Can the Democrats Save Themselves?
New "autopsy" report urges progressive "re-boot"
Beyond Hillary Clinton’s epic unraveling in 2016, the Democratic Party has been amassing electoral corpses for years. Since President Obama’s 2008 win, the party has lost both houses of Congress and more than 1,000 state legislative seats. Republicans now control both the governorship and legislature in twenty-six states, the Democrats in only six.
"Democratic leaders 'remain bent on prioritizing the chase for elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base: especially people of color, young people and working-class voters overall.'"
Deeper troubling patterns bode ominously for the future of the party. As a new report, “Autopsy: Democratic Party in Crisis” points out, Democrats are suffering major declines in support from key traditional constituencies, including African-American women, working-class people of all races, and Latino voters.
Can the Democratic Party save itself? Why has it plunged so precipitously? If a herculean overhaul is even possible, what would it take?
The 13,000-word “autopsy” provides a sobering indictment of the Democratic Party’s attachment to corporate power, its failures to provide compelling policies for communities of color and white working class people, and its undemocratic and inequitable electoral process.
The report was produced by a team led by longtime Democratic activist Karen Bernal, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, and RootsAction.org co-founder Norman Solomon, who was the national coordinator of the independent Bernie Delegates Network in 2016. Other lead authors include civil rights attorney Pia Gallegos, and Sam McCann, a communications specialist.
Rather than seeing 2016 as a wake-up call, Democratic leaders “remain bent on prioritizing the chase for elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base: especially people of color, young people and working-class voters overall,” the report says. The Democratic Party is “failing, on a systemic level, to inspire, bring out, and get a sufficient majority of the votes of the working class.”
Why would a party so desperate for victory and power commit such system-wide failures, repeatedly, and fail to learn from them? As the report makes clear, the party’s flagging performance among these key “base” voters goes far beyond data missteps, messaging flaws, or poor outreach (though that is a key factor). The autopsy goes to the root of the party’s chronic problems, identifying the closely twined relationship between its electoral and policy failures.
“The Democratic Party’s claims of fighting for “working families” have been undermined by its refusal to directly challenge corporate power, enabling Trump to masquerade as a champion of the people,” the report concludes. “Corporate domination over the party’s agenda...rendered the Democrats’ messaging on economic issues ideologically rudderless and resulted in decline in support among working-class people across racial lines.”
The report counsels the party to “disentangle itself—ideologically and financially—from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and other corporate interests that put profits ahead of public needs.”
Between Obama’s 2012 reelection and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, the report observes, “there was a 16-point swing across all races (though this is overwhelmingly due to whites) for those making less than $30,000 from the D. to R. column and a six-point swing for those making between $30,000 and $50,000. Turnout among African Americans and Latinos was also far lower than many expected, which represents an ominous trend for the party moving forward.”
By 2032, the report notes, people of color will make up the majority of the working-class. The racially coded portrayal of the “working class” to denote “white” voters, and “this whole idea of silo politicking, of pitting one identity against another . . . should have died its last gasp,” Bernal said in an interview with The Progressive. “It’s not necessarily about building a big tent, but about addressing common shared interests” among the white working-class and people of color, Bernal said.
This shared agenda could include issues of fair wages, fighting inequitable corporate-friendly trade deals, and building worker and union strength and rights, along with universal health care and education.
The party’s attachment to corporate power and neoliberal moderation has also produced damaging contradictions on issues such as climate change and corporate accountability. “Leading Democrats have been forthright in condemning GOP climate denial, yet most of the same Democrats routinely indulge in denial that corporate power fuels climate denial and accelerates climate damage,” the report states.
Senator Bernie Sanders energized millions of voters by challenging the Democratic Party’s corporate centrist tilt. Despite Sanders’ electoral uprising—which is still expressing itself in pitched battles for more progressive party leadership at all levels, more “Berniecrat” delegates elected to state parties, and candidates endorsed by Our Revolution and Brand New Congress—the Democratic Party establishment seems unwilling to detach itself from corporate interests.
In 2016, as Clinton and the Democrats pursued a centrist, swing-vote electoral strategy, the party “spent lavishly on white suburban voters” instead of investing in a coalition of people of color, the report says. As a result, “Democrats saw dips in voter turnout and voter support among people of color—dips that were disastrously concentrated in swing states.”
The report includes one especially damning quote by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, in July 2016. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,” Schumer stated, insisting this strategy, replicated in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other major swing states, would win the day.
"The party has taken social movements for granted as constituencies to be tapped in election season, rather than communities to support and help build up."
Blue-collar whites and people of color were edged out of the party’s electoral strategy and attendant campaign resources.
The report also quotes a New York Times op-ed by Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color: “In spring 2016, when the progressive independent expenditure groups first outlined their plans for $200 million in spending, they did not allocate any money at all for mobilizing black voters.”
The party was similarly stingy and short-sighted in 2014. When Albert Morales, then the Hispanic Engagement Director at the Democratic National Committee, proposed a $3 million plan to increase voter turnout in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Texas, the party instead ladled out a meager $300,000 for Latino outreach—“less than a third of the $1 million the campaign-coordinating Super PAC Correct the Record pledged to spend on social media accounts to counteract anti-Clinton comments on Twitter and Reddit.”
Emerging from the bitter primary battles of 2016, the Democratic leadership appears even more exclusive and less welcoming. In one case this past July, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, now president of Our Revolution, attempted to deliver 115,000 signatures in support of a progressive “People’s Platform” at the DNC headquarters in Washington. She was turned away at the door, the report documents.
“When I stepped on this side of the barrier, I was told I had to step on the other side,” Turner said, “and that’s indicative of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party.”
My repeated calls to the Democratic National Committee for comment on the report went unanswered. When messages left on the main line went unanswered, I called the donations and member services line, where I was sure to get a live person. Stunningly, that office claimed it had no phone number it could give me for press or communications.
In another instance I chronicled for The Progressive, during the battle to block Scott Pruitt’s nomination as EPA administrator, the Democratic Party proved woefully inept at connecting activists with resources and key voting groups to pressure swing-state senators.
As Bernal told me, the party has taken social movements for granted as constituencies to be tapped in election season, rather than communities to support and help build up. Thus the party “had zero to say in exhorting the base to turn out” in support of a California bill calling for universal health care. Despite a strong Democratic majority in both California legislative chambers, the measure remains stalled by state Democratic Party leaders.
From its opening lines, the autopsy makes clear there is little indication that the Democratic Party will change course—despite the growing chorus of criticism urging leaders to adopt more boldly progressive policies and engage working-class voters of all races.
Just two weeks ago, at meetings in Las Vegas, the Democratic National Committee and its chair Tom Perez purged four top progressive leaders from its ranks, deepening the chasm between establishment and outside progressive Democrats. For all the talk of “unity” in resisting Trump and winning back Congress and the White House, the party has been loathe to make significant changes to build that unity with progressives.
Proposing a party “re-boot,” the autopsy report recommends a host of changes. The list includes removing the inequitable superdelegate system that centralizes power among establishment pro-corporate Democrats. It also recommends investing party resources to engage communities of color, and running on more progressive policies such as “single-payer Medicare for all, free public college tuition, economic security, infrastructure and green jobs initiatives, and tackling the climate crisis.”
In their policies and their campaigns, Democrats need to directly address the “disproportionately high rates of poverty” and “ongoing vulnerability to a racist criminal justice system” in communities of color. The party must also end it’s chronic “neglect of rural voters, a process that must include aligning the party with the interests of farming families and others who live in the countryside rather than with Big Agriculture and monopolies.”
The question looming over all this is—how and why would the Democratic Party contradict the corporate and wealth interests that undergird its financial support? Why would the party suddenly abandon its big money funders and the “New Democrat” neoliberal agenda the party has been following for decades?
While the chances of such a deep transformation are slim at best, the autopsy report urges progressives to keep pushing the party in a populist direction—a path that could produce gains for the Democrats and the people they claim to serve.