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Sunday, February 26, 2017


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.


Unknown said...

I am not particularly upset about the results—either the election of Perez or the decision to accept corporate gifts.

As to Ellison v. Perez, I know so little about either that I’m in no position to choose. From what I’ve read of Perez, however, I believe he certainly can be called progressive. In any event, the job is essentially organization and management—getting Democrats elected from the bottom of the ticket to the top. There seems to be an outpouring of progressive candidates. Getting them elected is the best way to insure that the party is progressive, no matter who is the party chair.

As to corporate gifts, I can imagine DNC members worrying whether the Sanders fund raising phenomenon can be sustained in the absence of Sanders on the ticket. I’d worry about the traditional, and unfortunate, habit of Democrats to go into hiding in off-year elections, to ignore city councils and state legislatures. Will the small donations continue and, indeed, grow to support these less glamorous contests? I don’t know—but in the absence of pretty hard evidence to the contrary, I’d be reluctant to turn down money if I thought it was needed to fund them.

The good news on this issue is that it remains entirely in the hands of the progressives. If those small donations continue, and if they grow, any need for corporate funding will be reduced if not eliminated. The bigger the share of the donations represented by small donors, the greater their power will be. Get out your check books and credit cards.

David said...

I highly recommend John Judis' interview with Marshall Ganz in TPM:

The interview is wide-ranging, but Ganz suggests that we shouldn't emphasize too much what happens with the DNC. I'm simplifying here, but Ganz (borrowing from union organizer Jane McAlevey) suggests that Democrats are too often engaged in mobilizing when they should be organizing. There's a difference. Organizing happens at the grassroots level, and it's relational in nature.

In any case, I recommend reading the article from beginning to end.

Chris said...

In response to Jerry's (and Wolff's endorsed) comment:

"I think efforts to take-over the Democratic party - perhaps through leftist primary challenges - ought to be considered."

It's what's been considered and practiced, and shown to fail. Zephyr Teachout just lost to a corporate Dem. Debbie Wasserman Schultz beat out progressive Tim Conova (even after rigging the Democratic election) with Biden's endorsement! Obama, Clinton, and Biden backed Patrick Murphy (a total corporate hack) over progressive Alan Grayson's senate running in Florida, and he lost. Donna Brazile became DNC chair, and remained chair until yesterday despite Wikileaks revealing that she was leaking debate questions to JUST the Clinton camp. Now Perez beats out Ellison. Progressives are being PURGED not EMBOLDENED. All of this is going on during and after the obvious reckoning Democrats should be learning from. Effectively revealing that at every opportunity to improve and learn from their mistakes, they quail and go for the money.

I've read my Hume. I know induction isn't flawless, but come on, we have reached the point where we can predict corporate democratic behavior with the same reliability as the boiling point of water.

"If we fail, there will be time enough for me to join Chris."

I'll be waiting with open arms :)

Chris said...

For those thinking Perez is basically Ellison in terms of ideology and commitment, ask yourself this question: If that is true, why did Obama, Biden, and Clinton, push him into the DNC race a month AFTER Ellison was already in? If their ideological needs were being met, why run opposition late in the game?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Because he is a company man, Chris. That is not the point. The question is, what is the strategically best way to take over the Democratic Party. Did you really think they were going to roll over and play dead?

David said...

Chris, I don't think that Berniecrats or "progressives" (whatever those are) will be completely taking over the upper echelons of the DNC any time soon. Change has to happen from the bottom up. That's where the action is. Two examples:

In 2002, I joined a local peace group that organized neighborhood demonstrations and marches against the impending Iraq invasion. By 2003, I felt disillusioned. A fellow peace activists said to me one day, "We should join the 36th District Democrats and take it over at the next reorganization." So a bunch of us peace activists and lefties joined, and after the misery of the 2004 election, we took over the organization and elected a slate of candidates to the Executive Board. (I served as Secretary and as a PCO.) I eventually became too busy with work to remain on the Board, but I was involved, to varying degrees, with the organization until my wife and I moved in 2015. In my view, the 36th not only had a role in moving Sen. Cantwell to the left, but also played a role in electing School Board directors and a host of other lefty candidates.

My second example: This year the Washington State Democratic Party, whose backbone is really the state's legislative district organizations, dumped its former state Chair and elected a more activist Chair. I am already seeing some changes in the approach of the state party that bodes well for the near future. We'll see.

In short, the battle within the Democratic Party is the same as the battle against the Republicans: precinct by precinct, district by district.

Chris said...

"The question is, what is the strategically best way to take over the Democratic Party."

I think that's a corollary question after a more important antecedent question:
What is the best way to make the left (of Trump) defeat Trump-ism.

An answer to that may be 'take over the Democratic party' or it may not.

If the strategy is to take them over, my question is, is this the best strategy given that the Democrats are PRO-ACTIVELY PURGING PROGRESSIVES?

"Did you really think they were going to roll over and play dead?"
A little bit, yes. The Republicans after their massive defeat by Obama explicitly had a postmortem and returned so cunningly they now control the United States. The Democrats are so godamn myopic and haughty, they can't even bother to do a postmortem. It's disgusting.

DML said...

I agree with David's posts and look forward to reading the interview he posts. I also strongly disagree with Chris' suggestion that primary challenges are a waste of time. They are the most effective way to enact progressive change. Third parties are a waste of energy due to entrenched ballot suppression. Even if primary challengers fail, they have the effect of pushing the establishment winner further left.

Tom Perez is pretty progressive as his establishment supporters are pointing out. But the political views of the DNC chair don't matter, The job is about how you want the party to be organized and run. And Tom was the only candidate that refused to seriously challenge the way the Dem budget is made and structured. Basically, the DNC has been a conduit for funneling money to the same cabal of professional consultants (many of these people also vote for the DNC chair). These are the brilliant strategists that had Hillary Clinton making media buys in Los Angeles and New Orleans in the final weeks of the campaign, but not ever setting up a meeting with the Wisconsin Dem party chair. These people are in it to keep their businesses running, and they quite literally have no idea how to win elections. Tom Perez as DNC chair means these people are still in the fold.

Chris said...

"I also strongly disagree with Chris' suggestion that primary challenges are a waste of time."

Let's not put words in my mouth. I said I'm washing my hands of the democratic party, I never said everyone was to coalesce around a view that primary challenges are a waste. When I vote Sanders, I vote Sanders, I don't vote (D). E.g., if Sanders is in a primary I would vote for him, but it has nothing to do with Democrats.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't live in the U.S. and I see things from a distance, but I tend to agree with Chris, insofar as a country which elects Trump, needs, yes, spiritual renewal and spiritual renewal isn't going to come from the usual suspects from the Democratic Party.

David said...

s. wallerstein, I don't know what you mean by "spiritual renewal" (maybe you could explain what that would look like--is it something you witnessed in Chile?), but whatever it is, I would agree that it won't come from the "usual suspects."

Your comment prompts me to try to articulate something that's been rolling around in my head for the last couple days. If we are to succeed in repelling the fascist right, then people from diverse communities in this country must become involved. Wealthy donors in the Democratic Party are already well represented. We will never get anywhere in the resistance if young people sit it out. However, there are reasons to be hopeful. In Seattle, Black Lives Matter has taken over planning for the April 15 Tax Day march. As a colleague pointed out, this will put in the forefront a different group of leaders--leaders who are young and of color. I'm also impressed by the young people who are involved in the Washington Bus, an organization that does campus organizing, voter registration drives at places like concerts, and testifies before the state legislature. And at my school, I'm impressed by the efforts of young people across diverse communities who are trying to get to know one another and work together as activists. For example, students in the Feminist Club, the Gender-Sexuality Alliance, and the Black Student Union have committed to attending each other's meetings in order to develop relationships and take on new activist projects.

I'm also impressed with some of the small-town organizations that have sprung up. A key group in organizing the demonstration at Rep. Dave Reichert's office was the Lake Tapps Resistance League, which is based in hinterlands near where I grew up. I'm also impressed by my Neighborhood Action Coalition, which organized a march for immigrants on Saturday. The march was an opportunity for people who, for various reasons, didn't participate in Seattle's Womxn's march and who wanted to get involved.

My larger point is that people have to organize wherever they are, and much of it needs to be face-to-face. Little of this has anything directly to do with the DNC. What is more relevant are the local Democratic legislative district organizations--that is where the action will be in winning precincts, legislative districts and Congressional districts. Organizations like my Neighborhood Action Coalition and the Lake Tapps Resistance League seem to understand that, and I expect them to plug in to the local organizations when the time comes. In the meantime, there is a lot of work to do.

Jerry Fresia said...

Chris, of course, makes some very good points. But the failure of progressive primary challenges isn't the whole story. The real question is, how has progressive legislation in the past been achieved? FDR, haute capitalist and LBJ, racist pig in his earlier carnation and probably murderer, were compelled, by social movement pressure and the new realities of capital, to enact a good deal of the most progressive legislation the country has ever seen.

The Founders weren't dummies. They built barriers upon barriers to deny the class of people without property a political voice. To me, it seems just plain easier, as difficult as it is, to cannibalize the Democratic Party than build a 3rd party utterly disconnected from power. Had Bernie followed the advice of people like Chris Hedges or Jeffrey St. Clair - each terrific in their analyses - to abandon the Democratic Party,
I doubt that he would have done much better than had Nader.

s. wallerstein said...

What do I mean by "spiritual renewal"?

When a society elects Donald Trump as president, there's something wrong with it, spiritually wrong, I'd say. Trump is more or less than an ordinary rightwing politician: he's a conman, who swindled people with Trump University, who had a vulgar reality show on TV, who divides the world into winners and losers (he's a winner of course), who has no clear values besides self-promotion, who treats women as pieces of meat. That almost half of the voters would vote for someone like that indicates that something is very wrong: it's not just a question of rightwing policies. From what I can see, contemporary U.S. society (Chile is no better, by the way) is a place where basically money counts and very little else does: maybe fame, sports ability and sex appeal too.

I find it amazing that in the women's march one of the chief speakers was Madonna. Didn't she popularize the song, "Material Girl," which, as far as I can see, is an anthem to "greed is good" neoliberalism? Sorry to rant.

Anyway, in the 60's, when Joan Baez would have spoken at a rally not Madonna, there was a fairly massive questioning of U.S. spiritual values. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were religious leaders. The best Bob Dylan songs are not just songs of political protest but of spiritual and ethical protest too. Marcuse certainly speaks of a different type of society, one with different spiritual values, one where the capitalism performance principle is replaced by one where play, art and eros predominate as far as possible. The 60's, while not a revolution, changed a lot of heads (as they would have said then).

So by "spiritual renewal" I refer to changes which are going to come from outside the power elite. I've been very heartened by all the people I've met recently online from the U.S., in this blog and in others, and how they question, not only Trump as president, but the whole fucked-up culture. The fact that U.S. citizens will go out of their way to defend illegal immigrants is also very heartening since obviously, they have "nothing to gain" from defending illegal immigrants. I put "nothing to gain" in quotation marks, because spiritually (and I write as a complete atheist), they may have a lot to gain insofar as they grow as loving human beings.

David said...

Thank you, s. wallterstein. I will ponder what you wrote.

Ed Barreras said...

I have nothing to add that hasn't already been said, so I'll just cut-and-paste from the Mother Jones write-up that does make some salient points that give us reason to be hopeful about progressivism within the Democratic Party:

"Less than a year after only 39 of 447 DNC members endorsed Sanders' presidential campaign, his chosen candidate came about 15 votes short of taking over the whole thing. The numbers reflect Sanders' forces growing strength in the party, a gradual upheaval that may only be sped along by Perez's victory. "

"Already, Sanders supporters, both organically and with the support of the Senator's non-profit Our Revolution, have begun targeting the party's apparatus at state, county, and local levels. They are poised to take over the California Democratic party in May, after winning a majority of delegates to the state convention in January. The Sanders wing is ascendant in Nebraska and Wyoming, and setting its sights on Florida and Michigan. "

"In the run up to the vote, some Ellison backers argued that there was no real case for a Perez chairmanship—that he was running as a check on Sanders' influence and little more. But DNC members I spoke with seemed to understand Perez's pitch quite clearly: he was a turnaround artist who had retooled complex bureaucracies toward progressive ends, first at the Maryland Department of Labor, then at the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, and finally as President Barack Obama's Labor Secretary. If progressives had forgotten what they liked about Perez, they needed to look no farther than the conservative Breitbart News, which once heralded Perez "the most radical cabinet secretary since Henry Wallace," the New Dealer who eventually bolted the Democrats to mount a third party challenge in 1948."

Also, the ban on corporate donations was institued by Obama in 2008 and was only repealed last year. Does this mean Obama isn't the fire-breathing corporatist neo-liberal he's reputed to be? In any case, what David Palmeter says in the first comment seems entirely correct.

Chris said...

The ban was specifically lifted to help Clinton out raise Sanders, and Obama specifically backed Clinton over Sanders internally, so far as giving her much of his own campaign team to run with. So yes he's a neo-liberal let's not kid ourselves and become orwellians.

I repeat, as usual, the obscene deference to power, just because these people have a (D) in front of their name and not an (R) is mind blogging. Perez whole speech could have used by any eastern 20th century communist hack. Party unity above all else. What kind of moral or justice principle is that? Why does a political party deserve fidelity over the minimal moral principles and values?

Worst of all, it's starting to become quite difficult to listen to Sanders anymore. His response to the DNC results:

"it is imperative that Tom understands that the same-old, same-old is not working and that we must open the doors of the party to working people and young people in a way that has never been done before.
"Now, more than ever, the Democratic Party must make it clear that it is prepared to stand up to the 1% and lead this country forward in the fight for social, racial, economic and environmental justice".

How many times can he, and anyone else say "NOW MORE THAN EVER" before we all realize, now isn't coming, the party turned their back on progressives values and progressive leaders 3 decades ago!

James said...

I tend to agree with the sentiments expressed by Chris here. He is basically raising the same problem I did over here with the use of Horkheimer's critique of nihilistic democracy:

Namely, that "the strategically best way to take over the Democratic Party" isn't necessarily the best way to defeat Trumpism. This means that the choice that Prof Wolff advocates, to take over the Party, is dangerous and potentially counter-productive if the principles that will defeat Trumpism and other tyrannical threats are not prioritized alongside the mere expedient strategy of bureaucratic machinery participation.