Two elections were held yesterday. In Delaware, a by-election filled a State Senate seat that had been held by a Democrat who was elected Lt. Governor. The Democrats needed to keep the seat to maintain control of the State Senate. An unprecedented outpouring of volunteers from Delaware and surrounding states resulted in a decisive victory. Meanwhile, Tom Perez narrowly defeated Keith Ellison for the position of Democratic National Committee chair. The party officials voting also turned down a proposal to ban big money contributions.
I was enormously cheered by the Delaware vote. This was the first chance to see whether the post-election outpouring of energy and enthusiasm on the left could be converted into focused political action, and the result suggests that the answer is Yes.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the DNC vote. Perez was the Establishment choice [where Establishment here means the choice of Obama, Biden, and probably the Clintons as well.] The DNC is the cozy home of the Democratic Establishment. That Keith Ellison did as well as he did is dramatic evidence that the Democratic Establishment has lost its grip on the party.
Now, let me be honest. I was rooting for Ellison without knowing much about him. On substantive policy, he and Perez appear to have differed only on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Ellison opposes and Perez supports. I have not read the TPP and really am not at all competent to explain why one should support or oppose it. Perez is described as quite progressive, and for all I know, he is. I was more dismayed – but again, not surprised – by the refusal to turn down big money. This is worth a few words of explanation, although after Bernie’s great run for the nomination, it should not require much.
The norm in America is for the people – the great unwashed, as they used to be called – to pay no attention at all to politics save during national elections, while small numbers of professionals who control the local and national party machinery go about their business, funded mainly by rich people who seek to buy influence. This arrangement is comfortable, predictable, and safe for all involved. The paid jobs that the professionals hold and defend are not really great jobs, as things go in America these days. A professional politician, for the most part, does not make as much as a tenured professor, and certainly not as much as a medical specialist or a corporate lawyer. But it is a job, and for the men and women who have it, it is a living.
Much is made about the high cost of elections, but in fact, in a nation as large and rich as America, the amounts spent are really not terribly impressive. In 2016, in all federal elective races, the candidates and their surrogates spent about 6.8 billion dollars – somewhat more, but not much more, than Americans spend in a year on pet grooming. Bernie demonstrated that if you could get enough people energized about a campaign, you could fund it quite nicely with small donations.
Suppose, for example, that a real national movement gets started, of the sort that now seems to be coming into existence on the left. And suppose you can get thirty million people to donate ten dollars a month regularly. That is somewhat less than the price of a movie ticket [if you aren’t a senior citizen living in a backwater like Chapel Hill], and does not include the concession stand purchases, which is where most cinemas make their money. That is $3.8 billion a year, much more than is needed to pay for a vibrant grassroots political campaign. Is it at all realistic to imagine that many people donating regularly? Well, scores of millions of Americans make just such regular donations to churches, synagogues, and mosques, and the total well exceeds one hundred billion dollars a year.
The refusal of the DNC to reject big money donations has nothing to do with need, and everything to do with maintaining the comfortable, cozy relationship between professionals and rich, manageable donors.
What should we do? Chris and Jerry Fresia disagree. Here is what they say:
Chris said...”And Obama-Clinton backed Perez just won DNC chair over Sanders backed Ellison, after voting to continue to allow corporate lobbyist donations into the DNC. This party is a fucking joke, and backing them in any fashion is only a roundabout way of ensuring more Trumpism. Sorry, I'm washing my hands of the Democratic Party for good.”
Jerry Fresia said...”I lean toward Chris' contempt for corporate Democrats; however, until or unless there are structural changes which transform our two party system into a multi-party system, I think efforts to take-over the Democratic party - perhaps through leftist primary challenges - ought to be considered.”
I sympathize with Chris, but I think that Jerry is strategically correct. Let me explain why. The Democratic Party is a well-established bureaucratic organization entrenched at the local level and integrated with the local laws and ordinances governing elections, primaries, campaigns, and the like, laws and ordinances that in many cases they have themselves written. This bureaucracy is an enormously valuable resource, into which many different and competing interests can be poured. It would take the efforts of millions of people over many decades to duplicate such a bureaucracy. To turn away from it rather than to try to seize it and bend it to one’s purposes must, I think, be a last resort.
During Obama’s eight years as President, the Democratic Party lost a thousand state legislative seats. The result has been a flood of state legislation suppressing the vote, attacking abortion rights, targeting the LGBT community, undermining what remains of the union movement, attacking the public schools, and in general turning large parts of America into a vast moral and political wasteland.
The election of Donald Trump seems to have produced a convulsive reaction on the left quite unlike any I have seen in my lifetime. If the Delaware by-election should prove a harbinger and not an anomaly, we may be able to win back House seats, state legislative seats, governorships, and – along the way – control of the national Democratic Party.
I am willing to commit my energies and money to that effort, at least for the next several years, in order to see what can be accomplished. If we fail, there will be time enough for me to join Chris.