Ryan Grim Goes Inside The Democrats’ Long Civil War

Issue 252

Steven Sherman Nov 10, 2019

Like many leftists of his generation, Ryan Grim, 41, cut his teeth on street confrontations with the police during the global-justice movement of the late 1990s. Unlike most of his comrades, he went on to focus his attention on Washington politics, becoming Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post and The Intercept. He draws on that knowledge for his new book on the transformation of the Democratic Party, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.

Grim begins his story with the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, which have been largely forgotten by the new generation of electoral activists. He roots those races, which tried to build a “rainbow coalition” of African Americans, labor and the Democrats’ left-liberal wing, in Harold Washington’s successful 1983 insurgent campaign for mayor of Chicago. He celebrates the Jackson campaign’s ability to defy the Democratic establishment, along with the future members of Congress who participated—such as Reps. Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters of California, the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone and Bernie Sanders.

But soon Grim refocuses on the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which in the 1980s perceived itself as too beholden to black people and out of touch with white men. Furthermore, as the Republicans opened themselves up to a flood of big-money donations, so did the Democrats. The party’s overconfidence that it had a permanent majority in the House would be shattered in the 1994 midterms.

After laying out this glum picture, Grim focuses on the first two decades of the new millennium. He writes with both anger and detail of the Democrats’ failure to move a genuinely progressive agenda in 2009 and 2010, when they held control over the presidency and both houses of Congress. Former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s future chief of staff, is a key villain, as his strategy in 2006, when the Democrats won back the House, was finding relatively conservative, donor-friendly candidates to run in swing districts. Obama followed a parallel trajectory, hemming himself in with Wall Street-friendly advisors. One of the most vivid images Grim paints of this period is of the House Finance Committee, bloated with new members because being on it helped them fundraise from the industry they were supposed to be regulating. Taking office during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they often voted down common-sense reforms that threatened their donors’ wealth.

On the other hand, former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid emerges as a sympathetic figure, one willing to learn from the new “netroots,” as does Elizabeth Warren, struggling against the Wall Streeters who dominated the Obama administration. Gay and lesbian activists also had some success pressuring the Obama administration, rather than be hemmed in by its co-opting strategies.

For Grim, the most important aspect of Bernie Sanders’ historic presidential campaign in 2016 was not his democratic socialist label, but his reliance on small donations and the barnstorming strategy developed to mobilize volunteers. This way of doing politics would be embraced by resistance groups, such as Indivisible, that sprang up after Donald Trump’s victory, many of them led by women.

Grim emphasizes their base in associations that already existed, such as book clubs. He also argues that while many activists voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries, they and Sanders’ supporters often had a similar political agenda. In discussing the Congressional campaigns of the 2018 midterms, he treats the unsuccessful centrists Jon Ossoff in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas more positively than most leftists would. He also highlights Jess King running from the left in a predominantly rural southeastern Pennsylvania district, backed by the remarkable group Lancaster Stands Up, and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, who upset the Democratic party’s official choice in the primary to become the state’s first African American woman House member.

The travails of EMILY’s List, so reluctant to break with the establishment even in a year of insurgent women, are also discussed. New Yorkers will likely learn some things from his chapters on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the unseating of the Independent Democratic Conference, the eight Democratic state senators who allied themselves with Republicans and gave the GOP veto power over state government. While Grim is optimistic about the insurgency within the Democratic Party, he is well aware of the continued power of big money. In the epilogue, he worries that Democratic primary voters will try to play it safe and pick former Vice President Joe Biden, who might actually be the worst choice to run against Trump.

Histories of the present are inevitably likely to need revising, but I suspect Grim’s work will stand up better than many. His reporting on Congress and electoral politics is filled with surprises and valuable inside information.

However, it is weaker in describing the Democratic insurgency’s social underpinnings. For example, he doesn’t go into how Jesse Jackson swiftly dismantled the Rainbow Coalition organization, an act many activists remember with bitterness. He mentions the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America only in passing, although they have produced two important strategies. The WFP has attempted to forge an alliance of labor unions and progressive activists to back candidates, sometimes making unsavory endorsements in order to do so. The DSA has blossomed as a socialist organization with numerous vibrant chapters all over the country, and has fielded many candidates for local offices.

Pretty much the only social analysis Grim has of the insurgency is his Tocquevillian celebration of the local associations that Indivisible rested upon. This raises the question of how movements can reach the large number of working-class Americans who have experienced social breakdown amid the decline of unions, organized religion and the traditional family. Both Trump and Sanders have shown some ability to reach them, but holding them will take different strategies than simply building on pre-existing organizations, and it’s not clear whether the left has the edge on the far right there. A much closer look at the “rise of a movement” from a social perspective would be a highly useful complement to Grim’s political perspective, although that’s probably too much to ask from one book.

We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to AOC, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement
By Ryan Grim
Strong Arm Press, 2019

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