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Room for Progressives In Today’s Democratic Party?

Gene Rothman: Regrettably, at this time, there is virtually no Left to counter the Tea Party and other right-wing forces: not a labor movement, a women’s movement, a peace movement—no counterattack from anywhere (although the immigrant-rights movement is a possible exception).

When Democrats criticized one another instead of rallying around the White House game plan, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel said of such critics: “They’re f***ing stupid.” With the GOP minions marching in virtually unanimous lockstep, one view is that the last thing Democrats should do is to form a circular firing squad and shoot at one another. Party leaders stress that if the party fails to win elections, “principles” or “platforms” mean little and emphasize that the key to victory is party unity.

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For many ordinary Americans, however, the party is a vehicle for attaining goals that impact their lives. As such, the fact that grassroots input and influence can be so easily co-opted (or completely ignored) by wealthy interests is a matter of no small concern. It is generally well known, for example, that there are no requirements for any politician or the party to be bound by popular-vote resolutions passed by local party chapters. Moreover, it is widely recognized that politicians routinely go back on campaign “promises.”

Relentless Republicans versus “Suppress and Finesse” Democrats
Republicans win elections by fighting fiercely, even when they are in the minority. They energize their base and appeal to raw emotions. Democrats, in contrast, are cerebral, moderate, content to play defense and willing to settle for small gains. Unlike the GOP, they often suppress their base’s energy and dampen its anger, however justified it may be on a given issue. They rarely sponsor registration or get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives (except during presidential campaigns,) and do not challenge obvious GOP efforts at voter suppression and even documented election fraud. This is especially the case where voters are from disadvantaged areas.

Democratic Party efforts to finesse the electorate may well be a rational plan that intentionally looks only at the short-term goals of the winning the next election. Given the shrinking demographic base of organized labor, and an electorate that continually moves to the center-right, both progressives and organized labor can be viewed as problematic partners, welcome only so long as they vote for and give money to the centrists in the party.

Even worse, this sometimes-unruly lot may alienate the more conventional and respectable moderates the Democrats need to retain and to attract. No one is suggesting that the party wishes to throw the progressives and labor overboard outright. But is it an unthinkable scenario that the leaders of the Democratic Party might be willing to watch them drown while they calculate the costs of throwing them a lifeline? Consider the following recent examples:

  • In the recent primary election in Arkansas, pitting grassroots, labor- endorsed Bill Halter against Blue Dog centrist Blanche Lincoln, the latter won by two percentage points. Significantly, Lincoln was aided by the vigorous effort of President Bill Clinton. (It is worth recalling here that it was Clinton who struck three major blows against the New Deal legacy when he worked with the GOP to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act that regulated banks, to enact the anti-labor North America Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] legislation, and to a “welfare reform” that arguably harmed many of the most vulnerable among us.) In the Arkansas election, Democratic Party leaders stated (anonymously) that labor was “flushing its money down a toilet” by failing to support the national party’s choice of its favored candidate.
  • On another labor front, in a sign of the Obama administration's strained relations with teachers' unions, not a single federal official was scheduled to speak at either the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or National Education Associations (NEA) union conventions this year. While some White House officials expressed concern, no substantive consultations to resolve political differences were implemented. It was like a mutual recognition of “Love of Labor Lost.”
  • In the recent primary election in Southern California’s 36th Congressional District, most incumbents in the DP endorsed the Blue Dog, hawkish, defense industry investor Jane Harman. Her opponent, Marcy Winograd,
    ran on a “Jobs, Not Wars” platform. Winograd handicapped herself financially by refusing all corporate donations, while running against one of the wealthiest candidates in Congress. The outcome (Harman- 59%: Winograd- 41%) may well be viewed as a glass that is either half-full or half-empty: both a meaningful challenge, but also evidence of the near-impossibility of a populist insurgent defeating an entrenched incumbent.

Another major obstacle to such a challenge was evidenced at the Democratic state party convention, with its standing rule that incumbents are to be automatically endorsed. Winograd’s challenge was unsuccessful, despite questionable ad hoc “tallies” of the vote by leaders “counting” raised hands, and despite vigorous objections from the floor.
Another barrier to insurgents in the DP is the role of trade union endorsements. Maria Elena Durazo, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, worked successfully to keep most of organized labor behind Jane Harman. The considerable leverage of traditional organizations within the party is a significant barrier to challengers.

In summary, there are several arguments for party leaders to urge continued support for their strategy. Perhaps their strongest argument is that progressives and labor have nowhere else to go. This is particularly the case in California since Proposition 14 (the Open Primary initiative) effectively take smaller parties – from Greens to Libertarians -- out of the running. This further reinforces the dynamic in favor of top-down governance by the major parties and operates against grassroots efforts.

Moreover, some party regulars say flatly that any Democrat who fails to fall into line beyond this strategy, or who does not turn out to vote, is simply “cutting off their nose to spite their face.” They argue that progressive change will occur, but only gradually, with incremental steps.

Finally, they correctly note that Obama did run on a centrist “neither Blue state or Red State” platform, that he inherited huge problems from the previous administration, and that he needs more time to accomplish gradual change. The health care bill, the Wall Street reform legislation, and other measures are also cited as evidence of the success of this strategy to date. But there are also indications of potential risks for this strategy, as we shall now illustrate.

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Risks of the Centrist Strategy
It should first be noted that some challenges to the Democratic Party centrists were successful. Examples include anti-establishment candidate Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, the narrow defeat of Bill Halter in Kentucky, and the election of dissident Congressman Alan Grayson in Florida. The Winograd campaign must have been unsettling to Jane Harman as well.

However, despite the successful overall track record of centrist Democrats over populist challengers, there are two significant concerns about their strategy. The first comes from the growing number of independents, and the other is from progressives.

Some forty percent of the electorate now identify with independents, reportedly out of voter disgust with the political machinations practiced by both major parties. The independents who helped to put Obama into the White House are now increasingly turning against him, and the rising numbers of “Decline to State” and independent voters comes largely at the expense of Democrats. Thus, one cost of centrism— trying to be all things to all people-- is having these very people eventually tire of “being played. “

On the Left, it is argued that when the Democrats fail to fight for ordinary Americans by adopting a kind of “Republican-lite” ideology the result, over time, undermines the raison d’être of the Democratic Party. In this view, a vacuum is being filled with increasingly conservative forces since the accommodating centrists are not effectively challenging the right wing in the war of ideas. They argue that Americans who voted for Obama genuinely wanted change of a more populist nature. They wanted a focus, for example, on jobs—especially Green jobs-- an emphasis on diplomacy more than war, and single-payer healthcare. Instead, this argument goes, Obama prioritized such issues as the war in Afghanistan, bailouts of Wall Street over Main Street, and kept most of Bush’s policies on counter-terrorism.

Furthermore, he invested too heavily and for too long in a strongly bipartisan effort to reach out to Republicans, even when he was getting little in return. Progressives also wanted a narrative that would have stressed that GOP policies--such as deregulation and cutting taxes for the rich—were the very ones that led to the problems Obama inherited in the first place.

Finally, progressives are distressed that they were not extended the “open to all ideas” outreach that the GOP received. Instead, progressive input and participation were vigorously resisted. Consider the case of perhaps the only grass roots, populist leader who made the final cut into the ranks of Team Obama: environmental activist Van Jones. Like Marion Wright Edelman before him, in the Clinton administration, his term was short-lived—or perhaps I should say “aborted.”

Conclusions and Interpretation
Despite the continued successes of Blue Dogs over Progressives, there are many risks for the centrists. Many commentators have noted the “enthusiasm gap” between the energized GOP and the lackluster, centrist DP. In hard times people want leaders with vision and courage—the very traits that such moderates seek to suppress. More ominously for the DP is that some Democrats are already seeking the” Exit Sign,” whether in search of moderate Republicans, independents, or smaller populist parties. They are also considering sitting out the election or dropping out of the party. A few vow to take to the streets to protest against DP policies. An increasing number of “Decline to State” registrations by former Democrats would reflect this trend. Admittedly, examples known by this writer is a trickle, not a flood. But in today’s climate of close elections, this should be worrisome to DP leaders. It may not even be on their radar screens.

But the single most important reason that the Democratic Party’s centrist strategy may fail is that that the pressure for change on the streets remains with the Right. The way to combat the Right is to expose its use of “astro-turf” activists [artificial grass roots organizations or demonstrators] and to mobilize the growing ranks of disadvantaged to take back the streets under the diverse banner of restoring community life and making demands for social justice. Regrettably, at this time, there is virtually no Left to counter the Tea Party and other right-wing forces: not a labor movement, a women’s movement, a peace movement—no counterattack from anywhere (although the immigrant-rights movement is a possible exception). With recent decisions from the Supreme Court favoring even greater influence from corporate interests, it will—at least in my view--require a regeneration of such grassroots efforts to be able to change this continued right-wing trajectory. Otherwise, the DP centrist strategy will continue to move to the nation to the right.

Martin Luther King, Jr., may have made it to the mountaintop, but we are now at the base of that mountain, straining our eyes to see the peak from where we stand. We have a long climb ahead of us, and the task before us is now is to build a movement to take a few steps toward that higher ground. We will not be rescued by any political party, including the semi-Democratic party. We must become the leaders we seek.

Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker active with interfaith and environmental groups in Culver City and with the Social Action/Social Justice Council of the National Association of Social Workers.