For a long time now, I’ve been calling on the Democratic Party to go through the same soul-searching exercise that Republicans did in 2013 after losing a presidential election. The GOP, back then, put out an “autopsy” or “post-mortem” document which examined why they lost and offered suggestions for improving the party’s chances in the future. Democrats, I thought, would have been well-served by the same sort of self-examination after 2016, but it never actually appeared from the national party. Because it still hasn’t appeared from the national party, a group of Democrats have been inspired to create such a document on their own. This new document can be viewed on the site democraticautopsy.org, and it is well worth a read by anyone who cares about the future of the Democratic Party.
Of the four listed authors, three have ties to the Democratic Party apparatus, including a member of the board of the California Democratic Party (and current chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus), as well as a member of the State Central Democratic Committee member (and ward chair) of New Mexico. One is a founder of RootsAction.org, “an online activist group with 1.3 million active supporters,” and one is a “communications specialist, researcher and writer who works for an international non-government organization” (N.G.O.). Two of the authors had ties to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, but the document is not any sort of “Hillary-bashing” exercise at all. It is not a relitigation of the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton primary battle, although it does examine the flaws of both the party and the candidate in order to draw its conclusions. The document is a sweeping overview of what the authors feel is wrong with the party, and how the party should change to improve these flaws.
In fact, the document even includes a rather remarkable quote from Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir What Happened, one that I had not previously seen. In it, Clinton admits that Bernie’s campaign style was worthy of emulation rather than mockery:
Bernie proved again that it’s important to set lofty goals that people can organize around and dream about, even if it takes generations to achieve them.... Democrats should reevaluate a lot of our assumptions about which policies are politically viable.... I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued.... The conclusion I reach from this is that Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad based benefits for the whole country.
That is a truly remarkable bit of self-reflection, because Clinton’s entire primary campaign was premised on ridiculing Bernie’s ideas as being “pie in the sky” which would never, ever actually happen, while offering up her own incrementalism to the voters instead. At the time, I used the phrase “Dream Small!” to show how this didn’t really translate into a campaign that could inspire voters to get to the polls. Campaigns are supposed to be aspirational, in other words, which even Clinton now seems to understand.
But again, I don’t mean to focus on the Hillary/Bernie primary battle either, because the document is far more comprehensive than that. It starts with a blunt warning, that the Democratic Party has really tried to shift the blame for their 2016 defeat onto external factors, rather than examining anything within the party which needs correction. Rather than chasing “elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base,” the document warns of the erosion of that base seen in 2016:
After suffering from a falloff of turnout among people of color in the 2016 general election, the party appears to be losing ground with its most reliable voting bloc, African-American women. “The Democratic Party has experienced an 11 percent drop in support from black women according to one survey, while the percentage of black women who said neither party represents them went from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.”
. . .
Inadequate outreach extended to Latino voters as well. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus critiqued the Clinton campaign’s strategy, saying it did not hire enough Latino consultants who had experience working within the communities that outreach efforts were meant to target. This shortcoming should have been addressed well before the campaign ramped up. In 2014, Albert Morales, then the Hispanic Engagement Director at the Democratic National Committee, proposed a $3 million plan aimed at raising voter turnout in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Texas. Despite the meager cost, the plan was nixed. “I just asked for what I needed,” Morales said. “I ended up getting closer to $300,000 and it all went to radio.... It was just pitiful.” (This $300,000 for Latino outreach in those five states ended up being 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.) The lack of funding was compounded by poorly-timed spending; the Clinton campaign did not launch a sustained Spanish-language ad campaign until September, putting her well behind the calendar successfully implemented by the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012.
The document later points out that of the $514 million the party spent on contractors during the 2010 and 2012 elections, only 1.7 percent went to minority contractors. The document calls for much better engagement with people of color, women, and rural voters including farming families.
But the biggest warning is about the Democratic Party’s continued romance with Wall Street and big business, which makes economic populism either impossible for the party to champion or an election-year-only stance of convenience that later turns out to be nothing short of a cruel lie:
The party has attempted to convince working-class voters that it can advance the interests of the rich and working people with equal vigor. This sleight-of-hand was more feasible pre-2008 economic crash, but it has since lost credibility as inequality grows and entire communities are gutted by free market, anti-union, anti-worker ideology and policy. The champions of the growth-raises-all-boats mythology had their chance and they failed the vast bulk of working Americans. President Obama, with his unique political skills, preempted and co-opted economic populism to some extent (though it surfaced briefly and strongly with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011/2012), but it re-emerged with Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign. In her 2016 general election loss, Clinton was outflanked on economic messaging by Trump’s huckster appeals to anti-NAFTA and anti-free-market sentiment.
. . .
The surge in populism (which can be broadly defined as a dislike of “the establishment”), brought on by widening inequality and economic stagnation, will be filled by some political force or other ― either the cruel and demagogic forces of the far right and its billionaire backers, or a racially diverse and morally robust progressive vision that offers people a clear alternative to the ideological rot of Trumpism. The mainstream Democratic storyline of victims without victimizers lacks both plausibility and passion. The idea that the Democrats can somehow convince Wall Street to work on behalf of Main Street through mild chiding, rather than acting as Main Street’s champion against the wealthy, no longer resonates. We live in a time of unrest and justified cynicism towards those in power; Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight. Nor can Democratic leaders and operatives be seen as real allies of the working class if they’re afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.
The perception that the party is in the pocket of big business is especially acute among younger voters. Young Democrats are much further to the left in their views than the party establishment, and they do not see much in the way of an inspiring message from party leaders:
This generational shift was on stark display during one post-election CNN town hall when an NYU student cited the Harvard poll on millennials’ loss of trust in capitalism and asked Rep. Nancy Pelosi about the party moving left “to a more populist message” on economic issues. The Minority Leader bolted out of her seat and insisted, “I have to say, we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is” before letting out a chuckle. The combination of knee-jerk dismissal and “just the way it is” cynicism perfectly distilled the problem the party has selling itself to today’s youth.
The section on the youth vote ends with an excellent metaphor, stating that young voters “increasingly want politics to be for something profoundly positive rather than just against Republicans; who want a movement, not a chore.”
The document does delve into some of the external problems the Democratic Party faces, but concludes they aren’t doing nearly enough to combat Republicans in areas such as voter-suppression laws:
Working to defeat restrictions on voting rights should clearly be a top priority for Democrats, augmenting battles through the courts with coordination efforts between grassroots activism and the party apparatus. Yet the Democratic National Committee has not made such work a staffing priority. “In the past, the DNC had one full-time staffer focused on voter protection,” The Nation reported in late May 2017. The magazine described the upcoming progress of the DNC’s new Voter Protection and Empowerment Unit: “The new unit will have four staffers.”
. . .
This is about more than just increasing voter turnout. It is about energizing as well as expanding the base of the party. To do this we must aggressively pursue two tracks: fighting right-wing efforts to rig the political system, and giving people who can vote a truly compelling reason to do so.
One way to do that is to respect the grassroots movements, but as the document points out, Democrats are often more comfortable merely offering lip service rather than true commitment or support:
Social movements cannot be understood as tools to get Democrats elected. The ebb and flow of social movements offer a rising tide in their own right that along the way can lift Democratic Party candidates ― if the party is able to embrace the broad popular sentiment that the movements embody. Candidates’ lip service to social movements is commonly understood as such; failing to make genuine common cause with grassroots outlooks can undermine campaign enthusiasm, volunteers, online participation, recurring small-dollar contributions, and turnout at election time.
The document also provides suggestions for change. These range from the very specific ― such as changing the rules the D.N.C. follows towards the presidential primary process and the elimination of convention votes for superdelegates ― to broad-based ideological changes the authors feel are necessary, such as ending Democratic support for what the document calls the “perpetual war” waged since 9/11. Trump was able to appear more antiwar than Clinton precisely because Clinton refused to wholeheartedly come out as antiwar herself. But it wasn’t just Clinton who felt this way:
Like the Clinton-Kaine campaign, the national Democratic Party’s 2016 platform was in tune with foreign-policy approaches popular among elites. A bloated military budget remained sacrosanct and uncuttable (except for the bromide of eliminating “waste”). Giving a thumbs-up to U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond, the platform endorsed continual U.S. warfare that has expanded to many parts of the globe since late 2001. That warfare has been terribly harmful to countless people ― but hugely lucrative for military contractors. Overall, the Democratic Party leadership has refused to make a distinction between truly defending the United States and waging interventionist wars. The party’s top leaders have conflated U.S. warfare in many nations with defense of our country. This stance is politically damaging and vastly destructive.
The document concludes with a call to progressivism, and a call for Democrats to start listening a lot closer to what the grassroots and the base is actually saying. It also notes that a large part of the problems the Democratic Party faces existed before Hillary and Bernie even announced their candidacies. The decline in Democrats’ power in state legislatures and governors’ offices began under Barack Obama, after all. The conclusion the authors reach is that the party really needs to divorce itself from the ongoing romance with Wall Street, and instead put people before corporate interests:
Operating from a place of defensiveness and denial will not turn the party around. Neither will status quo methodology. When discussing the loss of the presidency, we deny ourselves a deeper assessment if the conversation is limited to Clinton and Sanders, what their campaigns and supporters did and didn’t do, and what should have been done. In fairness to Clinton, much of the party’s weakness was in place well before her 2016 run. What must now take place includes honest self-reflection and confronting a hard truth: that many view the party as often in service to a rapacious oligarchy and increasingly out of touch with people in its own base.
Revitalized progressive populism ― multicultural, multiracial and multigenerational ― means fighting for genuine democracy. Outmoded narratives and facile calls for “unity” must be replaced with a new vision of politics that is explicitly inclusive and participatory. The party must learn how to speak a populist tongue that is in sync with real advocacy for a clear agenda, putting public needs above corporate profits. An imperative is to find common political denominators that are inspirational and practical, cutting across demographic lines while building foundations for social advancement and a humane future.
The entire autopsy document, while long, is well worth reading in full for anyone truly concerned with the direction of the Democratic Party. This was not an official document, so some might dismiss it out of hand as merely the grumblings of a few Bernie supporters. This would be a mistake, because if you read it in its entirety the concerns it raises reach far beyond the contest for the last presidential primary. Sure, it’s not an official document, but it was written for the sole reason that such an official document does not exist. The party, as the document points out, seems content to explain their loss last year as being due to external factors ― therefore no change must be necessary. This is also a fallacious way of thinking.
When Republicans went through this exercise, they produced a document that made a lot of sense. Then the party as a whole completely ignored it, and doubled down on their exclusion of minorities to pander to angry white voters. This, it has to be said, did work ― Trump won, after all, while heading in pretty much the exact opposite direction from all the GOP autopsy’s recommendations.
Democrats, however, are a little better at addressing problems within their party ― or, at the very least, they should be. This freelance autopsy was written before last week’s electoral victories for Democrats, so it may be discounted by those in the party who feel they’re on such a roll now that they don’t need any advice.
But sooner or later Democrats are going to have to face the fact that their party just hasn’t been all that good at matching the enthusiasm bubbling up from their own grassroots ― whether protesting the One Percent, institutional racism, or how rigged the American system feels to those in the middle class and at the bottom. The suggestions contained within this document offer a way for the party to reconnect with its own voters. It charts a new direction and a new focus for the party that really should not be ignored. In fact, it should be required reading for everyone on the Democratic National Committee.
Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com.
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
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