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Campaign chair for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, leaving the stage after telling the audience she would to speak to supporters during election night at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York on Nov. 8, 2016. (Photo: Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images)

To Address Historic Failures, Autopsy Urges 'Progressive Reboot' for Democrats

"Outmoded narratives and facile calls for 'unity' must be replaced with a new vision of politics that is explicitly inclusive and participatory," concludes new analysis

Jake Johnson

Nearly a year has passed since the Democratic Party's disastrous losses in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections, and there has still been no public reckoning from the party itself—no detailed account of what took place and how to move forward.

With a report published Monday, however, a task force comprised of co-founder Norman Solomon, the California Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus chair Karen Bernal, civil rights attorney Pia Gallegos, and International Center for Transitional Justice communications associate Sam McCann looks to fill this critical vacuum by providing the first "unflinching" examination of the roots of Democrats' 2016 demise and charting a new, progressive way forward.

"The party must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits." In 2009, the Democratic Party held firm control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress. By November 2016, the party had been reduced to a "smoking pile of rubble" by a deeply unpopular political party that chose as its presidential nominee the most unpopular candidate in American history, former reality show host Donald Trump. What happened?

Taken in full, the "Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis" (pdf) expresses the view that the 2016 "electoral disaster" was a long time in the making, the result of both badly misguided electoral strategies and deeper structural issues that can only be overcome by a "clear, progressive reboot of the Democratic Party."

As the 34-page political autopsy makes clear, the party's problems are widespread, various, and in some cases deeply embedded. To summarize some of the report's key findings:

  • In a political moment defined by anger at soaring inequality, stagnant wages, corporate criminality, and "status quo methodology," the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—failed to transcend the public perception that the party is beholden to its corporate benefactors, from Wall Street to the tech sector;
  • Because of its commitment to incremental change in the face of problems that require ambitious solutions, Democrats have continued bringing "a wonk knife to a populist gunfight," even as straightforward and ambitious solutions like Medicare for All, free public college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage soar in popularity;
  • The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign "failed to craft policies that speak to the material inequality imposed on people of color, failed to allocate sufficient resources to outreach in communities of color, failed to cultivate grassroots organizers, and failed to directly address or challenge Republican efforts to suppress minority voters," resulting in a drastic decline in turnout among these sectors of the population;
  • Instead of working to strengthen its support among all working class voters, the party has sought out votes from upscale Republican-leaning districts, adhering to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's dictum that "[f]or every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia"; and
  • With its insistence on "slow, piecemeal reforms," Democrats have failed to capitalize on growing grassroots enthusiasm among young voters in particular. The party has also repeatedly offered mere "lip service" to organic social movements and their priorities, viewing these grassroots forces as mere "tools to get Democrats elected."

The Democrats' defeat in last year's election was the ultimate consequence of these and many other deep political woes, but they did not begin in 2016—"much of the party's weakness was in place well before" Clinton's presidential run, the report notes. Solutions, therefore, cannot be limited to short-term tweaks to electoral strategy.

What is urgently needed, the analysis argues, is "honest self-reflection" that confronts "a hard truth: that many view the party as often in service to a rapacious oligarchy and increasingly out of touch with people in its own base."

"Emerging sectors of the electorate are compelling the Democratic Party to come to terms with adamant grassroots rejection of economic injustice, institutionalized racism, gender inequality, environmental destruction and corporate domination," the report observes.

"Revitalized progressive populism—multicultural, multiracial, and multigenerational—means fighting for genuine democracy."

And as Common Dreams recently reported, the majority of Democratic voters believe the party should embrace these grassroots forces, ditch its current leadership, and take a bold leftward leap.

The "Autopsy" endorses this view, suggesting that only "a racially diverse and morally robust progressive vision" can defeat "the ideological rot of Trumpism."

"Revitalized progressive populism—multicultural, multiracial, and multigenerational—means fighting for genuine democracy," the report concludes. "Outmoded narratives and facile calls for 'unity' must be replaced with a new vision of politics that is explicitly inclusive and participatory. The party must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits."

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