Skip to main content

The Walled Garden: Fading Away at the California Democratic Party

Like Dorothy and her intrepid trio of lovable dreamers arriving at Oz, the Progressive Movement barreled into the Democratic Party in 2005 with high ideals and even higher hopes. Now, four scintillating years later we realize it was all a mirage of our own creation. The Party of the Left has been reduced to an incumbency business commandeered by Crony Corporate Pirates off the coast of reason and principles.


With some notable exceptions like the 2008 California Democratic Party (CDP) Platform, the Net Neutrality Resolution, and the Out of Iraq Resolution, our Party is fast becoming a dog-and-donkey show. The drawbridge is being pulled up and the leadership is retreating into a Walled Garden. The Democratic Party is risking irrelevancy as "decline to state" registration increases. More and more it appears that as Gertrude Stein once famously remarked about Oakland: "There is no there, there." Or so it seems.

Today, our Progressive beachhead inside the Party feels more like washing up on the island in the TV show "LOST." You can never tell who is on your side or what year it is. Winning the last two election cycles has only made matters worse. A crazy, mad circus of ascendancy is consuming the body politic. In the center ring of the circus, the Blue Dogs are squared off against the Progs in an epic struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party. On the periphery, Crony -- grasping to maintain status quo hegemony -- is manipulating as many ambitious pols as possible. Washington, Sacramento, and your local city hall have become closed systems operated more by lobbyists, consultants, and big donors than citizens. The Party is hunkering down in arrogance and obstinacy, while the members clamor for a bigger piece of the pie. What then shall we do?

First, I think we can and should all agree that Democrats want to make this a better world. Yes, some are only in it for the money but most Democrats really want to improve life for everyone. They do. If we believe that to be true, then we must ask ourselves, how could so many good intentions come to so ill an effect? Why has our success, as Progressives and then Democrats, come to this agitated impasse?

Maybe it’s because toxic preconceived notions have been ginned up into a pandemic struggle for illusory power. The palpable fear of change is creating inertia at the top and undeniable need for change is creating anger at the bottom of the Party. Personality is once again more important to too many people than policy. Perhaps there is an underlying problem that if it can be perceived, can be solved. Let us take a walk around the Walled Garden of the CDP and scrutinize the landscape.

Thirty years of Reagan neo-conservative social policy and twenty years of Clinton neo-liberal economic policy have inevitably collapsed and taken all of us into the pit with them. It was a giddy ride that has as its lasting elegy, “…the fetish that Washington entertains for a centrism that converts everything to mush.” ("What’s Wrong with Washington?" by James Wolcott in Vanity Fair, May 2009) We all know that the venal tautology of Fixed News and its co-bobble heads, led the Republican Anarchy Collective into the quagmire of a wilting Empire America.

But why were so many Democrats involved and will the Party now use the political impetus of 2008 to boldly go against the grain of Beltway Babble? Maybe there is hope. There are some Party leaders and elected Democrats who want to “change.” But without significant changes in the actual mechanisms of the Party structure itself, they will not prevail. If the Walled Garden is not opened up then change is not possible.

Over the last thirty years, since George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, the Rules and By-Laws of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the CDP, and your local county central committee have been rewritten to “control” the Party at every level. The "Liberal Ideal" has been under attack inside the Democratic Party. The CDP Progressive Caucus reported on this reality in the 2006 Progressive Plan . The key to control inside the Party is how the CDP maintains its status quo of entrenched leadership and incumbency-only interests through the Rules committee. The DNC operates in a similar manner,

Rules are kept in place, at every level, to keep the walls of the Walled Garden high enough to be a barrier to change. Here is the rational: Change would come as a result of the rabble (i.e. loony left, progressive swarm, membership, citizens, etc.) being allowed to have a majority vote on the floor of the Central Committees of the county, state or national Parties. That would lead to putting principles before pragmatism and “losing elections”, or so the current leadership proclaims. PLEOs (party leaders and elected officials) go further in stating that the Party only exists to win elections not to create policy. That is a relevant premise, worthy of debate, so let us examine its validity.

Voting members of the CDP Central Committee are roughly divided into three groups:

  • elected officials (statewide electeds plus County Central Committee members),
  • delegates elected in Assembly District Election Meeting (ADEM) elections, and,
  • most importantly, “appointed” and ex-officio members.

Each group has about 1/3 of the votes on the Democratic State Central Committee (DSCC) and its Executive Board. The elected officials appoint the appointed members, thus securing a majority and thereby controlling the outcome of every vote. The theory behind that is that elected officials are elected by all Democrats and should have the right to appoint enough voting members to make the voting, at the DSCC and its Executive Board, turn out the way they see fit.

ADEM delegates are only elected by several hundred people at most and should not have an equal say in voting matters of the Party. Activists get to be a part of the proceedings but not a determining participant. In this way, PLEOs maintain control so they can smartly represent all Democrats. Order is perpetuated and all is well. In a nutshell, that is their argument. The DNC rationale is much the same.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

The obvious question that arises is; why involve anyone else besides the elected officials in the Central Committees if you want total control? Why the charade of democracy? That is quickly followed by, what is to be done when the elected officials don’t represent the informed consent of the members, citizens,or voters? What can and should be done when the electeds defy the people, like they did on the issues of Invading Iraq in 2003, Clean Money in 2006, or Impeachment in 2007?

What recourse is there in this scheme? Run someone against them if you don’t like the way the PLEOs vote? Yeah, right. With the current system, replacing an incumbent is institutionally next to impossible and they know that. A Walled Garden works for the establishment and relegates the worker bees into being just another brick in the wall.

The missing piece in the PLEO rationale is that a closed system is like an echo chamber: it only repeats itself. It is a rigged game. It is like a pond with no source of fresh water. After a time, and that time has long since passed, it becomes self-aggrandizing and out of touch and will eventually fail under the weight of its inflexible orthodoxy. Without the fresh air of new ideas and faces, the mighty machine rusts and dies. Here is the proof.

Between 1994 and 2006, the multibillion dollar, Democratic Leadership Council-led Democratic Party lost both houses of Congress, the White House, and consequently the Supreme Court -- all three branches of the Federal government. You can throw in a whole bunch of state houses to that mix, including ours in California.

How is it possible that the PLEO-controlled and extravagantly lubricated CDP let Gray Davis be recalled and replaced by a B movie actor? How is it possible that the massively funded and consultant heavy DNC let two Presidential elections be stolen? If the theory of letting the PLEOs -- the smartest people in the room, with the wheelbarrows of cash and plethora of votes -- control the show is so sound, what accounts for these stupendous flops? And most glaringly, what accounts for taking the whole thing back in 2006 and 2008? It certainly can’t be because the machine -- or "business," as some prefer to call the CDP and DNC -- suddenly sputtered to life.

We, the Progressive Swarm, have the temerity to assert that big, bold ideas and the people who organized around them achieved these victories. The modern Progressive Movement began to stand up, show up, and speak up in 2003. By 2005, Progressives were at the forefront of “change” inside and outside the Democratic Party. Joined by unions, minorities, independents, students, and, yes, some PLEOs, Progressives helped to forge the winning coalition that allowed Senator Barack Obama to overcome and defeat the Clinton Establishment within the Party and the tottering Republican contraption in the nation as a whole.

In the Age of Information, the power is in Ideas.

Like President Obama, when he was a junior senator running for the nomination, it has been said by many Democrats that the Progressive Swarm is just a bunch of emailing, speechifying, and lofty language idealists who go to meetings. However, like President Obama, Progressives do get people elected. Ask Debra Bowen (California's Secretary of State). Ask Rep. John Hall (NY-19). Ask Rep. Donna Edwards (MD -4). Ask Al Franken or Norm Coleman for that matter. I could go on but you get the point. The Progs didn’t elect these people by themselves but were part of the coalition that did, a vital part.

The underlying problem is that without Progressive policy proposals from candidates who inspire people to volunteer their time, donate their money, and encourage others to do the same, the Democratic Party will become a relic of the past.

Every rule of the Democratic Party should be reexamined and rewritten if necessary to elect, not select, who represents the membership. Access, openness, accountability, and transparency are not merely slogans that came out of the modern Progressive Movement. They are the best paths to getting elected.

Money ain’t everything, folks. For those of us who have been doing the shoe leather work of precinct walking and phone banking for many decades, finding a reason to believe other than reelecting incumbents was the key to the future. If the Democratic Party wants to thrive, it needs to abandon the top-down Walled Garden approach to political action and broaden its horizons. The Party must embrace Progressives, Obama organizers, big ideas, and bold action or risk entropy and decline.


Lastly, a word of caution to the Progressives: sitting in our corner of the Walled Garden, smug in our righteous indignation, and unwilling to reach out to those who disagree with us will not achieve a different result than the fate that awaits the DNC and CDP if they do not adapt and change. Collaboration and facilitation are the bywords of the Internet-driven reality we now live in. Let us embrace them. Let us remain flexible and innovative. May we always be prepared to reach out, give the people a reason to believe and then a lofty task to achieve. All together now…

Brad Parker

Articles by Brad