The Democratic Party now finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis.
Or, so we are told by the major press, from the Washington Post ("What's next for Democrats? For starters, a battle for the soul of their party") to the Wall Street Journal ("Democrats, reeling from their election defeats, are facing an identity crisis and leadership vacuum").
After Hillary Clinton's startling loss to the incompetent, unorganized, and bigoted Donald Trump, Democrats are now beginning the typical, solemn postmortem assessment. What, they are asking, went wrong?
It is true that many Democrats are, in good faith, asking this question. It is also true that many, including those at the center of the Clinton team, are not. Instead they are casting about, in some cases wildly, for others to blame: James Comey, Jill Stein, young people, Bernie Sanders.
This should not be surprising. For decades, the Democratic Party, which was after Bill Clinton's election taken over by technocrats, has operated under the principle that, as Emmett Rensin recently put it, "the Democratic Party cannot fail, it can only be failed."
Thus, the narrative goes, Hillary Clinton's monumental loss is not in any way related to the fact that, over the last several decades, the Democratic Party has marched rightward with little resistance, leaving behind both the rhetoric and the substance of the struggle for economic justice. Nor is it due to the fact that, in the place of the language of class that once animated the New Deal coalition, Democrats have constructed a tapestry of celebrity identity politics that excludes and actively harms poor minorities and women. Nor, finally, can it be attributed to Democrats' acceptance of an economic and political order so infused with corporate money that it has been rendered unable to deliver substantive benefits to the population.
No, say Clinton's operatives, in chorus with her unflinching apologists: It is the people who have failed the party. It is the fault of those who failed to embrace the Clinton agenda, one that was focused not primarily on the need for a radical new approach to economics and politics, but rather on the horrifying qualities of the opposition. She assumed—as it turns out, falsely—that it would be sufficient to offer voters something to rally against.
But, of course, it shouldn't be surprising that a candidate who actively courted Henry Kissinger and conservative billionaires while refusing to endorse a $15 minimum wage would fail to arouse sufficient enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, a certain amount of denialism is to be expected.
Ever since what Lily Geismer, in her aptly titled book Don't Blame Us, calls "the reorientation of modern liberalism and the Democratic Party away from their roots in the labor union halls of northern cities, and toward white-collar suburbanites in the postindustrial metropolitan periphery," the governing approach of the Democratic mainstream has also shifted. The party previously willing to serve, if tenuously and imperfectly, as a conduit for mass popular movements has taken on a managerial approach, one that, as Matt Karp observes, often manifests as "active hostility toward mass politics itself."
These facts provide key context, and they support the conclusion that, insofar as the Democratic Party is indeed experiencing an identity crisis, it is largely of its own making. The party leadership has, over a period of decades, turned away from progressive goals under the guise of pragmatism, leaving a vast opening for right-wing phony populism to emerge.
To be sure, there are splits within the party, and thus the party's "identity" is no monolith. Contrast, for instance, the approaches of Bernie Sanders (an independent who caucuses with Democrats) and President Barack Obama.
While his personality certainly played a role in his unexpectedly successful presidential campaign, it was Sanders's ideas that sparked the enthusiasm that carried him forward and ultimately made him the most popular politician in the country. His call for a political revolution emboldened and inspired millions.
President Obama harnessed similar enthusiasm, but he frequently insisted that he was a "New Democrat" and that he was "not a particularly ideological person." Contrary to Sanders's repudiation of big money donors, Obama embraced the corporate class that bankrolled his campaign and appointed bankers and those with deep finance industry ties to key roles in his administration—a particularly striking move given the dire economic circumstances he inherited.
"To dismiss these splits within and around the Democratic Party would be to abandon key fights that will help shape both the opposition to Trump and the alternatives once he fails those he promised to save."
Throughout the primaries, Sanders spelled out, repeatedly, the fundamental difference between his own approach and that of the president. "Thank you very much for electing me, I'll take it from here," was how he described it. Sanders, for his part, has embraced the view that democratic change springs from the work of popular movements, not from enlightened, benevolent leaders.
To dismiss these splits within and around the Democratic Party would be to abandon key fights that will help shape both the opposition to Trump and the alternatives once he fails those he promised to save.
Already, we are seeing such fights begin to materialize, and they are representative of the many paths the party could take: The coming struggle over who is to head the Democratic National Committee is one such fight that should be taken seriously.
Although it is far from clear that the race will come down to these two, exploring the contrasts between them can be helpful in understanding the Democrats' much-discussed identity crisis.
The salient facts underpinning the coming race are these.
Dean ran for president in 2004, and has used the resulting prominence to attain advisory positions at major firms that lobby for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. In 2009 he was hired by McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, which later merged with Dentons, Dean's current employer.
As Lee Fang of The Intercept has reported, Dean's views on healthcare have shifted substantially since he began his work for Dentons as a "senior adviser." Earlier this year, Dean joined the Clinton team's frantic and misleading attacks on Sanders's healthcare proposals, arguing that they would effectively eliminate Obamacare and leave people without insurance.
Dean's views can also be gleaned from a number of op-ed pieces in which, Fang observes, he is often reduced to "repeating GOP arguments"; he has argued, for instance, against allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
In response to accusations that he has used his resumé in the public sphere to advance his career as an influence-peddler, Dean has offered the rejoinder that he is not, officially, a lobbyist.
This is technically true, but highly misleading. While he is not registered as a lobbyist, Fang noted in January that Dean "engages in virtually every lobbying activity imaginable, helping corporate interests reach out to lawmakers on legislation, advising them on political strategy, and using his credibility as a former liberal lion to build public support on behalf of his lobby firm clients."
Keith Ellison, on the other hand, is not a corporate lobbyist in any sense. In 2007, Ellison became the first Muslim-American to be elected to the United States Congress, and he was the second member of Congress to endorse Sanders in the Democratic primary.
Sanders has returned the favor, arguing that "the political establishment and the billionaire class" would not be happy if Ellison became DNC chair. "Good," he added.
Along with being one of the few members of Congress to view Sanders's populist message as the proper antidote to right-wing demagoguery, he was also one of the few prominent politicians to really grasp the danger of such demagoguery early on.
During a panel discussion on ABC's "This Week" last July, Ellison said that "we better be ready for the fact that [Donald Trump] might be leading the Republican ticket."
The response from the panel, including the host George Stephanopoulos, was laughter. "I know you don't believe that," Stephanopoulos replied, smiling widely. Perhaps he is no longer smiling.
Ellison understood the moment; he grasped that Trump was taking advantage of a vacuum left by a Democratic Party that has proven unwilling or unable to deliver material gains for the working class—including those members of the white working class who voted for President Obama twice.
Some, however, have expressed skepticism that Ellison—an ardent opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and an advocate of a $15 minimum wage—could win over disaffected white voters in the Rust Belt states that both helped carry Obama to victory and helped, this year, to ensure Hillary Clinton's defeat.
"Defeated Dems could've tapped Rust Belt populist to head party," tweeted Jonathan Weisman, the deputy Washington editor of the New York Times. "Instead, black, Muslim progressive from Minneapolis?"
The tweet was widely panned, for obvious reasons.
"I mean imagine the Democrats losing 2004," Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel wrote in response to Weisman, "and then nominating a black guy with an African name from Chicago."
Weisman is apparently concerned that white voters in the Rust Belt will be repelled by a "black, Muslim progressive from Minneapolis." But the focus on identity serves to obscure the appeal of an ambitious, populist economic agenda.
Throughout his run for the presidency, Barack Obama utilized such populist economic messaging in states like Wisconsin, which he carried in 2008 and 2012. Clinton diverged from this strategy in 2016, choosing instead to focus her advertising dollars on highlighting Trump's worst features. In 2008 and 2012, voters were given something to vote for and against. This year, Clinton offered little in the way of a positive agenda.
"The Democratic leadership and DNC members have a choice, one that will indicate the direction in which the party will move in the coming months, even years. And, once more, the choice will likely be between a candidate with deep ties to corporate America and a genuine populist with an ambitious, progressive vision for the future."
It is, of course, dubious to argue that Clinton would have won the Rust Belt if she had aggressively pushed a progressive economic platform. The key point, though, is that Clinton was simply not a credible populist; her ties to industry were too deep, her image as an establishment figure too entrenched.
Most Americans—71 percent, according to some data—believe, correctly, that the economy is rigged. Most of the population also believes, again correctly, that too much power is "concentrated in the hands of a few big companies."
Trump is a fraud, but he tapped into this reality more effectively than Clinton, who spent much of her time on the campaign trail arguing, in one way or another, that "America is already great," that everything is fine.
It is overwhelmingly clear, then, that right-wing populism cannot be countered by politicians with deep ties to corporate America; it can only be countered by progressive populists.
The choice of DNC chair seems relatively inconsequential in the face of a Republican-controlled Congress and a Trump presidency. But, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, it is "a perfect test of whether Dems [have] learned anything."
The Democratic leadership and DNC members have a choice, one that will indicate the direction in which the party will move in the coming months, even years. And, once more, the choice will likely be between a candidate with deep ties to corporate America and a genuine populist with an ambitious, progressive vision for the future.
Keith Ellison as DNC chair would be a step in the right direction, while Howard Dean would represent more of the same, maintaining the status quo that helped make Trump's victory possible.