To read a political publication or check Twitter these days, one can’t escape news of the Democratic Party’s supposed massive circular firing squad, also known as the “Left’s War of Mutually Assured Destruction.” Senator Bernie Sanders, according to some, is “sabotaging the Democratic Party,” and has started a “foolish family feud.” And it’s not just folks on the left hand-wringing over this internecine warfare—opportunistic conservatives are leaning heavily into this narrative. In The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove, once known as “Bush’s brain,” warned Democrats that “progressive intolerance” poses a “life threatening” challenge to the party’s future.
Most of that is nonsense. A real debate about the party’s values, if at times unpleasant, is ultimately constructive and necessary. A bit of common sense is in order.
Democrats are remarkably unified in resistance to Trump.
For all the fretting about division, activists from all wings of the party and from movements outside the party have joined in propelling the popular mobilization against Trump’s horrors. Whether it is more left-wing groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, People’s Action, OurRevolution, or groups led by ex-Clinton and Obama activists like Indivisible, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and others, all have been focused and engaged on countering Trump. Single-payer supporters joined to help fend off the attack on Obamacare. Sanders sparked that effort with mass rallies in various Trump states, and postponed introduction of his bill to create universal Medicare. That mobilization helped forge the remarkable unity of Democratic legislators in the House and Senate against the effort to repeal Obamacare, against the Republican budget, and more.
That mobilization and activism contribute directly to Trump’s continued decline in the polls, which now show record lows. Trump’s demented behavior helps, of course, but it is remarkable that with unemployment at 4.3 percent, the stock market setting records, and the president’s uncanny ability to dominate the news, he’s losing ground even among his core voters.
Democrats would be brain dead and without a pulse if they didn’t have a major debate about the way forward.
Trump’s stunning victory was, as Andrew Bacevich writes, invoking Thomas Jefferson, a “fire bell in the night.” As he puts it, “It is a consequence, not the cause,” of the “collapse of the post–Cold War consensus.” The core establishment consensus—on corporate defined globalization, on policing the world, on neoliberal economic policies—has failed most Americans.
In this century, we’ve had two “recoveries” under two presidents—one Republican and one Democratic—that haven’t reached most Americans. Inequality is at obscene extremes. The human costs of social decay are clear: declining life expectancy, teen suicide, record incarceration, an opioid epidemic, and rising obesity. The failure to invest in decent schools or even core infrastructure is crippling. Trump called out that failure—and enough Americans voted for him, even though most thought he didn’t have the temperament or the experience to be president.
More of the same will not work. Yet Republicans seem intent on peddling their same old supply-side snake oil. Some establishment Democrats seem mainly content to recycle the Obama agenda. They argue that Trump is just a black swan—an accident.
Sure, Hillary won a majority of the votes cast, Trump and Republican approval is in the pits, and Democrats are exceeding past performance in all the special elections. Depending on Trump’s toxicity alone to mobilize Democrats might suffice to pick up seats, perhaps even take back the House in 2018, but it won’t begin the hard process of forging a broad consensus on an agenda that would actually make this economy work for most Americans. It won’t begin to build a consensus for a real security agenda that extracts us from wars without end and without victory. And it won’t begin to create a mandate for the public investment and political reforms needed to deal with America’s spreading social crisis.
Entrenched interests, policy gurus, political operatives, and big money all have a significant stake in defending business as usual. If Democrats are to meet the promise their leaders made in their “Better Deal” platform to put forth a bold agenda that works for working people, a fierce debate isn’t pernicious. It is utterly imperative.
The record is clear: The Democratic establishment has been an abject failure.
The scope of Democratic reversals over the last eight years is staggering. Hillary’s loss was only the last insult. Democrats have lost everywhere—the Senate, the House, and in state legislature.s, and governor’s mansions. Since Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats have slowly lost the House and the Senate, and over 1,000 state legislative seats. The Republican party can now claim 34 governors, a record high for the party. Republicans are in full control in 26 states; Democrats in six.
The New York Times reported on the party fight in an article entitled: “Democratic Split Screen: The Base Wants it All; the Party Wants to Win.” The basic theme was the activist “base” of the party—which the authors mistakenly equated with the Sanders movement—wanted a revolution, while the party pros just wanted to use this moment to win elections.
But, given the track record, clearly the party pros don’t have much of a clue on how to win elections, much less forge a lasting majority coalition. There is no show worth applause. The consultant class has too big a stake in television ads, and too little awareness of the importance of passion and mobilization. The pros assume an electorate that can’t be changed. Democrats, fixated on the “rising American majority,” believe demography is their destiny, but as the Clinton campaign demonstrated, they fail even at reaching and mobilizing what they know is the Democratic base—African Americans, particularly older African-American women, the young, Latinos, and single women. They’ve done a miserable job even of protecting the right to vote in the face of relentless Republican efforts to suppress it. Given the results of the last election, Stan Greenberg’s conclusion—that Democrats don’t have a white working-class problem, they have a working-class problem—is indisputable.
So the party pros’ claim to authority based on experience—“We know how to do this”—has no traction. If they want to build power, Democrats will have to change their agenda, their message, the way they raise money, the way they reach out to their base, the way they seek to mobilize and inspire voters. Everyone talks change now, but the same consultants, the same pros, the same operatives close ranks to sustain their careers and build their fortunes. Displacing them—or getting them to change dramatically—will again not be easy.
Movements, not politicians, drive this debate.
Our media personalizes political debates. Sanders against Clinton, Sanders-Warren against Booker-Harris-Cuomo. And no doubt political leaders looking ahead to 2020 presidential race work to organize ideas, activists, and money to define a political identity.
But this debate is largely driven by movements and activists on the ground. The $15.00 minimum wage is becoming a Democratic party consensus, and with it a range of measures to lift the floor under workers: fair hours, paid family leave, paid vacation days, overtime, and a crackdown on wage theft. This happened largely because of the political movement of workers, significantly organized by SEIU and Change to Win, demanding a decent wage. The revolt on trade, culminating in the rejection of Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership, was driven by popular outrage and mobilization forcing politicians (and, more grudgingly, economists) to respond. The remarkable mobilizations of Black Lives Matter forced criminal-justice reform onto the agenda. The fight over abortion and Planned Parenthood is driven by engaged activists. The demand for “Medicare for All” is propelled by a growing movement, anchored by the National Nurses United and the Sanders campaign.
In the wake of 2016, the energy coming out of the Bernie Sanders’s insurgent primary campaign adds an important new impetus. Insurgent presidential campaigns—McGovern, Jackson, Dean, Obama—unleash energy. They bring new activists into the party; they build the demand for reforms; they challenge old leaders and entrenched ways of doing business.
Sanders helped to rouse a new generation and bring them in remarkable numbers into electoral politics. In states and counties across the country, new activists are organizing to take over party councils. They are recruiting and supporting insurgent candidates. They are demanding changes in everything from party rules to the platform to how the money gets raised and where it gets spent. Not surprisingly, this leads to bruising, and often bitter divisions and fights. The outcome is fraught: The party could be transformed. The entrenched could fend off the interlopers. The party could divide and split apart. But bemoaning this battle is like decrying the rising of the sun. People are engaged and the demand for change is real. Even if he wanted to, Sanders couldn’t shut this down—and he has every reason to want to build this battle for the future of the party.
Is 2018 at Stake?
With bitter fights over agenda, party committees and structure, and myriad primary challenges, some people worry Democrats will be unable to come together to take advantage of Republican failures to win back the House in 2018. The looming next election is always used as a club to limit dissent, to reassert regular order, to suppress new ideas.
No one can predict 2018. Will the economy continue to generate jobs, finally leading to wage increases? Will Trump lead us into a global catastrophe?
We do know that Trump will help mobilize Democrats, liberals, progressives, and activists. We know that liberal money is likely to match what exists on the right. We know that taking back the majority is an uphill climb. Gerrymandering has dramatically limited the number of contested districts. Voter suppression laws will have even greater scope. Congressional Republicans now earn record low favorability; Democrats aren’t much better.
But with Democrats at their nadir, in need of new ideas, new strategies, new thinking and new energy, the call for coming together in 2018 cannot and should not suppress the much-needed and necessarily fierce battle over the party’s direction, future and leadership. When the Tea Party movement began challenging establishment Republicans, Republicans lost some Senate seats that they might have won. Sanctimonious leaders like Eric Cantor were unceremoniously rejected in primaries. Reports of the party’s tearing itself apart were ubiquitous. Yet Republicans enjoy more electoral success than any time in the last half-century. Their internal divisions may make it hard to govern, but they don’t get in the way of winning elections.
There are fundamental questions to be decided. Democrats are lucky that at this point the debate is taking place within the party as well as without. The cost of suppressing this debate will be far greater than the costs of waging it.