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How to Save the Democratic Party: Replies | The Nation

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How to Save the Democratic Party: Replies

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This week, The Nation publishes a manifesto we received from an occasional contributor. Our hope is to stir discussion of one of the most important political issues of our time: how to transform what the author, who uses a pseudonym to avoid personalizing that issue, calls the “bipartisan” Democratic Party into an organization capable of bringing about desperately needed progressive change in America. You can read that essay here, and the replies below.

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Keith Ellison

The results of Election 2012 show the power of grassroots organizing and the potential of permanently setting America on a progressive path. This last electoral round revealed support for marriage equality and rejection of the “war on drugs” and voter suppression—not to mention a total dismissal of Mitt Romney’s brand of corporatism. And for all the progressive complaints about Democrats, these results undeniably came through the Democratic Party apparatus and its highly motivated grassroots base. 

The Democratic Party can still be the change agent for our ideals, as it has been since the New Deal and the Great Society. However, since the 1990s our party has suffered from years of neglecting its progressive infrastructure. Note that while many progressives have tossed around the idea of splitting with the Democrats, the Tea Party didn’t leave the Republican Party; it transformed it from within. 

Democrats need a strong progressive wing that consistently shapes its platform, offers up progressive candidates, embraces the party’s accomplishments, and encourages necessary changes. We need to organize in a whole new way, but we don’t need to divide ourselves and we certainly don’t need to start from scratch. This is why approximately 300 people met in Charlotte during this year’s convention to identify loyal Democrats who can organize as progressives. Attendees discussed building progressive caucuses in every Democratic organization nationwide, following the example of the New York City Council’s progressive caucus. 

But the crucial need is for progressives to revive grassroots organizing expertise. The greatest changes in the United States began from the ground up: abolitionism, women’s suffrage, progressivism and the civil rights movement are the biggest examples. These movements didn’t just replenish a party; they actually forced legislation that changed the fabric of our nation. If we’re going to build on our recent success in this post–Citizens United world, we will have to campaign differently by using new and improved grassroots engagement. This will include more field organizing, less reliance on TV advertisements and more individual relationship building.

The claim that Democrats did nothing to combat the recent economic collapse ignores unprecedented Republican obstructionism. Senator Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP’s goal was to make Barack Obama a “one-term president.” Republicans pursued that goal even when it meant causing a bond rating downgrade; engaging in bigotry and hostility against Muslims, gays, union members and immigrants; and launching a war against women. Yet we have a list of progressive accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights. 

And I was proud to see the Democratic platform include progressive ideals, such as calling for Citizens United to be overturned and marriage equality for same-sex couples to be upheld. Election 2012 also saw Maryland citizens vote to allow marriage equality, and in my state of Minnesota, voters rejected constitutional amendments that would have narrowly restricted marriage and required photo IDs to vote. These wins were the result of well-crafted grassroots campaigns—an indispensable part of the party’s future. Instead of allowing impatience to divide us, we need to intensify the engagement of grassroots Democrats with progressive ideals. This is the best way to ensure a fairer, more prosperous America for all. 

Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District since 2007.

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Michael Kazin

L.R. Runner sets forth a lovely set of principles and does so in admirably spirited prose. Equal opportunity, a fair marketplace, a truly progressive tax system, strong yet efficient regulations, a demilitarized foreign policy and strict curbs on the ability of the rich to bankroll election campaigns: all are essential to what it means to be on the left in America. Runner could also have included the right of workers to bargain collectively with their employers—public or private—and the urgent need for a humane immigration policy. 

I only wish the author’s understanding of political reality matched his or her passion. There are many reasons that the current Democratic Party is not the progressive party of our dreams. Two years ago, Eric Alterman brilliantly analyzed most of them in these pages [see “Kabuki Democracy,” August 30/September 6, 2010].

Of course, the Democrats who triumphed with Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1937 and with Lyndon Johnson from 1963 to 1966 faced serious obstacles, too. But the wind of public opinion was, for the moment, blowing their way—generated in large part by the force of mass movements. The industrial labor insurgency and various share-the-wealth campaigns did much to shift Dems to the left in the 1930s, and the black freedom movement, backed by liberal unions, took up the same task three decades later. For those glorious, if agonizingly brief, periods, it seemed feasible that Democrats could triumph as a rigorously liberal—or social democratic—party. 

But asserting the virtues of such an outcome today, as Runner does, is of little use without a strategy to make it happen. Based on the 2012 election results, it is far from clear that a majority of Americans hunger for a party resembling the labor and social democratic parties of Europe. How will progressives convince Americans that our “national security” depends more on a healthy, amply funded welfare state and abundant, well-paying jobs than on lower taxes and a military suited to global empire? How can we build the kinds of institutions—unions, immigrant rights and healthcare consumer rights groups, cooperative banks and more—that would create and support the initiatives of left-wing Democrats? Who will recruit smart, articulate progressive candidates for local and state offices in places like Indiana, Georgia and Texas, and make sure they have the funding to defeat their intraparty and Republican opponents? 

To build the kind of party we desire will require finding good answers to such questions, while having the patience to avoid tearing apart the existing Democratic coalition until we do. Otherwise, those who yearn to emulate the triumphant partisans of FDR and LBJ may instead end up like the campaigners for George McGovern in 1972. We already have enough defeated prophets. 

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He is co-editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University.

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Janine Balekdjian

The author of this manifesto makes two assumptions: first, that the Democratic Party has left its New Deal roots to drift around the center and, second, that Democrats have lost the support of much of the public as a result. Neither of these assumptions is warranted, although it can be difficult to step back from the frustrating political process to appreciate all that President Obama’s first term has accomplished. 

Obama and the Democrats have clearly not abandoned progressivism. The Affordable Care Act is a case in point: Obama vastly expanded health coverage, a goal that eluded Democrats and reformers for a century. Maybe the author was turned off by the legislative compromises, like dropping the public option, that were required to get the bill passed, and thus doesn’t put Obamacare on the same level as Social Security. However, legislative sausage-making always looks better in hindsight. At the time of its passage, Social Security excluded virtually all African-Americans and a number of occupations. It was significantly expanded in subsequent decades. Likewise, there is still work to be done to improve the health coverage system set down in the ACA. Making already existing legislation better may not be as flashy as declaring a policy of wholesale reform, but it’s much more likely to happen and to make a real difference in people’s quality of life. 

I do agree wholeheartedly with the author on the need for the political system to more truly reflect the will of the people. Election spending and corporate donations have gotten out of control since Citizens United, but their influence long predates that 2010 ruling. For politicians to be truly beholden to the people rather than those who finance their campaigns, we must institute a robust system of public financing like the one detailed in the Fair Elections Now Act. Of course, any such act would need the support of politicians beholden to the current system in order to pass. Nevertheless, consistent advocacy is a powerful force—as the eventual passage of Obamacare proves—and Democrats must make a concerted effort to get money out of politics if they are serious about progressivism. 

Finally, the Democratic Party should not forget one of its key strengths: advocating for people of all races, genders, religions and sexual orientations. The Democrats are the ones who will stand up for a woman’s right to choose and against racial and gender discrimination. The Democrats, spurred by grassroots activists, are leading the charge for same-sex marriage and LGBT equality. The Democrats are the first party in America’s history to have a majority non-white-male caucus. Americans respect the party for its inclusivity, tolerance and advocacy for all kinds of people—a progressive agenda that will drive the Democratic Party for years to come. 

Janine Balekdjian, a senior at Columbia University majoring in Slavic studies, is president of the Columbia Democrats and blogs for the Huffington Post.

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