It is easy to dismiss the “Come Together and Fight Back” Tour that this week will take Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez to eight cities in eight states this week as mere political theater. But this tour has the potential to finally begin redefining a Democratic Party that is still struggling with its identity after the disastrous 2014 and 2016 election cycles. That’s a big deal, not just for a party that lacks focus but for an American political process that will alter dramatically—for better or for worse—in the months and years to come.
Political parties change identities over time, as anyone who has watched the sorry trajectory of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower can certainly attest. Sometimes, parties evolve. Sometimes, parties respond to moral and political demands that can no longer be denied. That was certainly the case for Democrats in the late 1940s and ’50s, when wise members of the party began to recognize the necessity of a clean break with the Southern segregationists who had historically been central figures in the Democratic coalition.
Though many Democrats still do not fully recognize the fact, their party is again at a moment where it must change.
The party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman began veering in the 1970s toward more centrist economic approaches. By the 1990s, it was swamped by so-called “Third Way” thinking that embraced free-trade fabulism, deregulation of banking and Wall Street, and the cruel lie that there can be some sort of “win-win” compromise between crony capitalism and the common good. It was never true that all Democrats favored centrist economics, but too many leaders constrained the party’s identity with a perceived need to keep on the right side of Wall Street.
Then came the 2016 primary race, which drew clear lines of distinction. The Sanders campaign, with its urgent advocacy for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, fair trade, single-payer health care, taxes on the rich, necessary regulation of big banks, and profound political reform, excited millions of voter—particularly frustrated Democrats, progressive independents, and, above all, the young voters who will decide whether the Democratic Party has a future. And although Sanders did not win the nomination, he won the debate. The party platform reflected his campaign’s progressive values. And Hillary Clinton embraced much of his agenda in her fall campaign.
Although Tom Perez did not back Sanders in 2016, he has a long track record of positioning himself on the left on labor rights and a host of other issues. That helped him when he faced off against a key Sanders backer, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, in a closely contested race for DNC chair.