The Walled Garden: Fading Away at the California Democratic Party

empty-promisesLike 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.

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


  1. Wayne Williams says

    Dorothy and the land of Oz indeed. Well said Brad.

    Those of us who have watched the machinations of the party leadership parade
    before us as if they are Progressives, then turn their backs on Clean Money and
    the long litany mentioned in your write up, have so much to account for and yet
    offer so little in the process of empowering the Progressive cause. With the
    rare exception of Kristine Pelosi and the members of the Platform committee…
    our ideas have taken years to sink in, and when they do, they get watered down
    more often than not.

    The bottom line is that being a Progressive is about removing barriers, opening
    doors and exchanging ideas, not living in fear of losing or protecting our turf.

    To this point, the DSCC is protecting its turf by underfunding or not funding
    Progressive Democrats across the state when they do run for office in close
    races, especially in so called red districts… even with these districts are
    turning purple or blue.

    An there is little consciousness paid to the reality that the Democratic Party
    overall is shrinking as Decline to States are growing. Seems to me, the only
    reason this party is holding some semblance of power at this time is because the
    other side is so blown apart by their failed ideologies that have brought down
    our economic system and our place in the world. Let me also say that I believe
    strongly that this party would be in tatters as well if Obama had not spent his
    time speaking in a manner that inspired people to come out and vote. Whether he
    will accomplish what people thought they think he meant, with the massive
    resistance of the Blue Dogs and the Clintonites hoping for a downfall in 4 years
    is not beyond consideration or concern.

    All the while the real idea people in this party, we Progressives, will never
    achieve our place at the table as long as the Rules are set to limit our size,
    1/3 electeds, 1/3/ selecteds will always leave the 1/3 of us fighting for little
    more than speaking time.

    They say, hey, you can run for office, but against an intrenched incumbent
    Democrat, good luck with the primary endorsement process…. remember the 1/3,
    1/3, 1/3? Not going to happen… the system inside the party is not a
    democracy, it is rigged.

    Yes there have been breakthroughs, but don’t be fooled, the walls are up and
    they won’t come down until money is removed from the political game.

    This party must change and change now or forever decline until it is as
    irrelivant as the Gone, Over and Past party of Bush/Cheney et al.

    The key is to get Politicians out of the fundraising game so they can do the
    jobs we elect them to do, and if they don’t do it, the party must not be in a
    position to keep them in place with a rigged DSCC and corporate funding from the
    likes of AT&T and others.

    We must open up the political process to candidates who are not wealthy, or
    don’t have big money contributors, but are good people with good ideas.

    We must fight pay to play politics, parties and government if we are going to
    stop the intrenched or special interests from destroying our Democracy as they
    came so close to doing in the past few years.

    Now Progressives have altered the thinking of the party over the past 5 years,
    but we can not get the leadership and electeds to even read the damn Platform,
    what is with that?

    The message to us should be clear. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE MONEY, THE PARTY IS A
    BUSINESS (remember what Art said… exactly that) SO WE ARE WASTING OUR TIME

    Yes Toto, it does seem like a big risk to support Fair Elections that are
    publicly funded, but then, if you like were we are headed without being a party
    true to its Progressive ideas, then you have to ask yourself. Why are you here?

    Obama has brought us the opportunity for change, yet even he has back peddled on
    key issues (Privacy, Iraq timetable), but we have our hopes up that we will see
    positive things happen anyway. I know I do… but it isn’t going to happen in
    this party in this state until this leadership is more reflective of the people
    with ideas instead of the pragmatism of winning the next election without a
    solid foundation of those ideas.

    When the public hears the truth they respond, when they hear nothing, they lose
    interest. That is where we are now when this party is not a party of ideas but
    of business as usual.

    The alternative to top down, special interest control of our party, and our
    government at all levels is Fair Elections (Clean Money).

    If you do not make it a reality, you are turning your back on the people in
    favor of the powerful.

    Where will you stand?

    I, for one will stand with the truth, that low voter turn out, apathy and
    ignorance on the part of the majority of the public can only be reversed when
    the party and its structure change. As of now, I don’t see it happening. Oh
    they may say they support change, even say they think we have good ideas they
    support, but then they do NOTHING! If you don’t vote, you support the failure
    continuing, if you don’t act, you support the status quo.

    Now, The California Fair Elections Act is coming in June 2010. If this party
    does not get behind it with all its public, financial and idealist support, then
    this party will no longer be worthy of the publics trust.

    And I for one, will not be around to see it melt away for lack of backbone. I
    will not stand around watching the Progressive Caucus be divided by those who do
    not share our ideas. Let them wake up, or wallow in the stagnation they have
    sat with for failing to stand up, speak up and vote!

    Thank you Brad for making this party clear for all to see. Thank you Brad and
    Ahjamu for providing the framework for change in the Progressive Plan. That you
    Brad for all your efforts to reach out, yet stay true to the Progressive ideas.
    Now again you speak the truth… The Walled Garden must be destroyed if ideas
    are to allow us to save ourselves and save this Democratic Party.

    Thanks for listening and I’ll be at the Convention… watching what is said, and
    what is done. I’m not holding my breath, because sometimes power needs to run
    its course before it dies.

    When the positive ideas of collaboration, participation and transparency bring
    positive results, that is when everything changes.


  2. Brad says

    Don (whoever you are)

    That was a ponderous, sensational and inaccurate retort that does prove one thing – you are a gatekeeper of the Walled Garden with a lot to lose. Your version of history is wildly preposterous but hey that is what makes America great – freedom of speech.

    Thanks for sharing and welcome to the future – where the modern Progressive Movement, not your ancient allusions, is leading the way forward with Big Ideas and even Bigger Action.


    Brad Parker

  3. Don says

    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.

    Ummm… Brad. At what point did the DLC run the Democratic party? I’ll answer that for you – never.

    But if you want to persist in the progressive fantasy that they drove the party into the ground in the 1990s, explain these:

    * In 1938, Republicans gained 81 House seats running against Franklin Roosevelt. Again In the mid-term election of 1942, the Democrats lost 44 seats in the House of Representatives. DLC-free.

    * Progressives ran a third party candidate against Harry Truman in 1948 – almost thowing the election to the GOP.

    * Progressives protested the nomination of JFK and attempted to block the nomination on the convention floor.

    * After progressives showed their asses on national TV in 1968, Middle American ran away from the Democratic party in droves, leading to the loss of the White House in ’68.

    * Progressives got their desired presidential candidate in ’72, leading to an embarassing landslide loss to Richard Nixon.

    * Because progressives so weakened the imagage of the Democratic party, we could only squeak out a small win in ’76 against a Watergate-weakened GOP.

    * Progressives fueled Ted Kennedy’s Quixotic run for the Democratic nomination in ’80, causing a major rift that was carried to the convention floor that summer long after it was impossible for Kennedy to secure the nomination. The melee witnessed that summer at the DNC convention helped Carter lose that election.

    The Democratic party lost 5 of 6 presidential elections between ’68 and ’92 BEFORE the DLC helped Bill Clinton get elected.

    The Democratic party lost the senate in ’82 several years before the DLC was even created.

    The Democratic party suffered a slow net erosion of House seats starting in 1968 and continuing until 2006 (when, by the way, DLCer Rahm Emanuel recruited centrist Democrats and won the House back).

    Want to talk about 1994? Tell me what you know about Rubbergate, southern gerrymandering, dozens of Democratic congressional retirements, and the first big mobilization of the Christian Right.

    Want to talk about 1994? Tell me what you know about a President who tried to appease Progressives with unpopular measures like health care, gay rights, and gun control leading up to the 1994 mid-terms.

    No doubt most of this is news to you. Since you’re not going to read of these things on DailyKOS or Huffington Post, you may not even believe them.

    But if you persist on naively blaming the DLC for the losses in 1994, then you must credit them for winning the White House in ’92 and ’96. You must credit them for winning House seats in ’96 and 2000 and the popular presidential vote in 2000. You must credit them for getting the most votes of any Democrat in history in 2004. You must credit them for winning back the house in 2006 (16 new House members – half of the seats won – joined the DLC) and you must not only credit them with further House and Senate wins in 2008 (13 more Congressional DLC members and 4 DLC Senate members) but you must also credit them for nurturing Barack Obama’s ideology. “Audacity of Hope” read like a DLC policy manual and he just recently proclaimed that he was, indeed, a New Democrat.

    But all that aside, Brad, any political writer worth their weight in printer ink knows politics runs in cycles. Democrats lost in the early 2000s because they could not gain traction on issues of national security (thank you, progressives, for giving the party of FDR, Truman, and Kennedy such a bad reputation on military matters.)

    And Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 because independent voters who’d voted GOP since 2000 broke our way.

    Brad – learn some political history!


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