The only hope for the Democratic party is to utilize the Populist Left.
Michael Youhana will be arguing the pro side. He is a Law Student at Berkeley. He writes for fun sometimes.
Michael Kraver will be arguing the con side. He is a political junkie, who lives in White Plains, NY. To pay the bills, he works as a lawyer, which he has done since graduating from Penn Law in 2002.
I don’t know if the Democratic Party can be saved after its catastrophic (not to mention embarrassing) loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. But I do know that the only political current with a hope of saving the Party is the populist Left.
To assess the Left’s prospects for reforming the Party it’s worth revisiting some old news: February’s Democratic National Committee leadership contest. Others have observed that the result of the DNC contest does not have much of an effect on the Party’s agenda. But in politics symbolic fights can be significant. The factions involved in this competition certainly took the outcome seriously. Who can forget Alan Dershowitz threatening to leave the Party if his preferred candidate did not prevail?
Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez declared victory at the end of the bruising campaign. He triumphed over Congressman Keith Ellison, whom Bernie Sanders had backed. Ellison suffered defeat in spite of the support he received from key labor unions and from grassroots activists.
Elements of the Democratic Party establishment, including Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, also endorsed Ellison. Nevertheless, there was a real perception that the congressman from Minnesota was an insurgent who would do his (admittedly small) part to reform the party. This perception proved fatal to his campaign’s prospects. Reports indicate that interests in the party who were wary of the growing influence of a Leftist bloc recruited and supported Perez.
What to make of this? It’s worth emphasizing the fact that the defeat was narrow. Ellison came close to winning, losing by only 35 out of 435 voting DNC members. So maybe there is hope for the party after all.
But we should not overlook the reality, alluded to above, that granting the DNC Chair to Ellison would have been a somewhat minor concession to the Left. The fact that elements in the Party put so much effort into defeating the congressman proves that they will fight tooth and nail to stave off populists in their ranks. “That’s just the way it is.”
After Perez’s election, Matt Bruenig wrote, “the left should focus its energies on organizing under alternative institutions that, if they engage with the Democratic party at all, only do so in order to attempt hostile takeovers of various power positions.” This seems like sound advice to me. One path to power—maybe the clearest path—runs through the Democratic Party. But it would be imprudent to put all our eggs in one basket.
When I imagine “organizing under alternative institutions” I see a picture of the Left as an independent, disciplined constituency that can negotiate with the Democrats and shape their agenda. As Bruenig points out this constituency would be free to back primary challengers, rather than adhere to the more conservative strategy of shoring up incumbents. An independent, organized Left could become an additional source of support for social movements that make claims upon the Party. To a lesser extent, that Left constituency might even opportunistically exploit the vulnerabilities of the GOP.
In addition, building an independent Left helps us prepare for Plan B ahead of time. Now is the time to start setting up institutions that could form the basis for a viable third party in the long run. Those seeds of a competitive third party will be necessary later on if the Democrats prove that they are irredeemable. The future of the country is not something to recklessly gamble away. We have to hedge.
I have been an active member of my local Democratic Party for years, and served two terms on its Executive Committee.
I have been extremely frustrated by the way the Party works for years, to the point that I did not seek another term on the Executive Committee when my term was up, and I regularly think about quitting altogether. I have many problems with the way the local Party works, which I'm happy to detail if it's relevant. For now, suffice it to say that I'm frustrated by:
• The lack of courage: the local Party does not have a local platform, because it does not want to "box in" the local elected Democrats. This leaves our Party without a formal position on local issues.
• The lack of coordination: the local Party does almost nothing in conjunction with the County Party or the State Party, leaving us in a position where our impact is almost exclusively local. Tied together with the point above - we take no formal position on local issues - we are rarely influencing policy from a principled position.
• The lack of outreach: the local Party is very good at supporting Democratic candidates between the months of September and November. But, we do almost nothing to reach out to voters during the other 10 months of the year. In my opinion, we are too candidate-focused, and not focused enough on convincing more people to identify as Democrats.
And yet, despite all my frustration, I am here to argue that the way to improve the Democratic Party is from within, rather than from the outside.
Over my years of being involved with the Party, I've seen many groups of like-minded people pop up, or gain prominence. An incomplete list includes MoveOn.org, Our Revolution, Indivisible, Organizing for America, and Westchester for Change. (Westchester is the county I live in.) Each of these groups, on its own, has great potential. I've "dipped my toe in the water" of getting more involved with each of them multiple times.
Each time, I decided to continue devoting my energy to the Party - and doing what I can to improve it, in spite of my frustrations - rather than leave the Party and devote my energy to any of those groups. Why? Because I believe that the impact of those groups rises and falls with the number of progressive Democrats that get elected. I appreciate that groups pop up to do some of the things the Democratic Party should be doing but doesn't do, like reach out to voters, circulate petitions, and organize protests when our values are undermined. But those tactics have only a temporary impact. The way to move the country forward over time is to elect more progressives and better progressives. From my vantage point at the moment, the best way to do that is for progressives to become involved with the Party and to improve it from within.
There's much my debate opponent said that I agree with. I agree that we need the Left to be actively involved in shaping the Democrats' agenda. And I agree that it's critical for the Left "to back primary challengers, rather than adhere to the more conservative strategy of shoring up incumbents." I also agree that it would be helpful to have a "viable third party in the long run."
Putting aside, for the moment, the benefits of a viable third party, my disagreement lies in the idea that the Left should be trying to shape the Democrats' agenda, or back primary challengers, from outside of the Party. The Party's agenda is, to the extent possible to do such a thing, a declaration of what the collective group of people in the Party want the Party to stand for. As I've followed politics, it strikes me that there's a push-and-pull dynamic at play; people become Democrats in the first place because they feel at least some connection to the Party's agenda. Over time, the agenda has to evolve to properly capture the collective will of Democrats as it changes. The way to influence that agenda is to join the Party, not exist outside of it. (To some degree, I'm conflating "agenda," the term my opponent used, with the Party's "platform," though the two are not completely identical. I'm using "agenda" to include establishing the platform, but also prioritizing how to utilize resources to implement that platform.)
In terms of primary challengers, it is probably a stretch to expect the institutional Party to throw its weight behind people challenging established incumbents. But why can't the institutional Party get in the habit of staying out of such fights? Couldn't a group of activists from the Left push the institutional Party to take a neutral position in primaries? The role of the institutional Party could be, from December through July, to register new voters, persuade existing voters who aren't already Democrats to identify as Democrats, and activate the energies of folks who are already Democrats. From August through November, when there's a primary, the institutional Party in that area could do what's possible to ensure that there's a relatively even balance in funding between the competing sides, and could focus on bringing the debate to as many folks as possible to maximize participation. Then, between September and November, it promotes the winner of the primary. It's not ideal, but for any group of people interested in winning primaries "from the left," I don't see why attempting to do that from a position of no influence within the institutional Party is better than trying to do it from within.
Lastly, coming back to the idea of a viable third party, if that's the goal, then why wait? At some level, what I'm saying is that the activist energy on the Left needs a Party to influence. There's much activists can do outside the structure of Party politics, but, ultimately, to maximize their influence, folks on the Left need to win more elections. At the moment, the way to win more elections from the Left is to elect more Democrats. If the Democratic Party is, as my opponent asks at the outset, beyond being saved, then let's get on with the work of building a better Party to win elections from the Left. I don't agree that the Democratic Party is beyond being saved, so I'm not advocating that (yet). Maybe I'm wrong, and the Democratic Party can't be saved. Even if so, it remains true that the Left won't be able to accomplish much without winning more elections, and unless there's a dramatic restructuring of our political framework, winning more elections requires a viable Party that folks on the Left identify with and commit to.
1: Not All Political Groups are Equal
My colleague is right to point out that groups like MoveOn.org and Our Revolution probably will not transform our country’s politics. An article by Seth Ackerman, linked to in my opening statement, argues that an advocacy group like MoveOn.org typically functions as, “a mere middleman, or broker, standing between a diffuse, unorganized progressive constituency and a series of ambitious progressive office-seekers seeking their backing.”
Ackerman points out that the such groups are comprise of staff that are “accountable to no one… have no power to change [progressive] candidates’ policy objectives,” and have no formal means of reprimanding progressive politicians. It is no wonder that their influence tends to rise and fall with the political fortunes of progressive candidates. They the real lack real political power that comes from organizing.
2: Lessons from Conservatives
Our choice is not a binary one between the Democrats and advocacy groups. And thank goodness for that. As I argued in my opening statement, we will need an independent Left to save the Democratic Party. If the Democrats are as “impregnable” as Kim Moody has suggested, building power on the outside of the Party is a must. Or else, what hope do we have to mount a challenge from within?
What does an alternative political institution with real power to effect change look like? To answer this question, let us turn to another link to an article by Niki Saval in my opening statement. Saval points to an instructive interview with Marshall Ganz. A key takeaway is that we can learn a lot about effective organizing from our very successful opponents in the conservative movement. Let me quote Ganz at length:
“Conservatives successfully created a more or less coherent network of organizations linked to local, state and national politics, which is a traditional form of effective political organization in the U.S.… The Republicans had the evangelical churches, the religious schools that Betsy DeVos helped sponsor, the gun clubs, and the NRA. There are local gun clubs everywhere. There is this local infrastructure for their politics, and other than the unions, Democrats haven't really developed much.Ganz argues that these institutions are different from advocacy groups in one important respect: they engage in “deep canvassing.”
That is, churches, religious schools, and gun clubs tend to foster interpersonal relationships in communities in a way that advocacy groups do not. Ganz points out that these conservative “political” institutions are also not purely political. The recreational activities supported by a gun club make political work fulfilling and sustainable over the long term. A successful mass movement can’t be built on boredom or loneliness. Politics should be convivial.
3: Building Power while out of Office
Ganz also sees Indivisible as a group that has struck a different, more productive path than other progressive groups. Looking admiringly at conservative tactics once more, he points out that the group follows the Tea Party’s model for mobilization around town hall meetings. Ganz applauds Indivisible’s focus on a “specific tactic” through which the group has been able to demonstrate “its scale, its depth and its simplicity.” He is referring to the fact that the group has rather quickly set up thousands of affiliates across the nation through its use of an uncomplicated call to action.
A group I’ve had my eye on, which seems more analogous to Ganz’s idea of a gun club than Indivisible, is Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They have regular meetings, they socialize, and they organize. Most importantly, they have a common vision for a future in which the populist Left governs.Since Donald Trump’s election DSA has more than tripled in size—growing from 6,000 to 20,000 dues-paying members. That is not a massive number. By contrast, the Vietnam-era Students for a Democratic Society included somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 members during its peak in 1968. But a 20,000 person socialist organization in America is nothing to sneeze at—especially if the locally organized group can sustain its present rate of growth.
As Peter Rugh observes, “DSA is helping to funnel thousands of people, many of them millennials, into grassroots social justice campaigns across the country.” In my home state of California, members are mobilizing around some state legislators’ push to pass a statewide single payer healthcare bill. In the process this new-New Left is engaging in exactly the kind of “deep canvassing” our side needs.
Concluding Remarks, Pro:
First, a clarification: I do not see building a third party as a long-term goal. Building a third party is a long-term option—or as I put it in my opening statement: a hedge. What I am trying to stress is that whatever path we take, we will need to take the time to build an independent, organized Left first. That constituency will be comprised of civic organizations and institutions that, if need be, can repurposed as the foundation for a third party.
At least in the short-term, members of a populist Left could (and should) try to exercise some influence in institutions like the DNC and the DCCC. But working within these institutions is no panacea to the problems of the Party, the Left, or the country. First, it is probably naïve to believe that individual entrists without coordination or a clear plan could have a meaningful effect on the inner-workings of party institutions. Organizations outside of the party can help solve this coordination problem.
Second, my opponent recognizes that the institutional Party only has a limited ability to set a policy agenda. The best the Left can hope for by working with the party is procedural fairness during primaries. And if a Democratic politician acts against the interests of this Left constituency after being elected will the Party’s institutions be able to do anything to meaningfully censure the politician? Seth Ackerman (who I’ve cited several times in this debate), suggests that the answer is no. It is up to primary voters to impose an agenda on the party and hold its politicians accountable for straying from it. To the extent that these voters draw on institutional support, it will come from outside of the party.
I contend that the Democratic Party’s agenda matters. Voters will only want to identify with Democrats if their Party has an appealing identity. But it’s hard to argue that a big tent, which contains elected officials with views as distinct as Joe Manchin’s and Barbara Lee’s, really has a clear identity.
Right now, there is no clear answer to the question: Who are the Democrats? It’s also unclear who will answer that question in the future. I hope the Left does. But that will require organizing outside of the Party.
Concluding Remarks, Con:
The Democratic Party is in lots of trouble. It has failed miserably at its fundamental mission of electing enough Democrats to implement the Party’s policies. The reasons why are abundant, but at base it is because the Democratic Party has failed to increase the number of people who identify as Democrats, failed to activate the energies of those who do, and failed to put forward inspiring candidates who motivate our voters. The Democratic Party needs lots of help to turn its fortunes around.
The good news is that help is available. Lots of progressives have energy, ideas, enthusiasm, and social networks, which could all be used to help the Party. Today, much of that potential gets channeled into other groups, rather than into the Party. I appreciate the work of those groups, commend them, and cheer for them. But, ultimately, I believe that to advance progressive causes, we will need to see less progressive energy channel itself to those groups, and more channel itself into the Democratic Party.
If that happens, I see no reason why the problems with the Democratic Party can’t be fixed. With an enthusiastic – and bold – influx of progressive energy, the Party apparatus can:
· stop being a means of simply supporting incumbent Democrats, and start being a means to provide institutional support to newcomers, or, at least, to empower primary voters to choose our candidates,
· stop being so candidate-focused, and start being more issues-focused, conducting voter outreach based on principled causes throughout the year, rather than only reaching out to voters during elections cycles, and then only to celebrate the Party’s designated candidate, and
· stop being isolated from the voters we need to be attracting, and start pulling many more people into the political process.
If this all sounds unrealistic, I submit that it’s only because the Party has departed so far from what it should have been doing for years. With an infusion of new talent, energy, and ideas, a change of direction would not only be possible, but likely.