How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Democratic Party?

Brett Vetterlein Feb 8, 2017

If the past year in politics has proved anything, it is these two contradicting facts: the Democrats are a feckless, failing party that cannot live up to our needs; and the Democrats are in many ways, for the time being, the only game in town.

Many on the left, myself included, are eager to begin building institutions that represent our politics fully. It is time to take seriously the task of “working outside of the Democratic Party,” of laying the foundation for a true party of the left that can put forward a vision of how America will shed itself of capitalist exploitation, racial injustice, and sexist domination.

Currently, though, a war is being waged for the heart of the Democrats themselves. The two main candidates for Chair of the Democratic National Committee are Keith Ellison, a firm progressive who aligned himself with Sanders during the presidential primary, and Tom Perez, Obama’s labor secretary who’s frequently touted leftist bonafides are shaky given his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What’s transparently clear is that Perez is a bone thrown by the Democratic establishment to their left wing base. Perez is meant to distract us from the real problem afflicting the party; each election sinks it deeper and deeper into the pockets of Wall Street.

Keith Ellison, an African-American and the first Muslim to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, has a strong track record of standing up for working people and oppressed communities. What’s clear is that if the Democrats want to start winning elections in the near future, they need to retool towards the Ellison-Sanders-Warren wing of the part, and away from the Obama-Clinton New Democrats.

While Barack Obama served as president, the Democrats quietly lost 949 state legislature seats, 13 governorships, 63 House seats, and 11 Senate seats — one of the single greatest transfers of power from one party to another in modern American politics.  There are lots of reasons this may have happened, chief among them being that the Democrats couldn’t connect in meaningful way with voters.

A Keith Ellison-run Democratic Party could very well be a boon for the progressive policies leftists have been championing for quite some time — universal health care, card check union voting, real police reform — which hopefully would result in clawing back some of the political power we’ve ceded to the Right over the past decade.

Of course, whether or not Ellison ever gets the chance isn’t up to us. Despite the 650,000 people who signed a petition endorsing Ellison, we have virtually no say in the decision. The Chair of the Democratic Party, ironically, isn’t decided by democratic vote. That task falls to the party’s internally anointed leadership, a similar population to that of the superdelegates, who swung overwhelmingly in Hillary Clinton’s favor before the primaries had even begun.

If Ellison is successful, though, it opens a window, through which left-of-liberal candidates could take advantage of the resources the Democratic Party has to offer, inject their own politics into races where we’ve got a real shot to win and take back some ground ceded to the Republicans over the past 8 years.

While many on the left have and will rightfully bemoan any effort of trying to work within the Democratic Party, the stakes we find ourselves in mean that every minute spent arguing over sullying the left’s good is lives lost, dreams deferred, hope abandoned. The impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act drives home the fact that politics is a game of life or death. Politics is being able to see a doctor, afford a home, get birth control, go to school, and put food on the table. It’s Medicare for All and the Fight fo $15. We don’t have time to waste. The left doesn’t have much of a good name in this country anyway — no thanks to the Democrats to begin with.

What some can do in the short-term, using the Democrat’s platform, is popularize our vision one candidate at a time, win real elections, take back power and fight the right. Meanwhile, in other corners of the left, comrades are already working hard on the long term project to build on electoral victories by tying elected officials to our movements and establishing mass organizations that one day will overtake the Democrats and win on their own.

This is not a call to work within the Democratic Party, but to make the Democratic Party work for us. Though I understand if critics fail to see the difference; sometimes I don’t either. But what if we could use the Democratic Party like a cheap loner, while our Cadillac — the progressive party currently only of our dreams — is still in the shop? It will require a lot of effort, some compromise, and ultimately will serve as a reminder why fixing the Democrats as a long-term project is ultimately meaningless. We can’t fix the Democratic Party, nor would I want to. But right now, if this clunky lemon can get us from point A to point B, what is the harm?

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