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The Democrats’ Internal Power Struggle

Brett Vetterlein Feb 21

Issue 222

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 to be chair of the Democratic National Committee are Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a firm progressive who backed Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential primaries, and Thomas Perez, Barack Obama’s labor secretary, whose frequently touted leftist bona fides are shaky, given his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What’s clear is that Perez is a bone thrown by the Democratic establishment to the party’s 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.

Ellison, an African-American and the first Muslim to serve in the U.S. Congress, has a strong track record of standing up for working people and oppressed communities. In his campaign for the DNC top post, he has promised to pursue a “3,153-county strategy” that would welcome the participation of grassroots activists across the country. 

If the Democrats want to start winning more elections, they need to retool towards the Ellison-Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party and away from the Obama-Clinton “New Democrats” who built their careers ample generous support from powerful corporate interests.

While 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.  The chief reason this happened is that the Democrats couldn’t connect with voters in any meaningful way.

An 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 lost to the far right over the past decade.

Of course, most Democrats won’t have a say in whether Ellison gets the chance to lead the party. Despite 650,000 people signing a petition endorsing him, the decision will be made by 447 party insiders when they meet in Atlanta on February 25.

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 they have a real shot to win, and take back some ground from the Republicans.

While many on the left will understandably bemoan any effort of trying to work within the Democratic Party, the situation we find ourselves in means that every minute spent arguing over sullying the left’s good name is lives lost, dreams deferred, hope abandoned. The impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act drives home that politics is a life-or-death contest for millions of people. 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 for $15. We don’t have time to waste.

What some can do in the short-term, using the Democrats’ platform, is popularize a 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 of building 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. I understand if critics can’t see the difference; sometimes I don’t either. But what if we could use the Democratic Party like a cheap loaner, while our Cadillac — the progressive party currently only of our dreams — is still being designed? If this clunky lemon can get us from point A to point B, what is the harm?

Brett Vetterlein is Brooklyn-based writer, activist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

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