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Democrats Waste a Major Crisis

We are in a mess right now because the Democratic Party decided again to reject an historic opportunity for real change and, instead, defend the way things are.

The party that claims to be “progressive” and “for the people” decided it was enough to stand aside and let Donald Trump talk himself into a hole. But it wasn’t nearly enough to assemble the broad majority needed to be in a position to fix America’s deep problems.

It looks like Biden will win, but the decisive victory that Democrats needed in both houses of Congress and up and down the state ballots has eluded them. The United States is headed, at best, for more political paralysis. Inequality and disabling division will widen. The courts will veer further right. Nothing substantive will get done. Our system’s lethal flaws will not be faced, let alone fixed.

The United States is headed, at best, for more political paralysis. Inequality and disabling division will widen.

As many of us have said throughout this election cycle, it should never have been this close. In the midst of mass deaths, widespread unemployment and proven incompetence, Donald Trump should have suffered a Democratic blowout. Since he didn’t, we have to ask: How did an election that should not have been competitive remain so competitive?

The Democratic Party and the Biden campaign thought they could win decisive majorities by relying on the incumbent president to defeat himself. They were wrong. What they needed was a coherent reason to vote for Democrats, not just a showing of why to vote against Republicans.

If Biden wins, the Democrats will undoubtedly congratulate themselves for doing everything right. That’s the wrong lesson to take away from an election with mixed results despite all the unsolicited help they got from the worst pandemic and the very worst president in at least a century. What Democrats still need if they want to survive 2022 and 2024 is a detailed narrative and an agenda to match about how to win a world where ordinary people can thrive; where the corporations and a rich elite are no longer in charge.

The Democratic establishment listened to pundits who said Trump could never win by appealing only to his base of aggrieved White people. The same Democratic leaders chose to ignore advice that they could not win a commanding majority by making the center-right comfortable at the cost of abandoning their own base of progressive Black and Brown voters.

Nobody at the Biden campaign or the DNC seemed to be listening to Charlemagne, Ice Cube or Diddy, who echoed widespread discontent in communities of color when he said, “Just like Trump made it clear that he wanted to build a wall, Biden needs to make it clear that he’s gonna change the lives and quality of life of Black and Brown people.”

Trump’s storytelling is built on lies, but it’s a coherent narrative about everyday people being victimized by a powerful, wealthy elite. It’s a narrative that syncs up with the anger and helplessness felt by the Republican base. The Democratic establishment refuses to consider any version of that story — particularly the truthful version — because it seems to threaten their own power.

Back in 2008, Rahm Emmanuel, only weeks into the job of chief of staff for President Obama, famously said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” He was referring to the global financial collapse, set off by America’s unwillingness to rein in our cowboy capitalists. All such major catastrophes have a silver lining, Emmanuel believed, because they are opportunities to change political systems for the better in big, important ways that would be unthinkable, and thus impossible, in ordinary times.

Emmanuel’s admonition closely followed the election of America’s first Black president and raised hopes that the Democrats might make big, previously unthinkable changes. But the Democrats wasted the financial crisis. Led by Obama and Biden, they bailed out some billionaires and big banks, put together a slow-motion recovery that did virtually nothing to alleviate the long-term misery of everyday people, and failed to punish the White-collar criminals whose greed caused the collapse. Anger over their failure to deliver just punishment to the guilty or turn that great crisis into fundamental progress for everyday people arguably set the stage for Trump’s election in 2016.

The Democratic Party has never dealt with the residual anger from 2008 and now it has repeated the past, wasting the most terrible crises of modern times. Faced with multiple catastrophes that dramatically spotlight the lethal flaws of America’s unjust system, the Democrats campaigned on a promise of making, at the very most, minor adjustments.

We all are too familiar with today’s emergencies, which are numerous and catastrophic — a perfect storm of existential crises which we could ill afford to waste:

As a result of all this and much more like it, the majority of people in the world’s richest country struggle to get by, living anxiously and precariously, unable to meet even a small financial emergency.

The Democratic Party has wasted the current historic crises, ignoring the voices of the party’s base calling for big changes to achieve racial and economic justice.

Many thoughtful people have long observed that it is not possible to have a democracy with such high levels of inequality and misery. Nevertheless, the Democratic Party has wasted these historic crises, ignoring the voices of the party’s base calling for big changes to achieve racial and economic justice.

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The Democratic establishment is so dedicated to getting by with as little change as possible that it has become a joke. Literally. Three days before Election Day, on Saturday Night Live, comedian John Mulaney deadpanned, “On November 3rd, there is an elderly man contest.” The comic told his audience that after the votes were counted, “...we might have the same elderly man or there might be a new elderly man.” He went on, “But just rest assured, no matter what happens, nothing much will change in the United States.” He got a good laugh. (Watch the whole bit, starting at about 4:15.)

The unfunny part is that Mulaney, of course, didn’t make up his punchline. Biden wrote it for him at a fundraiser back in June. He promised about 100 rich super-rich donors from Wall St. that once he became president, “Nothing would fundamentally change.”

It didn’t have to be this way. The Democratic establishment had their come-to-reality moment in 2016. They had plenty of warning about what they did wrong in that election and how to fix it. Ultimately, they just chose to ignore it. 

Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 sent an unsurprising shockwave through the politicians, campaign workers and professional organizers of the Democratic Party, as well as its millions of volunteers and followers. Many actually wept. I was among the shocked and dismayed.

Every political defeat produces a moment on the losing side that feels like opportunity. The 2016 loss was more stunning and humbling than previous debacles. It showed how badly the Democrats’ leaders had misjudged the country. The only good thing about the disaster was a feeling among many on the left that Trump’s victory had created an organizing opportunity — an opening for real democracy and long-overdue progressive change.

On Donald Trump’s first full day as president, January 21, 2017, I was standing on Independence Avenue about 600 yards from the Capitol surrounded by about a million determined people. The National Mall and downtown Washington, D.C., were drowning in humanity. The Women’s March was getting underway.

Gloria Steinem, life-long feminist and organizer, then 82 years old, took the rally’s stage early on. Looking out over the record crowd, she observed, “This is the upside of the downside.” Trump was showing the potential to be the greatest organizer ever for Democrats and progressives. His many unintended gifts to the professional political left began immediately. 

Some $24 million in online donations poured into the ACLU in the three days immediately following Trump’s Muslim travel ban (his fifth executive order). Within the first year of Trump’s presidency, the ACLU’s membership quadrupled. Ellen Jacob, my wife, and I organized an ACLU “People Power” group in our Manhattan neighborhood and saw it grow to more than 125 people. For the 2020 election, it morphed into a Swing Left group with more than 300 members. 

Indivisible, brought to life specifically “to resist the Trump agenda,” grew from literally nothing to a national movement in the early months of 2017. Over and over, ordinary people were changing their lives to devote more and more time to political activism.

I was one more foot soldier joining a growing army of people inadvertently energized by Trump to work full-time in progressive politics. My working life till then had been devoted to storytelling and persuasion — filmmaking, journalism and advertising. Trump’s malevolent presence convinced me, like many others, to devote all my time to political work.

As usual following any humiliating defeat, the Democrats turned to explaining, blaming and hand wringing. The DNC asked Donnie Fowler, long-time Democratic operative and tech executive, to produce a “post-mortem” of 2016. Fowler denounced Hillary Clinton’s “top-down, command-and-control, don‎’t-move-unless-we-give-you-permission culture.” Her campaign, Fowler wrote, had listened only to the insiders in Washington D.C. and Brooklyn, where Hillary For America was headquartered. It had been deaf to the voices and needs of real people across the country, he said. He reported that data science and cold mathematical models had “excluded the art of human politics“ and storytelling in 2016.

Fowler wrote, “...it is no wonder the country’s progressive electoral politics is such an organizational disaster.”

Fowler and a coterie of influential Democrats organized two-day conferences in several major cities to debrief political pros, critique what had gone wrong and huddle to plan for 2018 and beyond. I was invited to the New York City session to deliver a five-minute summary of what was wrong with the “Democratic brand.”

Standing at a small lectern in front of more than a hundred Democratic insiders, I got a warm reception for tearing apart the self-centered tactics of the Clinton campaign (I’m with her.”) and the ineptness of the party leadership. I told my story of being enticed to the campaign website by the promise of seeing “Hillary’s vision for America.” I recounted to the consultants, campaign strategists, union leaders and others. “What I found when I got to the website was 41 disconnected policy memos linked to 41 boring white papers. That’s not a vision.” That line got a good laugh.

I was just one of several experts in that session. Following the talks and during planning sessions the next day, we all were told time after time how right we were. How much the party needed to change its procedures, the people it listened to, the policies it embraced, the stories it told. Unintentionally showcasing the party’s most entrenched problem, one of D.C.’s senior campaign consultants patted me on the back and told me, “We’ve got to get you in front of Chuck and Nancy.” It was precisely the top-down thinking that the Fowler memo lamented.

Ultimately, nothing important changed following the debacle of 2016. Nothing was done to harness the incredible opportunities of the crises we now face. Nothing was done by the Democratic Party to channel all the popular energy created by Donald Trump’s mean-spirited, destructive reign. There was no narrative on the left to challenge and overcome Trump’s myth-making on the right.

Flash forward to the present uncertain moment as the votes are being counted. Google “Joe Biden’s vision for America” or simply go to his campaign site, click on “About” and choose “Joe’s Vision” from the dropdown menu. What you’ll get is “Joe’s plans” for this and that — 49 policy memos. There is, once again, no coherent, inspiring story about changing America to serve the needs of the vast majority instead of the few. Nothing here to worry the establishment. Nothing to generate anxiety on Wall St.

Kirk Cheyfitz 200

In other words, business as usual.

No wonder we are where are.

Kirk Cheyfitz