Tag Archives: Democratic party

We Don’t Need No “Moderates”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apparently decided that embracing the “Blue Dog Democrats” – a group of politicians who proudly tout their commitment “to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines” – is the prudent electoral strategy for the Democratic Party in 2018.  Daily Beast contributor Michael Tomasky agrees, writing that the “reality, which many liberals refuse to accept[, is that to win a majority in the House of Representatives], Democrats have to win in 20 to 25 purple districts.  And that means electing some moderates.”

If you’re in favor of Democrats joining with Republicans to enact tax cuts that go mostly to the rich, reductions in government spending on support for low- and middle-income people, and more legislation authorizing perpetual war, this strategy isn’t totally crazy.  But if you’re in favor of “single-payer health care, a much higher minimum wage, a massive infrastructure program, a top marginal…tax rate around 50 percent, a much higher payroll tax cap, and more,” which Tomasky says he is, this strategy couldn’t be more wrong.  Even if it led to a Democratic House, it would stymie your agenda.  In New York, for example, while the Blue-Dog-esque Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) gives Democrats a nominal majority in the state Senate, the IDC consistently partners with Republicans to undermine economic and social justice.  A Democratic majority doesn’t help you very much if the Democrats who get you there don’t share your values.

Importantly, there’s also no reason to believe Tomasky’s assertion that “moderate” candidates will improve Democrats’ electoral prospects.  In fact, evidence suggests an alternate strategy holds more promise in contested (or even heavily Republican) districts in 2018.

Consider recent special elections to replace Trump appointees Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina’s 5th District), Mike Pompeo (Kansas’ 4th District), Tom Price (Georgia’s 6th District), and Ryan Zinke (Montana’s At-Large seat) in the House.  Democrats pursued the Tomasky strategy (or, as former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon seems to call it, the “Panera Breads of America” strategy) in Georgia, spending a historical record $30 million on a candidate, Jon Ossoff, who stressed deficit reduction and actively opposed both single-payer health care and taxing the rich.  The national party apparatus mostly stayed out of the other three races, but the Democratic candidates in Kansas (James Thompson) and Montana (Rob Quist) secured progressive endorsements with a platform closer to the one Tomasky theoretically supports.  Nobody paid much attention to Archie Parnell, the Democratic candidate in South Carolina, who, like Ossoff, would fit in pretty well with the Blue Dogs.

The Democrats lost all four races.  But based on how Democrats had fared in each of those districts historically, they also significantly outperformed expectations.  All of them except for Ossoff, that is, who did far better than the practically nonexistent candidate Democrats ran in the prior congressional election in Georgia’s 6th District but worse than Hillary Clinton performed there against Donald Trump.  Note also that Georgia’s 6th District is more affluent than most and thus, according to Tomasky, a place in which “the Democrat should definitely talk more about growth than fairness but can probably get away with somewhat more liberal social positions,” which basically describes how Ossoff ran his campaign.  In other words, the Democratic Party invested the most resources and got the least return on one of the “moderate” special election candidates in a district tailor-made for the Tomasky strategy.

Advocacy for single-payer health care didn’t put Thompson and Quist over the top in their races, of course, and Parnell, a “moderate” who both the party and grassroots organizers more or less ignored, came the closest to victory.  These special elections certainly don’t prove that endorsing economic justice more will win.  But they do show it can play better than a Republican-lite economic platform in heavily Republican areas, a fact also underscored by the recent results of state special elections.  In New York’s 9th Assembly District, for instance, which Trump won with 60 percent of the vote, bold progressive Christine Pellegrino just trounced her Republican challenger en route to a seat on the state assembly.

Then there’s the recent international evidence.  Jeremy Corbyn just helped the United Kingdom’s Labour Party pull off its biggest electoral swing in seventy years, defying pundit predictions of Labour’s imminent trampling from a few months before.  Some of Labour’s surge was likely due to the Conservative Party’s mistakes, but some of it was also likely due to a bold set of economic ideas Labour outlined in a new manifesto, ideas that couldn’t be more different from those the Blue Dog Democrats embrace.  Labour’s showing underscored what evidence had indicated since at least February of 2016, when I first pointed it out: Bernie Sanders was much more likely than Hillary Clinton to win a head-to-head matchup against a Republican presidential candidate that November.  That evidence only got stronger as the primary season continued; many Democrats likely wish they had taken it more seriously.  Today, Sanders – a politician about as far from the Blue Dogs as you can get in the Senate – remains the most popular politician in America.  The claim that Sanders-style economic and social justice advocacy is unworkable in the critical purple districts Tomasky references doesn’t square with the absence of moderate Democrats more popular than Sanders in those districts.

And let’s not forget that the Democratic Party has been decimated in recent years.  Not only have they lost control of the executive branch of the federal government and both chambers of Congress, they now also hold only 18 state houses, 15* governorships, and 13 state senates.  They’ve been running moderate candidates in purple districts, and that strategy doesn’t seem to be working very well.

That doesn’t mean we can be certain about what will get Democrats elected.  A candidate’s general election viability is ultimately unknowable.  It may depend on her or her opponent’s platform, debating skill, fundraising prowess, personality, or field operation.  It may hinge on the quirks of the community she’s running for office in or how much the media likes her.  It may come down to random chance.  Electability is also often a self-fulfilling prophecy; people commenting on electability and making decisions based on their perceptions of it can actually influence it and do so all the time.

The only thing we can be certain of in the electability space is political strategists’ and pundits’ poor track records.  Many of the people who claim to know what is and isn’t possible in future elections thought Bernie Sanders would barely get 15 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.  Many of them were sure that Republicans would never nominate Donald Trump, and once that prediction turned out to be wrong, were still absolutely positive that Trump would never become president.  It’s long past time we viewed their claims with skepticism, especially when there’s evidence that points the other way.

Good policy can sell.  Voters can be persuaded.  Political reality is not something that gets handed to us, but something we help create.  Candidates with economic and social justice platforms can win in purple districts, and they’ll be even more likely to do so if Democratic pundits stop assuming they can’t and start getting behind them.

*Updated from 16 to 15 on August 5, 2017, after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced he would switch his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Thanks to Michael Sainato for the heads up!

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, 2018 Elections, US Political System

Ellison for DNC Chair: It Matters

The race for the Democratic National Committee Chairperson is very important.

In case you haven’t been following it, there are many candidates running, but only two major contenders: Keith Ellison, Democratic Congressman from Minnesota’s 5th congressional district for 10 years straight, and Tom Perez, the Secretary of Labor from the Obama Administration.  The winner of the race, who will be chosen during the weekend of February 24 by 447 party insiders, will run fundraising, outreach, and primary processes for the Democratic Party over the next several years.

Overall, Ellison has stronger social justice credentials than Perez – he’s been an active Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has put forward some of the most progressive economic justice legislation in Congress during his time there.  He’s been a staunch advocate for unions, was an early supporter of a $15 minimum wage, and was an early opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals that are more about enriching multinational corporations than promoting the free exchange of goods and services.  His voting record on women’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-racist policy – you name it – is excellent.  And before coming to Congress, Ellison worked in civil rights and employment law.

But Perez deserves a fair bit of credit for his record, too.  As the Labor Secretary, Perez went after companies that stole from their workers, embraced policies that would raise the pay of and increase opportunities for members of underserved groups to become federal employees and contractors, and pushed forward a rule that would reestablish the right to overtime pay for millions of workers.  His active support for the TPP is a non-trivial stain on his résumé, but those who believe in social justice should generally like the policies he’s pursued, as others have also noted.

Yet if that’s the case, why is it so important that Ellison wins?

The answer to that question lies in the answer to another: why is Perez even running?

Ellison jumped into the DNC Chair race right after the election (on Monday, November 14).  His candidacy made a ton of sense for the party for three main reasons:

– Ellison was one of the few Democrats calling for the party and media to take Donald Trump seriously from the beginning. The clip below, from a panel Ellison did back in July of 2015, is the most striking illustration of the contrast between Ellison’s prescience and the irresponsibility of the vast majority of Establishment media figures and politicians during the course of the 2016 election.

– Ellison was the second congressperson to endorse Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, and one of only a small handful to have done so at all.  Many other federal policymakers also had backgrounds more aligned with Sanders than with Hillary Clinton but backed Clinton anyway, possibly because of some combination of a misguided sense of political pragmatism and a legitimate fear of retribution.

Given that Sanders was much more popular than Clinton among Independents and the most popular primary candidate ever among young people, whose energy and enthusiasm Democrats desperately need in the future, it makes strategic sense for the party to put one of his early supporters in a leadership role.  Doing so would suggest that the Democrats, after throwing a ton of institutional weight behind the less electable, less social-justice-oriented candidate (and failing to hold party leaders accountable for their clear violations of the DNC’s charter) en route to squandering the 2016 election, have learned something.  It would give hope that the Democrats may run a fairer, more democratic primary process next time, and that those who opposed Clinton needn’t write the party off entirely.

– Once Sanders lost the primary, Ellison helped draft the DNC platform and became an outspoken proponent of voting for Clinton.  He campaigned very hard for Clinton between July and November.  He showed, in other words, that even though he thinks there is a better path than the one the Democratic Party is currently on, he believes in working within the Democratic Party structure for change.

I would have personally preferred Ellison to not campaign for Clinton, but I respected his choice to do so, and the fact that he did – vociferously – makes him an ideal candidate for party unification.  So does the fact that, unlike Sanders, Ellison is Black and Muslim, and his ascendance would diversify Democratic Party leadership, a worthy objective that Clinton fans have long claimed to support.  Ellison can potentially bridge the gap between good-faith Clinton and Sanders supporters and grow a bigger Democratic coalition.

Establishment Democrats and big-name donors began attacking Ellison as soon as he declared his interest in being DNC Chair, however.  They first complained that chairmanship was a full-time job and that, as a sitting congressman, Ellison wouldn’t have the bandwidth to focus on it.  They then inaccurately cast Ellison as an anti-Semite, misconstruing a 2010 speech he gave and condemnations of White supremacy and Israeli policy that he made twenty-five years ago.  Ellison soon thereafter declared that he would resign from Congress and become DNC Chair full-time if he wins the race, and he has repeatedly proven allegations of anti-Semitism false, but no matter; the Clinton/Obama apparatus wanted a challenger, and when Howard Dean didn’t pan out, they pressured Perez to step in.  He formally entered the race on December 15.

Perez has presented little that looks different from what Ellison has proposed, and nobody has offered a coherent explanation for why they think he’d do a better job leading the party than Ellison would.  Endorsements of Perez, like the one Joe Biden just made, have just highlighted personal details about him and included vague statements that could at least as easily apply to Ellison.  It’s thus hard to understand why Perez would have thrown his hat into the DNC Chair race (as opposed to the Maryland gubernatorial race) if not to maintain the Democratic Party’s current power structure.  The message to those who supported Sanders and want the party to embrace full-scale social and economic justice – many of whom are already upset that Perez pushed some of the Clinton campaign’s disingenuous attacks on Sanders behind the scenes during the primary – seems to be that they’re still expected to fall in line and support whatever the party Establishment decides.

An Ellison victory wouldn’t by itself bring the change the party needs – not by a long shot – and even if he wins, social justice advocates will need to push him on several issues.  Maybe in part to try to forestall attacks from Democrats who will be making the DNC Chair decision, he’s embraced some worrisome positions.  Ellison has endorsed the corporate candidate over the Bernie supporter in a recent race for Florida Democratic Chair, criticized the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the oppressive policies of the Israeli government, softened on his previous commitment to banning lobbyist contributions to the DNC, and promoted some election postmortems that deserve considerably more skepticism.  But Ellison has a strong record overall and would bring a real possibility for regime change, a commitment to grassroots activism, and a new kind of Democratic Party politics.  As Sanders said following Biden’s endorsement of Perez (who Sanders likes and expressed respect for), the race for DNC Chair is about whether the Democratic Party “stay[s] with a failed status-quo approach or…go[es] forward with a fundamental restructuring.”

Some Democrats lashed out at Sanders after this statement.  They were, according to The Hill, “frustrated by press reports characterizing the contest as a proxy battle between the party’s leftist Sanders wing, represented by Ellison, and a more moderate Barack Obama-Clinton wing, represented by Perez.”  But to think otherwise is naïve – that’s precisely what it is.  And as some politicians, union leaders, and media figures who backed Clinton have already recognized, the smart move for Democrats who want to see the party win in the future “would be…to embrace Keith Ellison as DNC Chair.”  That would be the right move for those who believe in social and economic justice as well.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Uncategorized

What Unity Should Mean

If headlines about the Democratic convention (shown below) are any indication, the main purpose of the event is “party unity.”  Calls to “Unite Blue” have been intensifying as the Democratic primary process has inched towards a close and represent a pitch for Bernie Sanders supporters to rally around Hillary Clinton, helping her to emerge victorious in November’s general election matchup with Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, and Jill Stein.

Unity Images

The brand of “unity” being pushed, however, is a corruption of the word.  It zeroes in on a narrow set of attitudes and behaviors – those towards Clinton and other Democratic party leaders – and makes a binary categorization: people who praise Clinton and other Democrats while pledging to vote for them in the fall are good, while those who protest Democratic party leaders at the convention and/or refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton are at best “ridiculous” (Sarah Silverman), “crazy” (Jonathan Chait), “pathetic” (Jon Favreau) “babies” (Amanda Marcotte) and at worst “whiny diaper babies” (Bob Cesca), “dickheads” (Imani Gandy), “garbage people” (Ian Millhiser), “shitheads” (Joan Walsh), or my personal favorite, from a Daily Kos blogger going by the name of LiberalCanuck, “Regressives [who] are commonly found in terrorist and quasi-terrorist circles [and] want misery [and] suffering [so a] revolution can occur.”

This brand of unity is so blinding that those espousing it often pile on and attack individuals who turn out to be with them on the very issue they deem most important (making sure Hillary Clinton wins in the fall).  It risks alienating Sanders supporters – who are more likely than any other candidates’ supporters to hold anti-racist views and support social justice policies – and undecided voters who might otherwise be inclined to lean Democratic, thus sowing the very division to which those pushing party unity are ostensibly opposed.

There is a better kind of unity, one that actually brings people together in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.  It is based on a shared passion for helping those in need, an openness to intellectually honest disagreement, and a commitment to respect and accountability.  This brand of unity has three major components:

1) Sticking to intellectually honest arguments: During the primary, pro-Clinton partisans propagated illiberal, misleading, and/or false claims about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. Now, despite what the New York Times (hardly a Sanders-sympathetic media outlet) has called “undeniable evidence of what Mr. Sanders’s supporters had complained about for much of the senator’s contentious primary contest with Mrs. Clinton: that the party was effectively an arm of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign,” many pundits have responded, not by apologizing for mocking Sanders supporters’ suspicions, but by downplaying and diverting attention away from the evidence confirming that the primary was unfair and undemocratic.  It’s hard to develop a successful coalition when some members of that coalition can’t trust that others are engaging in good faith, and prominent Clinton supporters have a lot of work to do to show that they are.

To be clear, the behavior of these prominent individuals is not representative; most Clinton supporters already engage in good faith most of the time, and there are also Sanders supporters out there who distorted facts during the primary.  It is incumbent upon everyone who truly supports power-balancing policy to make sure we’re adhering to the truth.

2) Respecting intellectually honest disagreement about the strategy most likely to achieve a common goal: Third-party voting, for example, comes with pros and cons for those who believe in social justice policy. The main con, as its detractors are quick to point out, is that it increases the chances that the worse of two major-party candidates will win an election (though it is not the same mathematically as a vote for the worse major-party candidate and, contrary to popular belief, is not the predominant reason George W. Bush became president in 2001).  The main pro of third-party voting, on the other hand – one its detractors rarely if ever acknowledge – is that it increases voters’ leverage over the Democratic party and the likelihood of a meaningful challenge to America’s two-party system in the long run, a system millions of people continue to suffer under.

Whether you think the pros outweigh the cons depends on a number of factors, including how much optimism you have about a third-party voting bloc’s ability to use its power effectively and how much worse you think Trump is than Clinton.  Reasonable people with very similar policy goals and visions for the world are going to disagree about whether third-party voting is worth it – some have even suggested alternative voting options – and rather than excoriating each other, we should have a robust and respectful debate.

3) Addressing legitimate concerns from coalition members and working together on areas of agreement: Third-party voting holds appeal because of the Democratic party’s very real failings, and those who wish to sway third-party voters should make their case not by belittling those voters’ concerns, but by working to make the Democratic party better. If Clinton gets elected and actively pursues the policies she borrowed from Sanders on the campaign trail, we will consider voting for her in 2020.  In the meantime, those voting for third-party candidates in the general election this year must both help push those policies through social movements and make sure to be actively involved in electoral processes at the city, state, and congressional levels.

In short, there’s no reason unity has to be so divisive.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Philosophy, US Political System

Why I Reject Lesser-of-Two-Evils-ism

If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the Democratic nomination for president, some Bernie Sanders supporters will vote for her anyway.  I can respect that decision.  While the differences between Democrats and Republicans are often overstated – to give just two examples (there are many), the same people advise Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz on foreign policy and Hillary Clinton is at least as cozy with Wall Street as most Republicans – there are some real and important reasons to worry about a Republican White House.  The Supreme Court and heads of agencies are, in my view, the biggest concerns in this vein.  I’d have low hopes for Hillary Clinton’s appointees but no doubts that they’d be better on balance than those offered by a Trump, Cruz, or Rubio.

Yet I will not vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  While I understand the lesser-of-two-evils mentality, I disagree with it; most of Clinton’s policy positions are unacceptable to me.  If Sanders loses the primary, I will probably vote for Jill Stein.

Wouldn’t that be a strategic blunder, some friends and family ask me?  Democrats who aren’t quite as polite ask if I’m an idiot.  Don’t I realize that this type of thinking led to George W. Bush becoming president in 2000 and that I may similarly “blow this election” by deciding to vote my conscience?

The premise of these questions, however, is completely wrong, and not just because, as Jim Hightower documented at the time, voting records show that “Gore was the problem, not Nader,” in the 2000 election.  In fact, refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election is both a principled and strategic decision that I encourage more people to embrace.

There are two possibilities when it comes to my vote: it will either impact the outcome of the election or it won’t.  If my vote won’t impact the outcome of the election, I might as well vote for the candidate with the best policy positions, regardless of his or her supposed electability.

If my vote will impact the outcome of the election, I may have to decide which matters more: (a) the differences between a bad Democrat and worse Republican over the next four years or (b) the degree to which I’d undermine our chances to enact fundamental change to a broken political system in the long-run by pursuing a lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy.

As I’ve noted before, the type of political “pragmatism” that would lead someone to choose (a) undermines power-balancing policy goals.  Because politicians and Democratic party officials know that many voters think this way, they have little incentive to listen to our concerns.  Instead, they can pay lip service to progressive values while crafting a policy agenda and decision-making process more responsive to wealthy donors than to their constituents.

That dynamic is on full display already in the 2016 Democratic primary election. Clinton is campaigning against priorities, like single-payer health care, that Democrats are supposed to embrace.  While early union endorsements for Clinton initially improved her rhetoric on education issues to some degree, she is already backtracking to assure corporate donors that her positions are unchanged.  The unions who endorsed Clinton early have no negotiating power relative to rich donors who make their support contingent on Clinton pursuing their interests; given that fact and her record, she seems unlikely to keep her promises if elected.

The Democratic National Committee’s actions are also illustrative.  The party establishment lined up behind Clinton before the race even started, and the DNC’s debate schedule is, despite their protestations to the contrary, quite obviously constructed to insulate Clinton from challenge.  DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s recent decision to suspend Sanders’ campaign’s access to its voter data (in response to a data breach by a since-fired Sanders staffer; the access was restored after the Sanders campaign sued the DNC) has caused even party loyalists to believe that the DNC “is putting [its] finger on [the] scale” and pro-Clinton journalists to acknowledge that the DNC’s behavior “makes Clinton’s lead look illegitimate, or at least, invites too many ‘what ifs.’”

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton (source: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, via http://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2015/11/12/9699836/democratic-debate-schedule)

Both Clinton and party leaders are making a mockery of many of the principles the party is supposed to stand for.  And pledging to support Clinton in the end – no matter what she and the DNC do – enables this kind of behavior.  It’s hard for me to see how we will ever fix our political process and reclaim our democracy by refusing to draw some lines in the sand.

I could accuse those who disagree with that assessment of propping up a sham political system.  I could say that, by downplaying the unfounded smears the Clinton campaign has spread against Sanders and insisting that we must support Clinton in the general if she wins the nomination, they are destroying the Democrats’ credibility and thus helping to ensure ever more privilege-defending and corrupt elected officials and government policy.  But it would be a lot fairer of me to acknowledge that a lot of the Republicans are really scary, that my strategy isn’t guaranteed to work the way I think it will, and that people evaluate the risks differently than I do.

Similarly, those who disagree can continue to accuse people like me of “helping the GOP” in the 2016 election by pointing out that the Democrats have extreme flaws and don’t always deserve our support.  But it would be a lot fairer of them to acknowledge that millions upon millions of people have suffered at the hands of lesser-of-two-evils candidates over the years, that an open commitment to support a lesser-of-two-evils candidate robs voters of bargaining power, and that the Democratic Party has brought voter discontent upon itself.

Hopefully Sanders will win the Democratic primary and this discussion will become a moot point.  In the meantime, it’s good for those of us who believe in social justice to push each other on our tactics.  We would just do well to remember that reasonable people with the same goals can disagree about which electoral strategy is most likely to help us achieve them.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System