It has often been said that while Republicans fear their base, Democrats loathe theirs. This weekend, the Democratic National Committee met for its 2017 Winter Meeting in Atlanta and proved the latter half of that statement to be true.
On February 25th, following former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez’s narrow victory over Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) in the race to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, social activist Naomi Klein took to Twitter to express a feeling of frustration shared by many self-described progressives who have remained involved with the Democratic Party. “What do you call it when you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results?” she asked. “Oh yeah: the Democratic Party.”
Klein’s words weren’t nearly as hyperbolic as many perceived them to be. Last November, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (who, during the primary season, “pleaded guilty” to being “kind of moderate and center”) shocked the world when she and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (one of the most conservative Democrats currently serving in the Senate) lost the electoral vote to former reality television star Donald Trump and running mate Mike Pence after failing to win traditionally Democratic states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
After months of dissection and analysis, it has been nearly universally agreed upon that Clinton and Kaine lost those crucial states because two key groups of voters either failed to vote or voted for other candidates: voters between the ages of 18 and 29, and white, low-income voters.
While some have hypothesized that the Democratic Party lost these voters because it failed to incorporate the left-populist economic message popularized by Bernie Sanders into the Clinton campaign, others strongly believe that Clinton’s reputation as a Washington “insider” significantly reduced her appeal amongst voters who were looking for change.
No matter the specific reasons for this decline in support, it should have been clear to all Democrats on November 9th that something drastically needed to change within the party.
A New Hope?
Following the general election, it appeared that the Democratic Party was willing to listen to the social democrats within its ranks. Soon after Trump declared victory, Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota announced his candidacy for the position of chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a seat left vacant following the resignation of disgraced former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Though Ellison had only recently become well-known on the national stage while campaigning both for Bernie Sanders and, later, Hillary Clinton, he was quickly seen by many within the party as the best chance that they had to bridge the divide between those who wanted the party to focus on “identity politics” and those who wanted the party to focus on economic progressivism.
As an African-American man from Detroit and as the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, Ellison’s election to the position of chair would have been a beautifully symbolic moment that would have stood in stark contrast to the flagrant racism of the insurgent “alt-right” movement. At the same time, as one of the first public supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and as a Congressman from a Midwestern state that has seen its share of economic decline as a result of neoliberal economic policies, Ellison’s election would have served as a loud, proud message from the party that it remains committed to fighting for the workers that feel as though they have been abandoned by the party. It wasn’t only the Sanders wing of the party that recognized this, either; Vice President Walter Mondale, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Senator Al Franken, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congressman John Lewis, Congressman Elijah Cummings, Jesse Jackson, and Gloria Steinem, all of whom endorsed Secretary Clinton prior to the Democratic National Convention last July, quickly endorsed Congressman Ellison’s campaign for chair. Most crucially, though, Ellison received overwhelming support from—you guessed it—workers and young people. Early on in the race, Ellison received the support of unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, and the AFL-CIO, and was endorsed by high-ranking members of organizations such as College Democrats of America and Young Democrats of America.
The Establishment Strikes Back
Even after Ellison emerged as a clear frontrunner in the race, which also included candidates such as New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley and South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison, a mysterious force worked to do everything in its power to recruit a formidable challenger to Ellison: the Obama White House. Ellison’s unabashedly progressive political identity, his vows to rid the Democratic Party of corporate donations and lobbyists, and his focus on Sandersesque fundraising techniques clearly made the old guard feel as though its power over the party was being threatened. As a result, outgoing President Obama personally recruited Tom Perez, his Secretary of Labor, to run against Ellison, and continued to support him until the bitter end of the race. According to a report from Politico, Obama, as well as key allies such as Joe Biden, Valerie Jarrett, David Simas, and Paulette Aniskoff, personally called voting members of the Democratic National Committee right until the moment that voting began to urge them to cast their votes for Perez.
Such secretive behavior from the outgoing Obama administration, however, was far from the most ruthless tactic used to sink Ellison’s candidacy. Individuals and organizations with ties to the Democratic Party began to push forth a false narrative that Ellison was a closet anti-Semite solely because of his past tangential affiliation with the Nation of Islam. Though Ellison hasn’t been involved with the organization since the early nineties and has explicitly denounced both the organization and leader Louis Farrakhan a number of times for being “bigoted and anti-Semitic,” his past ties were framed by supporters of Perez as “evidence” of Ellison’s alleged deep-seated anti-Semitism. Haim Saban, an Israeli-American businessman who donated millions of dollars to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, claimed at a Brookings Institution event that Ellison “is clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual,” and that, if Ellison were chosen to serve as chairman, it would be “a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.” Because high-profile members of the Democratic establishment failed to recognize that their methods were partly to blame for what occurred in November, and because they were willing to do almost anything to hold onto power, old wounds were opened up by the establishment wing of the party, and, as a result, the party came undone in a time in which unity (which could have been achieved by electing Keith Ellison to serve as chair) was necessary for survival.
The Case for Tom Perez Was Rooted in the Stubbornness of Party Elites
While widely ignoring the smear campaign that was waged by party insiders against Ellison, many of Perez’s supporters pushed forth the narrative that there were no differences on an ideological level between Perez and Ellison. Both men, after all, are self-described progressives, and, while Ellison is considered to be one of the most liberal members of the House, Perez was widely considered to be the most liberal member of the Obama administration. There was no need for progressives to become fixated on this race, Perez supporters said, as Perez is just as progressive as Ellison. If this is true (which, in regards to issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Perez continues to support even after Clinton’s unwillingness to wholeheartedly denounce the agreement arguably led to her electoral downfall, it really isn’t), though, then the case for Perez made little to no sense. If Perez is just as progressive as Ellison, why was it necessary for the party establishment to draft Perez? It appears that the real motivation behind encouraging Perez to run was to stifle the energy of the party’s left wing, which, since November, had largely rallied behind Congressman Ellison. As a February 22 article from the Hill notes, “Perez supporters have expressed concern about handing the party over to the Sanders wing of the party, arguing that Ellison would move the party too far to the left.” Perez’s campaign was a coordinated effort by members of the party’s moderate faction to stop the left from gaining any tangible influence within the party, and, by extension, to ensure that business, as usual, could continue to be conducted. Ellison’s supporters, who worked tirelessly to unite the left and center of the party, were not to blame for any feelings of division that arose over the course of the past few months. On the contrary, solely to blame for such division is the Democratic establishment, which was willing to do everything in its power to sabotage the campaign of an inspiring, well-liked, dynamic, experienced candidate in order to ensure that the party would continue to move on the same, tired path that it’s been on since 2010, when the Democratic Party first lost their majority in the House of Representatives.
The Democrats Have Cut Off Their Noses to Spite Their Faces
Once again, the Democratic Party has turned its back on the left, on young people, and on workers. This is no new development.
Over the course of the past forty years or so, we have seen, since President Jimmy Carter paved the way for rampant neoliberalization that has driven our economic policy since the Democratic Party happily trade in its support for organized labor and its cordial relationship with the American Left for lucrative deals with wealthy donors and a passionate embrace of nearly unrestrained capitalism. The Democrats’ aversion to all three of the aforementioned groups (which often overlap) was perhaps never on as clear a display as it was prior to last year’s Democratic convention, when the Democratic establishment did all that was possible to prevent Sanders’ social democratic campaign, which received overwhelming support from both low-income voters and young people, from gaining enough traction to overtake Clinton’s own campaign. However, many, including myself, figured that the members of the Democratic National Committee would follow in the footsteps of figures like Senate Minority Leader Schumer and recognize that, following the humiliating and devastating outcomes of November’s elections, change on a large scale was necessary for the party to survive. Instead, the Democratic National Committee happily turned its backs on both working people and young progressives, both of whom the party can’t win elections without, in order to ensure that the power structures that exist within the party remain undisturbed. If the working class and the young progressive community as a whole feel as utterly disillusioned with the party as I do following yesterday’s vote, the Democrats will undoubtedly have a difficult time securing meaningful victories during next year’s midterm elections.
The party clearly recognized this, as Perez was quick to offer Ellison the almost meaningless title of “Deputy Chair” in order to ensure that his supporters remain involved in party operations. Frankly, though, if the outcomes of next year’s elections are as disappointing as last year’s, the Democratic Party has no one but itself to blame.