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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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Fred Harris

No such thing as the Democratic Party exists. There is the Democratic Party as organization (national, state) and the Democratic Party in government (presidential, congressional). Each, with its wings, is largely independent. Under all is the Democratic Party in the electorate (the Democrats who nominate candidates and elect party officials). 

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The time has come for a showdown between the reformist and accommodationist wings of the party.

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As chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1969, I appointed a Reform Commission with members and a chair, George McGovern, who I knew would make the sexist, often boss-ridden and, in many states, racist party organizations democratic and representative. In 1972, progressives were able to take over the national party organization, nominating McGovern for president and adopting a progressive platform. This year’s activist progressive Democrats likewise controlled the national party organization, renominating Obama for president and adopting a decidedly progressive platform. 

Activist progressive Democrats who are today’s national party organization (into which Obama for America, together with its financing and technical skills, should now formally be melded) must stay active—pressuring the president and members of Congress, changing the Constitution or the Supreme Court to reduce the political power of money, striking down the Senate filibuster rule, and operating in local Wellstone cells to continually refortify ourselves and educate and mobilize the voters. 

There are no other, magic ways to “transform” the party—only militancy and activism. We can’t make a mass movement without the masses. And militancy and activism in the national party organization alone won’t be enough. Militancy and activism in each state and congressional district are required. Militancy and activism are necessary, too, to stop state legislatures and governors from creating Republican-controlled congressional seats through redistricting and from enacting schemes to suppress the vote. 

We don’t have to reinvent the Democratic Party, and it’s easier to take it over than to beat it. So run for party or public office yourself. Get involved in campaigns to elect the right people. Then stay on them. It’s true, as Barack Obama has said: We are the change we’ve been waiting for. We are the Democratic Party—or can be. 

Fred Harris, a former US senator, is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and an activist progressive Democrat.

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Benjamin Todd Jealous

The author of this piece argues that Democrats should return to their progressive roots. A recent NAACP poll suggests that they need to. 

President Obama personally inspired many African-Americans and Latinos to vote this past November, and to vote for him. This was evident in two ways: the sky-high and often decisive margin of support he received from voters of color, and the unprecedented high levels of turnout in these communities, fueled by new and unlikely “surge voters.” Many Democrats further down the ballot also benefited from the surging black and brown vote. 

But a recent, nonpartisan NAACP poll of black voters suggests that it would be folly for Democrats to assume that their majority coalitions will continue to hold in key swing states—or that demographics alone will let them do as many have predicted and turn Georgia blue in 2016. According to our poll, taken days before the election in key battleground states, the only issue that has the potential to spur “Obama levels” of turnout and support in future years is the same one that allowed FDR to begin attracting blacks into the party in the first place: jobs. 

With Obama off the ticket, enthusiasm for voting Democratic drops 20 percent among black voters in Ohio, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. What is more, a Republican presidential candidate who strongly embraces civil rights could receive as much as 15 percent of the vote among those African-Americans who do turn out. Such significant shifts in allegiance and enthusiasm could easily swing a number of battleground states from blue to red. 

On a more positive note for Democrats, almost two out of three African-American voters in these states chose jobs as their number-one concern at the ballot box. If Democrats want to retain African-American support and maintain African-American turnout, they will have to provide clear leadership in tackling the decades-long recession in our community, while at the same time doubling down on their commitment to defend and extend civil rights. Doing so would require party leaders to push policies that truly lift all boats with the zeal that defined FDR. Such a strategy would have to have a heavy emphasis on spurring job creation and fighting employment discrimination. 

The motto of the Congressional Black Caucus is “We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies—only permanent interests.” Based on the results of our poll, this maxim seems to apply for the African-American voters who carried Obama to re-election. Democratic leaders would be wise to heed this timeless wisdom and pass a new New Deal for those Americans who are still locked out of the land of opportunity that so many of us take for granted. President Obama’s legacy—and his party’s future success—may depend on it. 

Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the NAACP.

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Amy Dean

Bemoaning the Democratic Party’s drift to the right is nothing new. The challenge is to identify the practices that have sustained this drift and to establish a plan to do something different. As a step in that direction, I applaud this manifesto. However, I think we need to be specific about the groups that would make up a more progressive faction within the party. In a sense, the party is the sum of its parts. So what are its parts?

The party relies heavily on several groups that political scientists call “captive constituencies”: labor, women and African-Americans chief among them. They vote heavily Democratic, yet they yield little influence in pushing for a more progressive trajectory within the party because they are perceived as having nowhere else to turn.

The captives are united in being dissatisfied, but they are not united in opposing the main force pushing the party in a neoliberal direction. Some of the big-money interests within the Democratic Party may join with the party’s core constituencies in acknowledging the reality of inadequate social services, struggling schools, stagnant wages and unaffordable healthcare. But their solution is the market. They envision private sector businesses (albeit incentivized by tax breaks and other public support) as the answer. Unions, community groups, faith-based organizations and other social movement actors—the institutional representatives of the captive constituencies—are regarded as part of the problem. Along with government itself, they are seen as impediments to various neoliberal “reform” efforts that have set the agenda of Washington Democrats in recent decades.

To combat the dominance of neoliberalism, we need policymaking that rejects the notion that the market is the best and only answer to social problems. How will we know when we’ve achieved a more progressive political party? The standard will be when the core Democratic constituencies are engaged not as lesser-evil voters to be turned out at the end of each election season so as to prevent a disastrous Republican win. Instead, it will be when these groups and their institutional representatives are empowered as a countervailing force to the market and considered partners in governance.

It’s time that core Democratic constituencies raise their expectations and demand to be more than a voice at the table. It’s time for the captives to break free.

Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations.

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