Don’t Leave the Democratic Party

This is the second in this week’s series of Dems’ analysis and opinions on the DNC race.

Tom Perez is the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, and like many on the left, it’s difficult to understate how disappointed I am. The party was offered an opportunity to harness the political energy of the next generation, and instead made a deliberate choice to slam the door in the face of young progressives. The DNC, or at least 235 of its members, views keeping Sanders supporters out of power as being more important than, y’know, actually winning elections. That’s understandably disheartening, the Islamophobic smear campaign against Ellison was despicable, and the national party voting to maintain the same failed status quo policies that have caused us to lose over 1,000 state legislative seats and all branches of government over the past eight years causes me to seriously question our ability to win in 2020.

But it’s important to remember that the DNC is not representative of the Democratic Party as a whole. The people voting today were mostly consultants, lobbyists, and other people with a vested interest in maintaining the political status quo, even as everything outside the beltway burns down. The DNC is by its nature sclerotic and resistant to change, and we should not be surprised that the left was unable to win today. That we were able to come within a few votes is a miracle. Fortunately, the Democratic Party exists not as a unitary national organization but as a coalition of many smaller state, district, and county parties, scattered across the country, as well as a national organization. US political parties are weak institutions, and vulnerable to influence at several levels by a small faction of dedicated activists. The DNC is among the least likely of those divisions to embrace progressive change, but that does not reflect the party as a whole. From Jane Kleeb in Nebraska to Tina Podlodowski in Washington, from Tim Vandeveer in Hawaii to dozens of state delegates in California, progressives are winning elections to party posts at all levels of government. A left-wing takeover of the Democratic Party is possible, and that we fell a few votes short today is not a reason to give up on the party entirely.

Look instead at what the left accomplished through the Ellison campaign. Ellison was able to run on an explicitly left-wing platform and win the support of not only the grassroots progressives who turned out for Bernie, but also the bulk of organized labor (the AFT! the SEIU!) and even the majority of elected officials, including Senate Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, Dean of the House John Conyers, Rep. John Lewis, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield, outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Ellison drew support from Sanders voters, but also attracted the endorsements of a number of figures and organizations who had backed Clinton or stayed neutral. This campaign demonstrated that a candidate running on an left-wing platform can draw support from enough actors to win a national primary (if not a majority of party insiders). And, at the end of the day, Keith Ellison still earned a national platform. He’s one of the most influential Democrats in the House because of this campaign, and he’ll be able to play a significant role in setting the party’s agenda in the coming years. That’s unequivocally a positive outcome. Today’s vote was a setback, but it was not a catastrophe.

And just the threat of an ascendant left that cannot be ignored has real impacts for policy. Andrew Cuomo, for example, is a very, very bad guy. But even he bowed to left pressure to create tuition-free colleges in New York, as well as a $15/hour minimum wage and a paid family leave program. He did so not because of any vaguely left-wing principles he might hold, but because the left is a potent force at this moment, and failing to do so could endanger his political future. That’s happening in several states where Democrats are in power—in other words, the left’s engagement with the Democratic Party is delivering real benefits that improve the lives of real people. The rightward lurch of the Republican Party since 2010 is another example; the Tea Party did not only win by electing their own people, but by bringing enough pressure that establishment politicians felt it necessary for their own survival to bow to their wishes. Even Tom Perez himself is proof that pressure is having an effect. The establishment wing won, sure, but Perez is a strong progressive. To beat Keith Ellison, the establishment wasn’t able to just push through Robby Mook or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz or whoever, but instead had to find a candidate with substantial policy overlap with the left. Moving the party to the left is a gradual process, but that Perez and not someone worse is the new chair (and that his first move was to invite Ellison to serve as deputy chair) is the result of left-wing pressure.

That pressure is only possible when the left is involved in the Democratic Party. The fundamental task of the left is to build movements that are capable of creating progressive reforms. Since that often requires influencing public policy, the left will often intervene in electoral politics, and will need a critical mass of officeholders to support them. Given the realities of the American political system, between the structure of a first-past-the-post winner-take-all electoral system and recent developments in campaign finance law, the Democratic Party (imperfect though it is) is the best vehicle for those reforms—or, at the very least, the only realistic road to power. Deeply flawed as it is, the Democratic Party is often the only force in electoral politics capable of preventing the rolling back of voting and labor rights, among other elemental rights, that Republican governments have wrought in dozens of states. Neoliberal Democrats are a disappointment, but the harms of Republican rule are simply incomparable. Recent events at the state level demonstrates that it is possible for progressives to lead the response by co-opting existing Democratic Party infrastructure and supporting progressive Democrats in primaries. All that progressives have to do is seize the opportunity. That does not mean unquestioning support for every Democrat, it does not mean to cancel your involvement with pressure groups like Our Revolution and DSA (I’m a member of both), and it certainly does not mean failing to hold Democrats accountable after they are elected. But it does mean that the failure of progressives to win today should not result in mass exodus from the party.

Above all, we must not lose focus. At a time when the party is in crisis, the left has the support of the vast majority of young people and all the energy. We were able to present a credible challenge to a seemingly inevitable nominee. And we nearly won control of the DNC. The conclusion drawn from those facts should not be to walk away—not at a point when the left is more powerful within the Democratic Party than it has been at any point in the last fifty years. Half the party is with us. We are winning. We must keep pushing forward.



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