A Chair for Progressives?
The next few days could be an important turning point for U.S. progressives. During its winter meeting being held in Atlanta, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is scheduled to elect a new chair. The results could help many left-leaning activists decide whether it really is possible to reform the Democratic Party, or whether it is time to pursue alternatives.
A top contender rightly opposed by most progressives is Tom Perez, former Obama administration labor secretary and Democratic establishment loyalist. If he wins, it could hasten frustrated Berners’ exit from the Democratic Party. It could well be the last straw for many progressive Democrats in general—coming after the party establishment’s suppression of Sanders in the 2016 primary, its strong backing of fatally flawed Hillary Clinton, and then the related victory of Trump and the Republicans.
By contrast, the other chief competitor for DNC chair is Minneapolis Congressman Keith Ellison, the candidate supported by leading progressives. They’ve depicted him as a champion of social and economic justice, who will fight to open up the Democratic Party to its social movement base. However, there is another side to the Ellison story, and ordinary progressives should be aware of it.
Ellison’s own statements raise serious doubts about how much of a change agent he really would be. For example, he has downplayed the party’s mistreatment of its progressive base in 2016; he, along with the other DNC chair candidates, has denied that the Democratic primary was rigged. Yet it is clear that election skewing and manipulation did happen. It featured the use of super-delegates to negate the will of the voting majority, significant voter suppression and fraud, and outright DNC collusion with the Clinton campaign. If Ellison won’t admit that this occurred, he probably won’t strongly promote rule changes that will keep it from recurring.
In fact, Ellison has explicitly refrained from supporting the elimination of super-delegates. Similarly, he has said that if he were elected chair, he wouldn’t mandate a ban on donations from lobbyists (made largely on behalf of corporations to establishment Democrats). Instead, he would put the matter to a vote by DNC members—even though many of them are involved in lobbying! In light of this refusal to aggressively challenge Democratic business as usual, it should be no surprise that even a Wall Street Democrat like Chuck Schumer has endorsed Ellison.
Party Limits to Reform
Of course, Keith Ellison isn’t the root cause of his own political timidity. It is the larger Democratic Party of which he is a part and to which he must appeal as a DNC chair candidate. Most party officials who will be voting for chair are part of an entrenched party machine. Their careers depend on serving the Democratic establishment and its allies, including wealthy donors. And that requires opposing anyone who would seriously push substantial party reforms.
Thus, regardless of who wins the race for DNC chair, the Democratic Party’s deep interests will continue to clash with progressives’ basic goals. As a result, a strong case can be made that left-leaning people must break from the Democratic Party if they want to achieve their aims. Even those who still hope to sway the party could be better off doing it from the outside, where they might pose enough of a partisan threat to exert some real leverage.
Alternatives to the Democrats
For those progressives ready to make the leap to another party, there are various options to consider. To begin with, there are the left third parties that existed prior to 2016, including but not limited to the Vermont Progressive Party, the Green Party, Socialist Alternative, and the Justice Party. Most of these groups have demonstrated that they are capable of winning elections, under the right conditions and with strong enough candidates. All seem to have gotten some boost from the energy generated by the Sanders campaign.
There also are a couple of bold new attempts by Berners to found their own parties, which may appeal more directly to Bernie’s huge base. One is the Progressive Independent Party; it aims to create a coalition of third parties and likeminded groups on the left. The other is the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, which actually seeks to recruit Bernie Sanders to found a new progressive populist party.
Arguably, the most intriguing of the above alternatives right now is Draft Bernie—just launched earlier this month. If a popular left figure like Sanders actually agreed to form a new party, it could shake the current party system to its core and finally give progressives a prominent voice in American politics. Many people could be attracted to such a project, as polls show most Americans want a viable third party option and support a wide array of progressive policies.
While recruiting Sanders for a “people’s party” may sound like a long-shot effort, his own statements indicate that he remains open to third party politics, and might well go that route if his work to reform the Democrats fails. However, if Bernie doesn’t eventually do this, the movement for a new party may go forward without him.
In any case, the DNC election and subsequent events should challenge both influential and ordinary progressives to ask themselves how long they will continue sailing on the U.S.S. Democrat. That ship is not headed toward the desired destination, nor is it even designed to go there. Moreover, in the wake of the 2016 election, it is a boat that appears to be rotting, drifting, and gradually sinking. Why not jump aboard a different vessel, one that really has the potential to get us where we urgently need to go?