How to Save the Democratic Party

How to Save the Democratic Party

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


Reuters/Jim Bourg

The article below is not a Nation editorial or a solicited piece but a manifesto we received from an occasional contributor. We are publishing it in the hope of stirring 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 responses, including those from Keith Ellison, Dorian T. Warren, Benjamin Todd Jealous, and more, here. —The Editors

American progressives and principled liberals need to face an essential truth: the Democratic Party, as now constituted, is no longer an agency for realizing their ideals.
Consider the larger implications of the November 6 elections, which took place in economic and social conditions that should have produced landslide victories for even a moderately populist party. In the two most representative elections—the direct popular vote for the presidency and the House of Representatives—the Democratic Party won the former by less than 4 percent and lost the latter, as it did in 2010, to the most reactionary Republican Party in modern times.

The problem is not President Obama or any other individual leader but the Democratic Party itself. Much of its establishment, from Washington to most of the state capitals, has long since become a party of “bipartisan compromise” with an increasingly right-wing Republicanism, particularly on economic issues with great social consequences—as though America’s true course now lies midway between abolishing the achievements of the New Deal and Great Society and extending them fully in our times. Too many members of the party’s nationwide hierarchy are closer, ideologically and politically, to Wall Street than to Main Street—to the corporate, rich and powerful than to the stricken middle class, the increasingly impoverished working class (and the diminished and embattled unions that protect it), and the unemployed and perpetually poor.

If more proof is needed, the Democratic Party has shown itself to be incapable of providing the moral imperatives, policy ideas, broad popular support or elected officials necessary to lead the nation out of its worst economic and social calamity in eighty years, now in its fifth year of millions of wrecked lives. Indeed, the party’s complicity in the crisis is only somewhat less than that of Republicans unconditionally devoted to only one human right: the unrestrained accumulation of corporate and private wealth. 

A new party—not a third party, but a real second party representing authentic alternatives, as befits a democracy—is therefore urgently needed. Fortunately, the nucleus of such a party already exists, however captive-like and timid, inside today’s Democratic Party. (The late Senator Paul Wellstone called it “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”) For this nucleus to grow, come to power and lead a new reformation of American capitalism, it must liberate itself by occupying and transforming the Democratic Party, as insurgents have done in other co-opted parties that outlived their historical mission—even if this means bipartisan Democrats leaving to become Republicans or go into the third-party wilderness.

* * *

The political bankruptcy of the Democratic Party, its historic achievements consigned to the distant past, is not a recent development. The party’s role in the making of the current crisis speaks for itself. For forty years—that is, under both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses—the nation’s wealth has been put into fewer and fewer hands (the richest 1 percent now possess more wealth than the less prosperous 90 percent), while ever more people have been relegated to poverty or rendered unable to maintain their hard-earned place in the middle class.

Hence today’s shameful American realities (and new exceptionalism): rates of family income inequality, child poverty, infant mortality and incarceration that are greater—and opportunities for quality education and upward social mobility that are less—than in almost any other modern democracy. The two defining tenets of the American dream are being lost, if they have not been lost already: that most children have a fair chance of achieving more than their parents did; and that determination and hard work will assure a successful and secure life.

Democratic loyalists blame Republicans for this national tragedy without acknowledging their own party’s responsibility. The policies that led to today’s crisis gained force with the Reagan administration, but crucial ones were incorporated into President Clinton’s centrist “third way” in the 1990s, a fateful revision of the Democratic mission adumbrated earlier by President Carter. Those degraded Democratic policies included reducing regulations on financial institutions; lowering taxes on corporations, investors and the wealthy; enacting “free trade” measures at the cost of American jobs; and fetishizing “fiscal responsibility” and balanced federal budgets (as though the US government is merely a big family household) to the detriment of social justice and investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

Thus did the Clinton administration—in keeping with its casual epitaph for the New Deal, “The era of big government is over”—contribute to today’s austerity-promoting, deficit-cutting consensus that gives priority to the concerns of investors over the needs of most Americans. Indeed, President Clinton and congressional Democrats made a special contribution to the “deficit crisis” by squandering the historic opportunity for a post–cold war demilitarization of US national security policy—first by expanding NATO toward Russia and then by bombing Serbia, a precedent for the costly bipartisan wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed.

* * *

The Democratic Party has been equally bipartisan—or accommodationist—since the economic crisis began in 2008. Consider the record:

§ It was not a transformed party that elected Barack Obama in 2008, but one that benefited from an extraordinary combination of millions of lost jobs and homes, a unique candidate and a weak Republican ticket. Indeed, during its eight years out of presidential power, the Democratic Party, laden with its own oligarchic funding and intimate Wall Street ties, had recruited so few new policy advocates that its young president surrounded himself with the same Clinton advisers who had contributed to the financial collapse at home and militarized policies abroad.

§ Neither those political retreads nor the larger Democratic hierarchy encouraged any populist or radical reform sentiments that Obama may have had, instead only reinforcing his penchant for “bipartisan compromise.” Whatever Obama’s achievements, they were offset by the lost opportunities: the bailout of Wall Street without holding its oligarchic banks and other economic predators responsible for the financial collapse—93 percent of income gains in 2009–10 benefited the top 1 percent of taxpayers—and without extending comparable assistance to millions of stricken homeowners (even leaving unused $300 billion allocated for that purpose); the failure to spend what was required to stimulate enough new jobs; healthcare legislation considerably less than the nation needed; and the decision to escalate the unwinnable US-led war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history.

§ More generally, instead of acting on popular expectations aroused by Obama’s election—perhaps even frightened by them—the Democratic establishment, especially in Congress, tried to occupy the political center, moving that accommodationist space further to the right than it had been in decades. As economic and social hardships grew across the country, powerful Democrats shunned—still in the name of “fiscal responsibility” and “investors”—almost everything populist in the party’s traditions, even abdicating the word “reform” to reactionary Republicans and virtually deleting nearly 50 million poor Americans from the bipartisan narrative of the crisis. (Like President Obama, his party establishment changed course, or at least its rhetoric, only in late 2011 and early 2012, when this seemed the only chance for electoral survival in November.)

§ Having unilaterally disarmed ideologically, and having failed to diminish either widespread deprivation or corporate power in America, the Democratic Party then squandered a textbook electoral opportunity. In 2010, when economic and social conditions also should have resulted in overwhelming Democratic victories, the party lost—to a Hoover-like Republican Party—control of the House and its effective majority in the Senate, even including the late Edward Kennedy’s iconic seat in Massachusetts. Tens of millions of Americans are still paying the price for that epic failure.

§ Both Obama and Congressional Democrats reacted to the 2010 electoral defeat not with a renewed commitment to the party’s populist traditions but with more capitulation, redoubling their pursuit of “bipartisan compromise”—including a “grand bargain”—from a position now of legislative weakness. Compromise meant yielding on one New Deal and Great Society principle after another, from progressive taxation, financial regulation, the minimum wage and jobs to the environment and entitlements, stopping only barely short of Medicare. In the process, mainstream Democrats acted like the “moderate Republicans” they had long since become and replaced.

§ In 2011, nonpoliticians gave the Democratic Party yet another chance, as the Occupy Wall Street movement spread across the nation. The Republican Party had eagerly gained energy and confidence from the Tea Party in 2009–10, but the Democratic establishment remained aloof from the more popular Occupy movement. Thus should have ended any lingering illusions that the Democratic hierarchy represents a party of the people, much less “the 99 percent.” Little wonder that voters gave neither party a commanding victory on November 6.

* * *

If the existing Democratic Party could not respond adequately to the nation’s most destructive economic and social crisis since the Great Depression, there is no reason to believe it can any longer produce alternatives to the decades of plutocratic policy-making that led to the calamity. This truth is illustrated by the two prevailing explanations of the party’s failures put forth by its own current and former adherents.

One explanation continues to blame only the Republicans, who are said to have “duped” Americans into voting against their own interests. With implied contempt for allegedly gullible voters, these Democratic apologists are in effect acknowledging the inability of many of their candidates to campaign persuasively. But how hard can it be, if Democrats really believe in the principles at stake, to explain compellingly what “less government”—budget cuts (federal, state and local), unregulated banks, and low taxes on high profits and income—would mean for most voters and their families, from education, jobs, retirement and healthcare to public security, transportation and the environment? Considering that nearly half of American households receive direct government benefits, and that virtually every American has benefited from government social policies, it’s hard only if Democrats do not really believe in these issues, as many apparently do not.

The other explanation insists that the Democratic Party has not capitulated enough. An influential group of disaffected Democrats, led by financial titans, highly placed columnists and other privileged insiders, has been clamoring for an avowedly “centrist” party based on still more “bipartisan compromise,” as though Democrats have been lacking in that regard. If the project, essentially a version of the “grand bargain,” succeeds in swaying the Democratic establishment (which may be its actual purpose), the result would be a democracy without any alternatives to government of, by and for the 1 percent—that is, no democracy at all.

The nation needs something fundamentally different. It needs an unapologetically partisan Democratic Party committed to adapting the populist, progressive and liberal principles of the New Deal and Great Society—simply put, modernizing economic development and growth, full employment, shared prosperity and social justice—to present-day America.

Many of today’s progressives look instead to grassroots movements. Such movements are important—they can inspire, prod and replenish the party, as some are now trying to do—but they cannot play the necessary role. In a country as vast and diverse as the United States, and in the American political system, only a nationwide party—again, not an ineffectual third party but an effective second one—can mobilize the support to elect a president and a Congress needed for transformational change. And then, crucially, because a party gets the officials it deserves, that victorious party must guard against unprincipled compromises by the president and other representatives it has elected. (For example, during and after the 2012 campaign, President Obama has promised a renewed effort to achieve a previously elusive compromise in the spirit of a “grand bargain,” which will almost certainly reduce spending on the nation’s vital human and structural needs.) 

Equally important, only such a renewed Democratic Party can transform the pyramid of conformist elites—educational, media, political and business—that underpins bipartisan consensus at the top. Such a party will do what today’s Democratic establishment no longer does: 

§ Open its policy ranks to progressive thinkers and ideas marginalized by the status quo centrism of even purportedly liberal universities, think tanks and media; 

§ Embrace nonconformist candidates and reform activists in state and local politics; 

§ Support and give a larger party role to trade unions and other rank-and-file movements across the country to ensure that the party’s populism is not just for but of the people; and 

§ Make common cause with the like-minded small parties that exist, sometimes on the ballot, in many states. 

A transformed Democratic Party brimming with such purpose, ideas and candidates can win the votes of millions of people alienated by both parties. Indeed, polls suggest that many of those voters (and nonvoters) are ready for such a party.

In short, the time has come for a showdown—if necessary, even a parting of ways—between the reformist and accommodationist wings of the Democratic Party. This should be done democratically, with an open discussion of the fundamental issues, and every party official and member given a chance to choose. The initiative could come from below, from local officials and rank-and-file Democrats, or from above, from the party’s democratic wing in Congress—or even from President Obama himself in his second term, in order to realize his original promise.

Given the national crisis still savaging American lives, and calling upon their best traditions, rededicated Democrats have every chance of winning this historic struggle for the soul and future of their party. Indeed, they begin from a position of strength: the Progressive Caucus is the largest Democratic group in the current Congress. And it will be supplemented in the next one by the contingent of new progressives elected in November.

* * *

The reckoning must be carried out based on six fundamental principles that will guide the campaigning and policy-making of a renewed Democratic Party. All of them once inspired a great democratic reformation, and they can do so again if adapted to our present needs.

1. The overriding purpose of government of, by and for the people is to assure all citizens not an equal but a fair opportunity (since there is no equality of birth, circumstances or ability) to realize their hopes and potential. This means a fair opportunity to acquire a good education, achieve a vocation and commensurate prosperity, raise a family in decent housing, and experience life in the best possible health. Whenever and wherever the private sector does not provide these basic human rights, a truly representative democratic government must do so. The goal, in short, is not “big government” or “less government,” but government adequate to meet these obligations.

2. The principle of fairness applies particularly to the economy, which underlies so many other rights. A democratic capitalist economy should exist for the people, not the people for financial and other predatory institutions. Equally true, the vaunted “free market” scarcely exists in the modern world—and where it does, it usually results in corruption and excessively concentrated power. Democracy requires instead a fair market for all its economic participants: individuals; small, medium and large businesses; and labor. This too can be assured only by representative government, through direct and indirect regulations.

3. A government committed to social and economic fairness requires tax revenue for this purpose. The rich, the less affluent and the poor all benefit from government expenditures. (They use the same roads, drink the same water, breathe the same air and require the same public security.) Indeed, some government provisions benefit the well-off disproportionately, as with air-travel safety and high-speed trains. Taxation is therefore not merely a fiscal category but an expression of social fairness, which means it must be progressive and without the devices that enable the wealthy to pay at lower rates than their servants, and employers than their employees.

4. All of these fairness provisions require government regulations, agencies and administrative procedures. At the same time, the transformed Democratic Party understands that some of its past programs may have bequeathed a bureaucracy that has outlived its utility and even become an obstacle to free, fair pursuits. The party therefore also resolves to establish a professional review of all such agencies and procedures and to abolish or revise those that no longer serve a public good.

5. No American reformation, or general well-being, is possible—politically or financially—without the demilitarization of foreign and national security policy. Policies that rely increasingly on swollen military budgets, troop deployments, NATO warplanes, drones and large nuclear stockpiles, often animated by unworthy imperial motives, have squandered American lives, wealth and good will abroad—with few, if any, real gains in national security. We need a new conception of national security—one maximizing diplomatic rather than military approaches—that corresponds to our new times, real needs and American values.

6. The transformed Democratic Party also understands that none of these principles or reforms will be possible without radically reducing the growing role of corporate and private wealth in American elections, in which the party has also been deeply complicit. Billions of dollars have profoundly undermined the first principle of democratic government of, by and for the people, and this is where equality is both possible and necessary. Real democracy requires elections with a maximum of voters and a minimum of influence-seeking money. Therefore, the party resolves to pursue every means to restore the essential practice of elections uncorrupted by financial power and of policy-making independent of paid lobbyists.

* * *

Many Democrats who share these principles may say that it is politically dangerous or impossible to re-create the party by drawing such divisive lines within it. Let them consider the damage already done to America, and to the Democratic Party itself, by a party that can no longer repair the nation. Let them consider the instances in history when principled insurgents recast their parties and led them to great achievements. Let them even remember how today’s right-wing Republicans fought, unwavering in their principles, to occupy and control their party.

Or let them simply heed the timeless imperative of historic change: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Read replies from Keith Ellison, Dorian T. Warren, Benjamin Todd Jealous, and more, here.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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