The leadership of the Democratic Party seems determined to cling to their elite, corporatist position headed into the 2018 elections. Last week, for example, they basically punted on whether to adopt a set of recommendations from the party’s Unity Commission which would have wrested control of the primary process from the hands of party bosses and establishment apparatchiks by turning it over to the people.
Now, they’re trying to claim that Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania proves that the neoliberal’s centrist sellout is the right strategy for the Democratic Party. They’re wrong, and their insistence on clinging to the old Democratic Leadership Council's strategy has more to do with maintaining their own power base than it does with positioning the party to win. The reason this matters is that with less than 8 months until the mid-terms, the only hope of containing Trump and defeating the Republicans is for the party to shift to a populist, progressive position. Let’s unpack Lamb’s victory so we can learn the real lessons it has to offer.
Lesson number 1 – health care was the deciding factor in the election
Much was made of Lamb’s rejection of gun control laws (although he did support comprehensive background checks), his questioning of a $15 an hour minimum wage, and his support for tariffs and fracking. But polls show the defining issue for most voters was health care, and it was Lamb’s support for health care in general, and his criticism of the Republican attack on Obamacare in particular, that helped him win the election.
Lesson number 2 – Lamb won for the same reasons that Trump did, and that Sanders is still most popular politician in America
People are disgusted with government and those who govern. Lamb essentially ran against Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi. Trump won because 1) he was an outsider, and 2) so many folks were disgusted with politics as usual that they stayed home, allowing him to win with just 27 percent of eligible voters backing him. Lamb ran against the Washington establishment and the oligarchy it supports. To believe this somehow justifies embracing the corporate, neoliberal strategy that made none-of-the-above the biggest winner in 2016 is either hopelessly ignorant or self-serving. Or perhaps a bit of both.
Lesson 3 – voters aren’t buying the Republican’s con any longer, so calling them on it is a key to winning
As I noted in my book, "WTF, America?", the oligarchy, with the explicit assistance of the Republican Party, has been running a de facto coup for nearly four decades now, and it’s been successful largely because mainstream Democrats—who are also beholden to corporations and the rich for campaign funds—implicitly supported it.
"Lamb showed that to win, the Democrats have stop being a silent partner to the Republican’s con so that they can credibly call them on it."
Here’s the thing: the only reason this con succeeded for as long as it did, was that the same centrist, namby-pamby Democrats who are rejecting a progressive agenda now, refused to confront the oligarchy and their Republican allies—indeed Democrats largely supported the oligarchs. But as Paul Krugman recently pointed out, Lamb’s victory may be a sign that voters are finally wising up to this con.
Lesson 4 – Progressive policies like single-payer health care, supporting Social Security and Medicare, equitable fiscal laws and policies, and regulating the financial sector win elections
Lamb aggressively took on the Republican attacks on health care, Social Security, and Medicare, and he excoriated the Republican’s tax cuts, and their coddling of the financial sector—something mainstream Democrats haven’t done. It helped him win the election in one of the reddest districts around. Remember 2014, when Democrats ran from progressive issues and the US had the lowest voter turnout since World War II and they lost ground at every level? And now these same centrists want Democrats to stay the course and continue this slide into oblivion.
Lesson number 5– It’s just as important to understand why Saccone lost as it is to understand Lamb’s victory
Saccone’s loss was as much about voters waking up to the con Republicans have been playing as it was about the policies he embraced. It took a while, but the whole trickle down, tax-cuts for the rich, supply-side shuffle is collapsing around their feet. For decades, Republicans were able to distract folks from the devastating consequences of these policies by using a variety of diversions based on hate, fear, xenophobia, jingoism and other “isms” designed to target the limbic lizard brain. For too long, Democrats didn’t directly confront these issues, nor did they try to bring the Republican’s assault on the New Deal into elections.
Lamb showed that to win, the Democrats have stop being a silent partner to the Republican’s con so that they can credibly call them on it.
Lesson 6: Democrats need a national brand if they are to win at a national level
Centrist Democrats contend that Lamb’s victory argues for the same old “big tent” approach in politics—a party that embraces both gun nuts and gun control advocates; a party that welcomes Big Bank sycophants and folks who favor aggressively regulating the financial sector in equal measure; a party that favors fracking while embracing climate change science. The reality is, that’s never worked. Today, only 37 percent of the voters believe that Democrats stand for anything.
Conservatives have always had a brand. As Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones put it:
Every American over the age of ten knows what the GOP and the conservative movement stand for. Sing it with me now: low taxes, small government, strong defense, traditional families. See? You know the tune, and the harmony line, too…Everybody knows what the conservative brand stands for, because the conservative leadership has spent four decades nurturing a consistent brand identity for themselves.
But with the people waking up to the fact that this has all been a cover for their real agenda—giving more billions to billionaires and letting corporations run roughshod over the people, the environment and our children’s’ future, it’s time for Democrats to take it on. But you can’t criticize a party for being a poodle to the plutocrats when your party is one too, and you can’t beat something with nothing. Unless Democrats bite the bullet and choose a progressive brand, nothing’s exactly what they’ll get.
Lesson 7 – It’s all about turnout
Will Democrats lose a few local elections if they create a national brand based on progressive values? Maybe a few at first. But they’ll win far more by pulling in a significant number of the 45 percent who’ve given up on politics back into the fold. And ultimately, they’ll convince a lot of the disaffected 27 percent who voted for Trump that they’ve been had. If there’s one thing Democrats should have learned from the 2014 and 2016 elections, it’s that running candidates who want to be all things to all people is a great strategy for depressing turnout. And Democrats lose when turnout isn’t high. So far, fear or hatred of Trump has gotten a lot of folks to turn out, but Democrats need a blue tsunami to win, and having something to vote for—having a party that stands for the people’s interest—is an effective and necessary compliment to the anti-Trump vote.
"Unless Democrats bite the bullet and choose a progressive brand, nothing’s exactly what they’ll get."
A third party is a great long-term solution, but it won’t avoid the impending catastrophe of 2018 or even 2020
Those who believe a third party is the answer to the problem posed by what amounts to a political duopoly have to understand we are facing an imminent catastrophe. Of course it would be nice to have a viable third party—and a fourth and fifth for that matter—but that’s not going to happen between now and November. The Green Party is blocked by so many local, state, and national rules that it is virtually impossible for them to become a national political force. The irony is, only one of the major parties can remove those blocks. In the long term, more parties make a lot of sense, but it’s not a solution for our current crisis. And make no mistake, if the Republicans continue to control Congress and the presidency after 2018, we’re in deep trouble.