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DNC Chair Tom Perez (L) and newly-selected vice-chair Keith Ellison (R) reacts during the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Winter Meeting in Atlanta last month. (Photo: EPA)


The Democratic Party Left After the Ellison DNC Campaign: Unite or Fight?

Tom Gallagher

One thing to keep in mind about the recent Thomas Perez–Keith Ellison race for Democratic National Committee chair is that it was pretty much an only-in-America sort of thing.  Were we in any kind of parliamentary system – like most countries have – the two sides would probably be in different parties – the Bernie Sanders core of the Ellison campaign most likely in some type of socialist or labor-oriented party, with the Clinton people around Perez probably mostly in a more business-oriented liberal party.  Instead, however, the American presidential system that we actually have pretty much keeps the two sides coexisting under one big Democratic Party tent.

If all of this seems somewhat less than clear to us, though, we can probably be excused since this type of distinction within the party is pretty much a post-Sanders campaign thing.  Sanders, after all, went further on the national level than any figure so clearly of-the-left since George McGovern won the nomination in 1972.  And no self-identified socialist had made such a splash in a presidential race since Eugene Debs ran from his Atlanta Federal Penitentiary cell in 1920.  So, the next thing to remember about the DNC chair’s race is that a year ago the wing of the Party that considers it overly influenced by corporate money and connections simply didn’t exist on a national level; the DNC only contained the Clinton/Obama wing.

When Perez entered the race, his supporters argued that he was just as, or nearly as progressive as Ellison – which then raised the question of why, if the differences really were slight, he found it necessary to run against the already-declared Ellison.  In a New Republic article, “Establishment Democrats Just Won a Needless Proxy War,” Alex Shephard posited a pretty simple and convincing answer – the party’s main liners simply “don’t believe a major course correction is in order and … are reluctant to make significant reforms.”  Certainly Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi buttressed that conclusion when she told Face the Nation that, so far as possible post-election changes in the Democratic Party went, “I don’t think people want a new direction.”

Shephard also seems on the money in writing that, very simply, “the party is once again saying it doesn’t trust progressives.”  Of course, that lack of trust might be understandable enough, in that it seems fair to say that a lot of us on the other side of the divide don’t really trust the leadership of the corporate Democrats either.  So concentrating on the question of “trust” is probably off the point.  What is to the point is that there are currently two substantially varying views about what the Democratic Party needs to do to effectively represent the interests of the working people of the nation – and about whether it needs to reduce corporate influence within the party.  The two sides see the very question of debate within the Party very differently.    For those who generally favor the current course, arguing about changing it may seem a diversionary and  possibly even a dangerous waste of time.  On the other hand, for those who think serious change actually is in order, it could be seen as a dereliction of duty not to discuss that.  What we have here is an argument about the legitimacy of argument.

As an old friend put it, “We’re in a war against fascists. There’s no time for infighting.”  Even change that might otherwise be in order needs to go on hold for the moment, in deference to the party unity required to meet the Trump crisis, according to this line of thinking.   Not coincidentally, this view is consistent with the core message of the recently completed Clinton campaign which argued, since before the primaries started, that opposing their candidate or arguing about her Wall Street ties would only help the Republicans and divert attention from the campaign’s central message of how deplorable Donald Trump was.  And we know how successful that approach was.

There is also a very different take on all of this, of course, which holds that with the Ellison loss the Democratic Party has once again demonstrated itself incapable of change,  and therefore requiring those looking for an alternative to Wall Street politics to find some other venue for their political energies.  But while the Perez victory clearly represented a win for those comfortable with the current level of corporate and lobbyist influence within the party, we should not ignore the inroads obviously made by those who are not happy with that situation.   Let’s not forget, after all, that it was the DNC that got the ball rolling for Hillary Clinton, with its super delegates backing her over Sanders by a 311 ½ – 34 ½ margin.  While this did not provide the margin of victory, as Clinton ultimately won a majority of the elected delegates, it did give her a substantial delegate lead before a single primary voter had even entered a polling place, and made an immense contribution toward creating the aura of her candidacy’s inevitability that her campaign rode through to the end – even as poll after poll continued to show Sanders the stronger contender against Trump.  So in this context, Ellison’s loss to the establishment candidate by only a 235-200 vote margin must be seen as a sign that change within the party is real, if not yet sufficient.

On balance, the simple fact of life seems to be that unless we’re willing to turn the country over to the Republicans, the Clinton/Perez and Sanders/Ellison blocs are pretty much stuck with each other.   Figuring out where we fight and where we unite may often be a difficult needle to thread – it’s not a problem you have to deal when you have separate parties – but it’s not one we can just ignore – even if one of the factions might wish it so.

What sorts of intra-party conflicts are unavoidable?  Well, let’s start with California, where insurgents supporting a Main Street rather than a Wall Street-oriented party won a majority of state party convention slots elected in January.  With the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, there is renewed hope of actually moving to a real solution to the health insurance crisis by enacting a single payer, Medicare-for-all bill on the state level.  And while a bill has been filed, the fact is that for the prior four years the state’s Democratic legislative leadership simply did not allow a bill to be filed.  Although a single payer system had twice passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, it has not been passed since Democratic Jerry Brown succeeded him, the legislative leadership’s prior support for the bill having been exposed as a sham aimed at embarrassing a Republican governor.  Have they changed their position in reality?  If so, we will be happy to unite behind their effort.  If not, we have no choice but to fight them.

Then there’s New Jersey, where Clinton-supporter Phil Murphy and Sanders supporter John Wisniewski seek the Democratic nomination for this year’s gubernatorial election.  Wisnewski has served in the New Jersey Assembly for twenty-one years, yet it is the former Goldman Sachs executive Murphy who enjoys the support of the party establishment.  Yet Murphy, who has loaned his campaign over $9 million, calls Wisnewski a “Trenton insider and party boss.”  Both are running as progressives, but there are differences: Wisnewski actively supports a New Jersey single-payer system, while Murphy considers defense of the Affordable Care Act the priority.  Some claim Wisnewski’s support of Sanders was opportunistic.  Wisnewski replies that, given the overwhelming party support for Clinton, you’d have to be nuts consider support of Sanders as any kind of political opportunity.  These fights and choices will go on all across the nation.

Then there is the matter of foreign policy.  As heartening as the immediate and dramatic negative response to Donald Trump’s ban on refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries was, the fact is that we bombed five of those countries last year, along with two more predominantly Muslim countries.  Relatively few commentators seem to have found this noteworthy, in large part because the presidency of Barack Obama basically anesthetized the American antiwar movement.  We are in the sixteenth year of a war in Afghanistan – a war that virtually anyone who seriously thinks about it realizes we will never win – and yet we recently concluded a presidential campaign in which it was simply not an issue.  And, unfortunately,  right now there seems little reason to hope the current leadership of the Democratic Party will any time soon be bringing forth a national security policy that does not involve endless war.

The fact of the matter is that even Bernie Sanders – who did denounce “regime change” policies and actually name the names of democratically elected leaders of foreign countries overthrown in the name of the American people – did not go far enough in making the case that our current policy of worldwide military engagement (the American military was active in 134 countries last year) is making new enemies for America faster than it kills the old ones.  There was a telling moment during the Democratic Nominating Convention in Philadelphia when Bernie Sanders delegates began to chant “No more wars” when Retired General John Allen spoke, and were met with a counter-chant of “USA. USA” – one side straining to find an alternative foreign policy; the other seemingly declaring the current one as American as apple pie.   Anyone seeking a serious course change away from militarism will almost certainly be forced to argue not only with the Republican Party, but with the current leadership of the Democratic as well.  Silence in the name of unity is simply not an acceptable option.

And then there’s basic politics:  Immediately following the presidential election, Mother Jones published a list of “11 Democrats Who Could Defeat President Trump in 2020″ that included Senators Cory Booker, Tammy Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Tim Kaine, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, former Maryland Governor (and presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley and outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama.  The Hill added the names of Clinton and Sanders, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and TV star Oprah Winfrey.  US News and World Report threw the names of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and billionaire Mark Cuban into the mix.  There have been further lists since, of course, but you get the picture – besides the man himself, if there’s anyone besides Elizabeth Warren on these lists who could appeal to the throngs brought into the political process by the Sanders campaign, I’d like to know about it.

We’ve got some hard work to do here, whether we like it or not, and it involves asking questions about who supported what, when; and who wants to go where now?  And it doesn’t stop at candidates and office holders, either.  When the Sanders campaign finally gave America a major not-approved-by-Wall Street presidential candidate, there were commentators and writers previously thought to be “on the left” who rose to the occasion, while others sank.  Robert Reich, for instance, turned out to have a lot of useful things to say; Paul Krugman maybe not so much.  If we hope to give America’s working class the option of a Democratic Party that really is on their side, we have to wend our way through this – uniting where we can, fighting where we must.

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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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