrity will be an interesting test case because it will test the current makeup of the Court’s willingness to hear electoral and voting rights challenges on the basis of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. If and when the Court decides to rule (most likely sometime this summer) that equal protection of the laws is violated, and even if they do not, I would argue closed primaries are much clearer violation of the equal protection clause than ward district lines. Allowing political parties, specifically the Democratic and Republican parties to have such strict control over the electoral system is arguably what has produced an authoritarian, ideological demagogue as President with one of the parties backing him up thus far.

The New York state primary is a textbook example. Not only is the primary closed, but you also have to be registered with the party seven months before the primary election. This disenfranchises new New Yorkers and permanently disenfranchises political independents or unaffiliated voters, the largest self-identified voting group in the country, and the third largest in the state of New York (barely behind the Republican Party, further behind the Democratic Party). Fusion balloting or cross-endorsing despite some encouraging results, has not proven to be an effective check on forcing this false dilemma onto the electorate.

It is unfortunate that a state with the proud legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Al Smith, Fiorello La Guardia, and a state that served as a test bed for many New Deal policies, has been reduced to finishing in the bottom ten in the United States in voter turnout, bottoming out at 48th during the 2014 midterm elections. This trend toward lower turnout is not unique to New York; rather it is unique to closed primaries themselves. Closed primaries have reduced political competition and serve as outdated models used by once-vaunted political machines that can more appropriately be called, anti-machines now, given that political machines are supposed to turn out the vote. Gone are the days of Tammany Hall and Mayor Daley. We have arrived at a time where our country has voter turnout that lags behind all other developed, industrialized democracies. Closed primaries are part of the problem, and they are unconstitutional. This question should be advanced:

 

Whether the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment permits a closed primary electoral system, funded by taxpayers, that discriminates on the basis of party registration and timing of party registration.

Another reason why New York State is the ideal test case for 21st century voting rights precedent is the state appoints its Secretary of State rather than elects it as a Constitutional office. Thirty-five states elect their Secretaries of State. As we saw in the 2000 Presidential election, which turned on a couple hundred votes in the state of Florida, Secretaries of State in all fifty states are very important offices, too important to be left to the partisan will of Governors and legislatures.

The appropriate check on the proper administration of free and fair Constitutional elections is the voters. The devil’s advocate might say that new electoral laws passed through the legislature are the proper avenues for this. Indeed, New York Attorney General Eric Scneiderman’s proposals are a step in the right direction. A step that should have been taken years before the 2016 Presidential Election. It’s no secret that entire precincts in Upper Manhattan and elsewhere officially recorded that then-candidate Barack Obama received 0 votes during the 2008 Presidential Primary in New York. The best way to check this is to open up, modernize, and allow the voters to hold those administering and implementing elections accountable. Therefore, this Constitutional issue should also be advanced:

Whether the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment permits a state to appoint its Secretary of State, who is tasked with administrating free and fair elections, rather than elect this position and allow citizens to check and balance.

Getting rid of closed primaries and unelected Secretaries of State would likely destroy the last few political machines that still exist, and rightfully so. These machines are antiquated, out-of-touch with the concerns of the people. This combined with gerrymandering, voter I.D., and other draconian measures, have contributed to an erosion of voting and citizen engagement that is so severe that for it to endure any longer, is seriously unhealthy for any democracy, let alone the oldest democracy on Earth. But this democracy is now in more danger than at any time since the Civil War.

In an ideal world, Election Day would be a national holiday for federal elections and state elections if they see fit to follow. If we are going to keep celebrating Columbus Day, I’m sure we can decide to set aside one Tuesday every two years to celebrate and renew our democracy by voting in a more free and open manner administrated by people that are elected by we the people.