Yesterday, Democracy published an important essay about the Democratic Party by Sarah Miller and Faiz Shakir, The Democrats' Progress. Miller and Shakir appear to be more optimistic about the trajectory of a party corrupted to its core by careerist politicians on the take, no more, no less that the Republican careerist politicians we all abhor. So how much "better" is Steny Hoyer than Kevin McCarthy? Or Chuck Schumer than Mitch McConnell? One of the best candidates running for office in Florida, Christine Olivo had a clear answer: "The only differences between the 'Hoyer's' and the 'McCarthys' are the corporations that own them. These are millionaire politicians who have completely lost touch with the people they represent. The only way that Democrats will start standing proudly for working people, boldly tackling corporate political power and cause any kind of disruption is if we replace them all! That's the only option."
Miller and Shakir could be right in their assertion that the Democrats appear to have "shed the neoliberal policy framework that has proven so catastrophic for working families and have begun to embrace populist policies," but the key word is "appear." Because, regardless of "key progressive policy developments," it is still a big tent party that cannot pass anything on the progressive agenda-- not when the party promotes reactionaries like Kyrsten Sinema. Are they still doing that? The establishment always prefers corrupt conservatives over progressives. Always. Last week, Pelosi announced she is backing Texas Blue Dog Henry Cuellar, not just a corrupt conservative-- a criminal conservative-- who is holding onto his seat by a thread as he faces a runoff with mainstream progressive Jessica Cisneros. Always, always, always.
Miller and Shakir chalk up the disconnect between a party appearing to be going in a progressive direction and it's inability to do anything progressive-- which is all that matters in the end-- to "Democrats’ approach to politics has yet to adjust to its evolving embrace of populist policies. Our politics is largely stuck in a cautious, corporate-friendly frame that too often projects weakness and deference to bureaucracy instead of muscularity and confident leadership."
BINGO! BINGO! BINGO! Do you mind if I quote from Crippling Political Fear, a 2019 guest post by former Columbus, Georgia mayor, Teresa Tomlinson? "It’s fear that cripples the Democratic Party," she wrote. "Fear of our policies, fear of who we are, and fear of the Republicans. Yes, fear is what has politically cost us in the last many election cycles. One cannot lead if one is afraid. The thing about leadership is that people want their leaders to be brave. They care less about what you think on the issues than whether you have the moxie to fight for them and the strength of conviction to tell them what you really think... Tell people who you are and what you believe. They may not agree with you, but they will respect your courage, and that will inoculate you against the single most effective propaganda that Republicans have against Democrats-- that we are cowards. That’s what the Right can’t stand about The Squad. Those women are fearless about their beliefs. They refuse to be bullied, and that is dangerous to the Republican playbook of shaming scared Democrats into milk toast, mealy-mouthed, baby-splitting positions that are equivocal and stand for nothing. American voters revile those who won’t tell the people what they think. Even if you don’t support the policies-- or certainly some of the statements-- of The Squad, you can’t deny that you appreciate that they unabashedly tell the world what they think."
"On paper," noted Miller and Shakir, "Democrats offer much-needed policy prescriptions to tackle soaring drug prices [see Kurt Schrader], remediate the existential threats of climate change [see Joe Manchin], and demand greater taxation of the wealthy and enforcement against tax cheats [see Kyrsten Sinema]. In rhetoric and political action, though, Democrats have not animated those policies with corresponding fights against the corporate lobbyists and special interests who stand in their way. Whereas FDR proclaimed of his opponents, 'I welcome their hatred,' the modern Democratic Party seems to intone, 'Can’t we all just get along?' It’s becoming clearer that, for some traditional Democrats, embracing the progressive populist direction-- and the requisite political battles it entails-- is like wearing an ill-fitting suit. Some have been happy to try out the clothes for a while and discard them at first chance; some wear it awkwardly; others are still not sure we ever should have put these particular clothes on at all. There is an ongoing battle for the soul of the party."
Exactly... and that's why I'm hoping everyone read their full essay, which predicts that voters are on the verge of discarding establishment politics for a populist approach, either right wing faux-populism (fascism) or left-wing populism (democratic socialism). The contend that "Both the political and policy weaknesses of the party can be ameliorated by focusing on the economic interests of the working peoples’ votes we most need. Three critical course corrections are needed: 1) stand proudly and visibly on the side of a broad diversity of working people; 2) demonstrate that Democrats are boldly taking on political and economic concentrations of corporate power that abuse and control both workers and smaller businesses; 3) wield government power with a fervent desire for both competence and disruption."
Are Democrats capable of any of that? I asked some of the House candidates Blue America has endorsed. Washington progressive Jason Call, who is running for a seta occupied by a corrupt New Dem, Rick Larsen, noted that "It’s great that Miller and Shakir have identified a problem that has an actual solution (that being, elect more and *better* progressives), the question I’d like to ask them is are they going to put any serious efforts into making the change they’ve said needs to take place. I personally don’t see the Democratic establishment taking a progressive approach to anything-- I spoke kindly of Biden’s 20% assured tax proposal on the very wealthy, but also said that’s not even ‘progressive’, that’s just a very basic measure of fairness. Build Back Better is not progressive, not ‘transformative’ (and not even passing). We can’t keep miscategorizing things as progressive (climate action spending at 7% of the military budget, yet see Miller and Shakir say this is remediation of climate change, c’mon man!); in the second paragraph of their article they talk about populist policies like broad based payments (wait, we got ONE $1,400 check that was supposed to be $2,000, and parents got a child tax credit which is now gone) and talk about free vaccines, masks, tests (it took Jen Psaki belittling that idea to actually get it done). So I’m not sure that Sarah and Faiz actually get what needs to happen, and maybe proof otherwise will be if they actually start helping to get true progressives elected. Pundits need to get their hands dirty here, be willing to direct their efforts towards support on the ground, because nothing will fundamentally change unless we get corporate money out of the political system."
Long Island progressive Melanie D'Arrigo is the leading candidate for the open North Shore seat. Yesterday she told me that "Apathy will be the end of our democracy. That's not hyperbole, it's an observation after knocking thousands of doors in my district. In 2020, we were told that if we kept the House, flipped the Senate and delivered the White House, we would finally see the solutions we need. We delivered. Our party did not. Instead we showed our base that we were incapable of delivering on even the smallest promises because we allow lobbyists to dictate the terms of working families' lives. We lack the representation in government with the lived experience to effectively make decisions to help struggling families. How many members of Congress have experienced homelessness? Skipped meals to pay a medical bill? Sent their child into the military so they'd be able to go to college after? As a party, we need to excite our base and give them something to vote for, not just rehash the same things to vote against. We need to stand proud, speak truth to power and deliver on solutions that match the scale and urgency of the crises we face. We have the opportunity to bring the Democratic Party back to its roots and show that we can once again be the party of working families-- but we have to deliver, with no more delays, no more excuses, and no more half-measures.
Ruth Luevanos is on the path to defeating Republican incumbent Mike Garcia and the Manchin-Sinema candidate the DCCC keeps running and losing with, Christy Smith. "The fact that 'Declined to State' voters make up the second largest voting bloc in California," she told me last night, "demonstrates the huge disconnect between voters and both major political parties. Even though California is often perceived as a bastion of Democratic 'liberals', actions and policies don't often reflect that given the fact that California failed to even bring AB1400, California's version of Medicare For All, to a vote just a couple of months ago. Local, state and federal candidates for office in this state are often left with the choice of choosing to woo Declined to State voters or Republican voters when they realize that the 'Democrat' vote alone is not enough to win. As the first Democrat ever elected to Simi Valley City Council in one of the many majority Republican municipalities in California I have spent the past 3 years asking voters how it was that I was elected against all odds. What I have discovered is that voters do, in fact, want someone with the courage to take a stand against corruption and greed, but most importantly they really want public servants, not career politicians. As a public school teacher who has worked with disadvantaged youth for over 22 years of my career I have flipped the narrative of the typical Democrat by winning this office. I was not chosen or 'annointed' by the Democratic powers that be, I was chosen by community leaders and activists who included the entire spectrum of voters who wanted someone to address local issues that impact every day voters."
Central Valley progressive, Lourin Hubbard, took a minute off from tireless, endless campaign field work and told me he doesn't blame people "for lumping corrupt Blue Dog Democrats like Henry Cuellar in with Kevin McCarthy. The people directly responsible for killing President Biden’s agenda for the sake of derailing progressives are so called 'moderate' Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. 'Moderate' Democrats have not even attempted to create an agenda of their own. Instead, they continue to stall and reject the most popular parts on the progressive priorities, from tax hikes on the richest Americans and an increase in the minimum wage to a plan for price controls on prescription drugs. They couldn’t even be bothered to save the advance child tax credit, one of the most effective antipoverty measures in recent history. Yes, it’s true that Democrats are a 'big tent' party and we will need to have hard conversations and call out 'moderates', especially when they stall the President’s own agenda because the alternative is Marjorie Taylor Green and the circus tent that is the Republican Party."
Miller and Shakir wrote that working people "hold the Democratic Party to a higher standard because it is supposed to be the party that stands with labor and holds corporations accountable. When Democrats don’t live up to their brand, the party looks weak, and the penalty from voters is harsher. Negligently leaving the mantle of economic populism up for grabs means that the advantage accrues to the Democrats’ opponents." That helps explain why so much or teh working class drifted over to Trump and his phony populism. Trump not only attacked "Democrats from a populist position on issues like trade that have indisputably hurt working-class communities, but on the campaign trail and during his presidency, Trump also chastised mega-corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Toyota, General Motors, Carrier, Nabisco, Amazon, Facebook, and many more. Some of this rhetoric resulted in changes; more often it was political theater that covered for mainstream pro-corporate Republican policies that would have made President Reagan proud. But for many hundreds of thousands of people who work at these corporate giants, think about what they heard. Make no mistake-- they saw a President taking on their bosses for the first time. Consider whether any powerful Democrat you know has been as vocal in taking on corporate power by name. The takeaway should be this: Democrats need to play the role that American voters expect them to play... Democrats are understood to be the party of good government; Republicans are the party of big business. Democrats are the party of labor; Republicans are the party of corporate CEOs. Democrats believe in confronting corporate power to promote broad-based prosperity; Republicans believe in unregulated, winner-take-all markets. That’s the way it’s supposed to break down. But as we know all too well, that’s not the way it always is. We can’t blame voters if they get angry when they don’t see the Democratic Party embracing the values and policies they’re supposed to promote."
So you might be left to ask: What’s holding most Democrats back from calling out corporate power that unites John Deere workers with farmers whom Deere prevents from repairing their own equipment? That unites exploited Uber drivers with restaurateurs who are furious at voracious fees from delivery app platforms? That unites independent pharmacists fighting predatory middlemen with patients sick and tired of outrageous drug prices? For some, the answer is as simple as it looks. Coziness with corporate power is the most comfortable fit. But for others in the Democratic Party of good conscience, the problem is risk averseness-- an unwillingness to take an action that might be perceived as outside of the norm.
Too many Democrats are afraid of shaking up the norms of wielding power. The argument against not doing something is because “that’s not the way it’s been done.” We don’t go to pickets with striking workers because no one’s done that recently. We don’t call out abuses of corporate power by name because it’s somehow deemed improper or uncouth. That’s not how it was done in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Confrontation with power is a time and resource suck. Well, it’s time to change that mentality, before it’s too late.
Think about how often you’ve heard Democrats defer to the wisdom of science, or the wisdom of economics, or the wisdom of a Senate parliamentarian. Wanting facts is important; but all too often, the rhetoric of “believing in science” or “listening to the economists” or deference to bureaucracy is code for deferring value-based judgment and leadership. It is a desire to be perceived as neutral or “fair-minded” that many voters see as weakness. And it is the acceptance of a status quo governance style which promises that nothing will fundamentally change.
This deference to bureaucracy is crippling economic progressivism due to the corporate and conservative ideological capture of many parts of government. Corporate influence can be seen in the drug approval process at the FDA, in economic assessments of the CBO, in lack of oversight by the FAA, the subservience of the U.S. Postal Service, the deference to a legislative filibuster, and so on. Everywhere you turn your head, the status quo has trended in the direction of compromising with corporate power or ceding to it.
In the years ahead, economic populists must take the wheel of the Democratic Party by promising to wield government power competently and disruptively for the benefit of working Americans. When we embrace economic populism with a steadfast desire to deliver for the working class, it will change how we recruit candidates, staff, and leaders. And it will change the direction of the party for the better.
Democratic electoral framing-- we're the lesser of two evils-- no longer works. The Democrats better revamp the DCCC and DSCC, ease out the Republican wing of the Democratic Party and embrace the legitimate aspirations of working families, not just in word, but in deed. And they'd better do it fast. David Segal, the progressive Democrat running for the open Rhode Island congressional seat, has been part of the outside game. Now he is going to take the legitimate aspirations of working class Americans inside, into the House."Sarah and Faiz," he said, "are right that 'there is an ongoing battle for the soul of the party' and I'm glad to have been able to fight alongside the authors on one side of that battleline. Moreover they are correct that Republicans threaten to usurp the mantle of populism. Most genuine populist elected officials (who care about the wellbeing of everyday people, and their abilities to make meaningful decisions about their lives and in the political sphere) are indeed Democrats. But the expression of this impulse is too often blocked by people in leadership positions and other politicians who wield key votes-- like the 'unbreakable nine' or Sen. Sinema. We need to correct this or Republican pretenders to populism will be able to run on Democrats' failings-- especially given current Democratic control of Congress and the Presidency-- even as Republicans rarely offer genuinely populist positions of their own. We do see the potential for some breakthroughs-- for instance there's currently a question about whether antitrust legislation that would easily pass (already having made it through committee) will be afforded votes in the House and Senate. It would behoove Democrats to push such measures forward, and it's of course the right thing to do."