Two high-profile political meetings were held last week: the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) convention, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) meeting that selected a new party chair. They were a study in conflicting headlines.
"Trump Addresses An Ebullient CPAC Crowd,” NPR reported.
“Democrats Elect Thomas Perez, Establishment Favorite, as Party Chairman,” read the original headline for the New York Times’ DNC coverage.
How will that play with voters? A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that, as NBC’s Carrie Dann put it, “One sentiment that unites the fractured nation is fury at the establishment in Washington.”
Despite its corporate ties, CPAC managed to seem anti-establishment. The DNC left a very different impression, one that was heightened by its decision to keep accepting lobbyist money, which was banned by President Obama but reinstated last year by former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
DNC: What Happened?
This is no time to mince words: by any objective measure, the Democratic establishment has failed. It has lost the presidency, both houses of Congress, most governorships, and most state legislatures.
It’s no time to mince words about the ugliness of this race, either: Perez supporters spread unfounded accusations that leading DNC candidate and Bernie Sanders ally Keith Ellison was anti-Semitic, a former member of Nation of Islam, and supported Louis Farrakhan. There was no basis for these charges, but they managed to remind party officials that Ellison is black and Muslim.
It’s ironic: Some of the same Democrats who fought Bernie Sanders last year by claiming that progressive economics devalues identity politics (which isn’t true) were only too willing to use Ellison’s identity against him.
The establishment clearly wanted to stop him. According to the New York Times, Obama “loyalists” began pressing former Labor Secretary Tom Perez to enter the race for party chair only after Ellison became the leading candidate. Obama’s staffers were “uneasy with the progressive Mr. Ellison,” according to the Times, and Obama himself offered a thinly-veiled endorsement of Perez in the final days of the campaign.
Although Barack Obama is beloved by most Democrats, it should be noted that he led the party during its latest period of decline and therefore bears considerable responsibility for its failures.
Perez has a decent progressive record, especially in the mainstream Democratic context. But the commentators who insisted his politics were identical to Ellison’s were simply wrong. Perez supported the unpopular and harmful Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pro-corporate trade deal that wounded Democrats in the swing states, and could have been tougher on the big banks.
Perez gained momentum in the race’s closing days when South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison dropped out and endorsed him. Harrison is a former lobbyist with the high-powered Podesta Group, a firm with strong ties to the Clintons. (Its past and present clients include Wal-Mart, BP, Lockheed Martin, Bank Of America, the nation of Egypt, a Ukrainian political group, Raytheon, Tyco Electronics, and United Technologies.)
Harrison opposed the ban on lobbyist contributions. “We in the Democratic Party have to stop the castigation of various people for the jobs they have,” he told Vox’s Jeff Stein. Ellison proposed a different approach, saying, “We would rather have a million donations of ten dollars than ten donations of $100,000."
That’s movement-based thinking.
The Conservative Tide
The Republican Party is arguably closer to its movement. Although conservative ideas are largely unpopular with voters, the Tea Party's energy reinvigorated the GOP. The party establishment tried to resist that energy, but its failure – and its ultimate surrender to the forces of Trump’s right-wing populism – contributed enormously to the party’s current success.
(So, of course, has voter suppression and gerrymandering.)
This conservative tide has been a long time rising. My first warning of it came in May 2009, when Democrats controlled all three branches of the federal government. Republicans and independent populists were stirred by a right-wing country music anthem called “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” from Republican singer/songwriter John Rich. It included lines like these:
“While they’re livin’ it up on Wall Street in that New York City town/here in the real world they’re shutting Detroit down.”
It’s true that Obama’s Democrats saved the auto industry, but they didn’t brag about it enough. Perhaps they were ideologically uncomfortable with that kind of state intervention, however successful. They failed to intervene in other industries, and crooked bankers went unpunished.
Republicans took Congress, as the furious edge of the Tea Party became the new center of the GOP. Then came Trump and Bannon. Their mix of Tea Party extremism, hatred for outsiders, and economic populism was just powerful enough to eke out an Electoral College victory.
In His Image
Now they are going about the task of reshaping the conservative movement in Trump’s image. If CPAC is any indication, they may succeed.
“The core conviction of our movement (emphasis mine) is that we are a nation that ... will put its own citizens first,” Trump told the CPAC crowd. "The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker.”
“I’m not representing the globe,” Trump said. “I’m representing your country.”
Trump’s words rang with nativist undertones. So did Bannon’s, when he came before CPAC to condemn “the globalist, corporatist media” and promote what he calls “economic nationalism.”
Political science professor Daniel Kreiss told the New York Times that Bannon’s words reflect “a very defined cultural and ideological movement” and tell “a very coherent story about what America is, and what it should be ...”
“We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” said Bannon, who also promised “the destruction of the administrative state.”
Trump and Bannon are trying to meld a movement, a party, and the apparatus of state into one entity under their control. (Isn’t there’s a word for that?) They’re completing the Tea Party's unfinished business by telling a story their voters can understand. It is a story with a protagonist – the voters themselves – and an antagonist, the “administrative state.”
It's a false story, but it gives meaning to the lives of those who believe it – “a reason for being,” in Bannon’s words. And it’s working, at least among the conservative faithful.
Democrats Without a Story
Too many Democrats are reluctant to tell voters the story of the wealthy and powerful interests – “the millionaires and billionaires,” as Sanders would say – who are hijacking the economy and undermining democracy. They’re reluctant to declare that our “reason for being” lies, not in xenophobia or fear, but in serving others and doing good.
Perhaps that’s why 86 percent of voters, including 88 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats, agreed with this statement in that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll:
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the reward of government while the people have borne the cost.”
In the absence of a counter-narrative, conservatives have made government itself the enemy. (The media, too.) But there’s a reason why CPAC had an event dedicated to countering Bernie Sanders. They know his story’s better than theirs.
In one sense, the Perez/Ellison race was a battle over stories.
A Bad Word
Obama offered an ideologically-charged statement on Perez’ victory. “What unites our party is a belief in opportunity,” he said, “the idea that however you started out, whatever you look like, whoever you love, America is the place you can make it if you try.”
“I know that Tom Perez will unite us under the banner of opportunity,” Obama added.
Those words will ring hollow for the millions of Americans who are struggling with stagnant wages, poor job opportunities, and unaffordable college. The word “opportunity” is more suited to a Horatio Alger story than to today’s deeply divided America. It's born of the neoliberal worldview that says competition always works, games can't be rigged, and everybody deserves an equal chance to make it to the top of an unequal scrap heap.
The ideology of “opportunity” isn't likely to turn the growing movement of independent progressives and anti-Trump activists into Democratic voters.
The Party and the Movement
Keith Ellison is a good guy, and he’s loyal to his party. “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided," he said after his loss. he immediately threw his support to Perez, who in return named Ellison his second in command.
Democrats are clearly trying to make peace with their activist base. But the base may not be satisfied with a secondary role anymore.
Democrats must not abandon their commitment to equality for all races, religions, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. But they should not write off all white workers – especially now, as the middle class dies and opioid deaths continue to rise. And they must make it clear that 99 percent of Americans – a class that includes most people of all identities – are being cheated and shortchanged by the moneyed interests Trump and the Republicans represent.
Democrats should follow Rep. Sander Levin’s lead by demanding a renegotiation of bad trade deals like NAFTA to emphasize workers’ rights. They should call for a higher minimum wage, increased Social Security benefits, and a broad expansion of Medicare (which includes Medicare for All and an end to drug pricing rip-offs).
That agenda will be hard to finance with corporate money, so they should follow Ellison’s suggestion for a small-donation strategy. That will disempower lobbyists and corporations and help shake its pro-elite image.
A party is not a movement, but the two can work together.
Perez isn't the problem; power is. The party won't change until it's confronted with a strong movement determined to change it. That’s why it’s encouraging to see activists move to take control of the party at the state and local level. That, along with a concerted program of independent activism, could revolutionize politics.
The Democratic Party can’t be saved by one leader. But there’s a chance it can be saved by millions of them.
(An edited version of this piece appeared at OurFuture.org.)