Progressives have long felt that there’s no room for them in the Democratic Big Tent. Now, they’re sure of it. This year, much of what happened politically was decided by those Democrats who are among the upper economic ranks in the Silent and Baby Boomer generations. Your voices were muted.
After what will likely be remembered as the most abject failure in Democratic party presidential politics, what are we left with? Well, in terms of leadership, of either party, the average age is well over 60. The average House Democratic leader is white and 72, though Nancy Pelosi is 76 years old and not willing to cede the reins of power. In the Senate, the average age of Democratic Senators is well-over 70. There are 8 senators who are 80 or older, 17 who are 70 or older, and 40 who are 60 and older. Most of the rest are in their late 50s, with a few in their 40s. The House Democratic leadership is an average 15 years older than its Republican counterparts. In the Senate, the parties are evenly matched, age-wise, though the average age of senators is also older. Hillary Clinton, at age 69, represents the median age in terms of Democratic leadership overall. Democrats in both the House and Senate represent the upper register of the middle class in terms of wealth.
As I previously reported, Democrats didn’t show at the polls across the board, save for two categories: the upper register of the middle class and older voters. Everyone else saw their attendance drop starting in 2010, increasingly, as Democrats began losing elections one cycle after the next.
The Democratic leadership’s response to this voter revolt has been two-fold: one open and public, while the other has been covert. Publicly, Democrats, again, rushed to re-elect their liberal leadership in both houses of Congress. In the lower house, just days after the November 8 election, Nancy Pelosi defeated a challenge by a younger member from the Rust Belt. In the Senate, there was no challenge. Chuck Schumer’s election was a formality. We’d known for months that Harry Reid favored him to take over. In both cases, Pelosi and Schumer, each put in place the most right-of-center members in leadership positions underneath them. Pelosi named an up and coming Latino member to a top leadership slot, while Schumer installed three center-right senators to the top leadership posts in the Senate, giving Bernie Sanders a newly-created job of outreach. The DNC chair position is up for grabs and now that the President will no longer be a Democrat, it is up for a vote. Representative Keith Ellison was first to announce his candidacy for the post of DNC chair. While Ellison has garnered the public endorsement of many senior Democrats, a whisper campaign about his religious and political affiliations began almost immediately with his announcement, mostly in the media. At first, Ellison’s only opponent was former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Dean soon withdrew. Since then, various names were bandied about in the media, with current Labor Secretary, Tom Perez, recently announcing his candidacy. Perez got a glowing endorsement from President Obama on Friday and it became more than obvious that he, too, doesn’t want Ellison to chair the DNC:
“Tom Perez has been, I believe, one of the best secretaries of labor in our history,” Obama said at his end-of-year press conference. This week, Perez challenged Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in the race to chair the Democratic National Committee. Obama did not mention Ellison by name in his remarks.
For weeks, the Obama administration has been the principal holdout in a D.C.-based effort to unite the warring wings of the Democratic Party behind Ellison. The Minnesota liberal was the most prominent Capitol Hill supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the presidential primary, and he has been embraced by establishment Clinton-backers including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), his successor Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and key labor leaders, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders.”
The neoliberal right-of-center establishment is in a struggle to retain complete control over the party, with President Obama signalling a strong interest in exercising his influence in determining the leadership of the party now, and after he leaves office. Generally speaking, once out of office, former presidents hand off the reins of party leadership to the next generation of leaders.
Based on election day data, voters across the board rebuked center-right Democrats in Election 2016. What’s more, the demographics that will have an increasing amount of power in the years to come, young Blacks and Latinos, didn’t make a strong showing at the polls. How does a party that is so out of touch with its main constituencies rebuild while maintaining the same affluent, older, white image? The answer is that, in the mid-to-long term, it cannot.
The Democrats, as a party, never embraced Black Lives Matter as a movement or even as an idea. Former Speaker Pelosi sent out an email to her membership telling them not to support Black Lives Matter policy proposals. Hillary Clinton went on a radio show hosted by a Black personality and told him “maybe I should talk to white people,” right after three incidents of deadly police brutality. She never did have that conversation with white people, by the way. But she did kick out Black Lives Matter activists several times. How is that acceptable behavior in 2016?
What many pundits characterized as voter apathy was actually a voter revolt. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn published a pair of articles in which he deconstructs some of the refrains in the narrative the media followed all year, and another in which he admits that signs of trouble for Democrats were evident throughout the past election year. Why, then, did Cohn report as he did all year? He didn’t explain. But in these two pieces, Cohn only dissects some data even though the picture is even clearer than he exposes.
The jobs report for the month of November reinforces for us the magnitude of the problem caused by an economic inequality that is worse than ever, even as jobs are added. The media has yet to own up to many of the terrible truths that go with the jobs reports they report on, or accurately and honestly report on what economists are saying about them.
While Nancy Pelosi, in a post-election interview, forcefully restated her commitment to progressive causes in an interview with CBS News, she’s been largely silent on the topic for most of the last two years, and has done absolutely nothing to elevate any of the many progressive representatives in the House to the top positions in the Democratic leadership. Pelosi also denied she was out of touch with Democratic voters:
Days after the loss, Nancy Pelosi appeared on CBS’ Face The nation and asserted that Democrats don’t want change.
“DICKERSON: The Democratic Party is in a moment of questioning about its identity. You were reelected to lead the Democrats in the House. What do you tell Democrats who want a new direction? And then go to you. What are you going to do differently?
PELOSI: Well, I don’t think that people want a new direction. Our values unify us.
And our values are about supporting America’s working families. That’s one that everyone is in agreement on. What we want is a better connection of our message to working families in our country.
And that clearly in the election showed that that message wasn’t coming through. But we are united in terms of the security of our country, which is our first responsibility, to be smart and strong and not reckless in how we protect the American people, strong in how we protect our economy.”
Huh? That same messaging was heard from Chuck Schumer and other top Democrats. Joe Biden, the outgoing Vice President, has already announced that he won’t be retiring from politics and plans to be active:
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to have a voice in the direction of the party. The president of the United States will. Obviously, Chuck Schumer will. Obviously, Nancy Pelosi will. There is going to be governors that will emerge. So it’s a contest of ideas of which direction to take the party.”
But as the Los Angeles Times reports, back in October, Biden saw the election disaster coming:
“And so as he sat in his office one day in October and watched footage of a Donald Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., not far from his childhood home, Biden sensed trouble.
“Son of a gun. We may lose this election,” Biden said, recalling his reaction during an interview in his West Wing office.
“They’re all the people I grew up with. They’re their kids. And they’re not racist. They’re not sexist. But we didn’t talk to them.””
But that isn’t how these and other voters were labeled both by the Clinton campaign and a media all too willing to shame voters into submission, using divisive and destructive divide and conquer politics to what they thought would be their advantage. Now, Biden is being portrayed by the media as a progressive who wants to focus on the middle class. But is focus on the middle class all that is needed? Which part of the middle class? Data show that the upper middle class did fine all throughout the Great Recession, in the re-concentration of wealth caused by a deepening of inequality among the classes.
As we begin a new electoral cycle, one in which the Democrats must work to gain ground so they can recoup on their streak of losses, it is especially important to look at what happened in this presidential election and its aftermath. As time passes and the “browning of America” continues, it is inconceivable that the Democratic party elites can remain predominantly white and predominantly right-of-center, when the voter base is becoming increasingly minority-majority, and voter age increasingly favors millennials. But yet, these are the faces of both parties’ leadership:
All throughout 2009 to 2014, the G.O.P. was criticized in opinion piece after opinion piece for its disconnection from the diversity of the American electorate. Columnists after columnist, including arch-conservative George Will, pointed out, over and over, that the GOP is becoming the party of racist white people
Donald Trump’s election, in part, sealed the party’s fate as just that. The other part, the one the media has glossed over, however, is that of minority voter disengagement. While it was expected that minority voter turnout would be somewhat lower for Hillary Clinton than it was for Barack Obama, it was significantly so. Why? In great part it is because the leadership of the party does not reflect the makeup of the American public and, with minorities predominantly belonging to the Democratic party, it certainly doesn’t reflect the diversity of its membership. If the Republican party is the party of white people, then Democrats are the party of diversity in name only.
Black and brown millennials, as disengaged as they may have seemed in Election 2016, are by no means disconnected from political life. They are politically-aware and very well-informed on the issues. These voters were discouraged both by the lack of diversity and appeal as it is projected by the Democratic party’s leadership, as well as the definite right-of-center bent of the campaign. They have no faith in the Democratic party. The Guardian’s documentary on the Black voters of Milwaukee, released over the summer, is very informative:
Time, measured in the mid to long term, is not on the side of America’s white population, when it comes to retaining control of power structures. This is as true for Democrats as it has been true for Republicans. The “browning of America” is a change that is real. Those we consider minority groups in America will become the majority within the next 20 years or so, no matter how white both major parties remain.
It is hypocritical to castigate conservatives for their behavior, pandering to a shrinking white majority and doing everything possible, underhanded or not, to keep minorities from exerting their rightful influence in the democratic process through the power of the vote. Democrats have been engaging in a different kind of suppression by claiming it is the home of minorities while quietly engaging in racial divide and conquer politics to keep the minorities within it divided and the leadership right of center, older, and very, very white.
Democratic voters, while they remained highly satisfied with President Obama, indicated all throughout the primary season that they wanted change. Over 13 million Democrats voted for Bernie Sanders. The remainder voted for Hillary Clinton while expressing their wish for policies that are left-of-center. Clinton’s campaign was oriented toward meeting the milestone of first woman president, rather than running on the burning issues of the day, including a platform of change. Whatever else went on during this election cycle, she lost on the issues, at a time when voters are still suffering the effects of long-term economic anxiety and distress. She ignored those voters and paid the price in an election that should have been a cinch to win.
Bernie Sanders ran a campaign aimed at the lower middle and working classes as well as minorities in recognition of the fact that the recovery from the Great Recession had not reached them at all. His town hall meetings were replete with voter after voter sharing their story of job insecurity and great financial distress. Nearly 14 million of those voters chose Sanders over Clinton.
Under new voting rules, a huge group of voters, independents, were kept out of the Democratic primary process. Independent voters comprise 34% of the electorate, or more than the voters of each major party, separately. Had independents been allowed to vote in the primaries, one wonders how different the outcome would have been at the Democratic party’s convention and, in turn, on November 8.
But Biden is right. A sizable portion of the Democratic voter base was unjustly treated in an election that, for them, was about economics and not racial politics. But that is how the Clinton campaign chose to divide and conquer her voters, pitting minorities against a new group of villains it called the “angry white voter.” The truth, however, was that everyone was angry and fear of Donald Trump didn’t change Democrats’ refusal to vote for the few things Clinton was willing to be pinned down on and the many things that were revealed by WikiLeaks.
The end result of this election is that independents – 34% of the electorate – potentially, was left without a candidate they could really support, while half of the Democratic party was deeply unhappy with their nominee. With the election behind us, those same voters are still unhappy with a party leadership that refuses to either acknowledge fault or defer in any way to its progressive wing.
The DNC was caught playing favorites during the election and even engaging in racial whisper campaigning in collusion with the Clinton campaign through the media against Senator Bernie Sanders, using his ethnicity and religiosity against him with voters of a more conservative bent. Some even attempted to cast doubt on Sanders’ civil rights activism by erasing it!
That was during the primary. Now, congressional Democrats and the White House are using the same dirty racial tactics as the DNC and Clinton campaign to thwart the candidacy of Rep. Keith Ellison. The New Republic summarizes the nasty press Ellison has suddenly been getting:
“He did the rounds on the Sunday shows, saying all the right things about broadening the party’s base—bringing white working class voters back into the fold without losing its progressive, multicultural base.
But then things started to shift. The Obama White House was not thrilled with the idea of Ellison leading the DNC—and many of the leaks have suggested that they were uncomfortable with Ellison’s identity (he’s black and Muslim), more than anything else. Labor secretary Tom Perez jumped into the fold with the White House at his back.
And now, Ellison is dealing with opposition research dumps—something of an oddity in a race for party chair. Almost immediately after he became a candidate, Ellison’s past support for Israel was questioned, along with questions he had made (and later repudiated) about Louis Farrakhan. On Wednesday, The Hill reported that “Ellison’s critics in the DNC and some supporters of Labor secretary Tom Perez… are pointing to the Minnesota Democrat’s past tax troubles, campaign finance violations and minor legal issues that once led to his driver’s license being suspended as evidence that he’s ill-equipped to lead the DNC.””
Some of what is being talked about is decades old and, even at the time, wasn’t even small potatoes. Then the White House shoe dropped. The Huffington Post reported:
“But key figures from the Obama administration had chafed at the new alignment, with former Obama aide David Axelrod championing Perez in the press, following meetings between Perez and a host of administration figures. Obama erased any doubt about his views on Friday.
“If you look at his body of work on behalf of working people, what he’s pushed for in terms of making sure that workers get a fair deal, decent wages, better benefits, that their safety is protected on the job, he has been extraordinary,” Obama said.”
“Many leading Democrats in Washington are furious with the administration for intervening in a transition of power that they have been attempting to manage for weeks. Obama, they argue, has actively undermined party organization by diverting resources to his own organizations, after appointing a disastrous DNC chair in Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
“The White House didn’t just let the DNC wither on the vine, they actively undermined it by steering money, resources, time and staff to [Organizing for Action],” one Senate Democratic aide told HuffPost. “It takes a lot of nerve for the White House, at the 11th hour, to meddle in race to head an organization they thwarted for eight years.
Obama and Ellison have squared off over a host of issues over the years. Ellison called to curb the administration’s aggressive deportations of undocumented Americans, and opposed administration proposals to cut Social Security benefits as part of a (never-enacted) “Grand Bargain” with congressional Republicans. Ellison was an early opponent of Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, arguing it would undermine American workers without providing adequate protections for foreign laborers.”
If Tom Perez is a champion of working people, then Keith Ellison is their patron saint, based on his tireless work on their behalf that dates farther back than Perez’ own work as Labor Secretary. Perez is a right of center Democrat. Ellison, clearly, is a progressive.
Progressives need to come to terms with the fact that liberal Democrats will not allow them to come into their own within the party as it is now. If the writing on the wall wasn’t crystal clear over the seven years that elapsed since 2008, it most certainly was all year last year, when liberals pulled out all the stops to thwart Bernie Sanders. Now, they’re doing it again. Why engage in a fruitless effort to reform a party that just won’t allow it? What is the point of continuing to try and fix something that was always broken? The current behavior of Democrats is more in line with its Dixiecrat roots than it is with the enlightened, truly diverse party the future dictates it needs to be. If Republicans used the election of Barack Obama to say that we are a post-racial society, the current Democratic leadership is using it to justify the continued hold of wealthy, older, white control. Based on the last four elections, that just isn’t where the progressive future is.
It’s time to leave the tent and build a home. If you are a progressive reading this, make your wishes known. Contact Senator Sanders. Contact Representative Ellison. Contact Our Revolution. Contact Democracy for America. Keep contacting them until they answer you and tell you they hear you.