What’s the deal with the Democratic Party? It’s no secret that there is an ongoing debate about where the Party is headed on matters of policy and structure. While the divisions are more nuanced than the fairly simplistic and pervasive “Bernie-wing versus Hillary-wing” narrative, there is significant contention between progressives and more establishment political figures on such topics as big donors and money in politics; corporations and unions; the for-profit prison industry; identity politics and voter demographics; public and charter schools; universal healthcare, and how to succeed in the 2020 presidential election. These views are also paired with a wide array of differing political strategies that may both subscribe to the same principle, for example universal healthcare or criminal justice reform, but disagree on the appropriate legislative strategy to get there. As such, making sense of the ongoing divisions within the Democratic Party requires understanding competing leadership visions and strategies, for the party and for the country. One such leadership approach, that of the progressive movement, will provide insight into ways that the Democratic Party has fallen short, indeed far short, of public expectations. Understanding the merits of the progressive approach will provide insight into the essential need for the Democratic Party to show moral clarity, not merely for its own well being, but for that of all Americans.
When responding to the backlash caused by his harsh criticism of President Woodrow Wilson’s World War I military strategy, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” Without a doubt, this assertion also applies to the Democratic Party. Surely, in order for America’s democracy to be strengthened, there must be room for competing groups within its political parties to influence, lobby, and prod one another. The problems of hyper-partisanship should be respected, but one vision of the country should not be the only one. More importantly, the tug and pull of inter-party politics helps to maintain each political party’s commitment to the values it claims to uphold. Case in point, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s move leftward to respond to the progressive policies of Senator Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary. This was done to attract his base of support during the national election. While met with scrutiny, the move reflects the way in which factions can cause entrenched political establishment thinkers to reevaluate their leadership vision and strategy. Additionally, once some concessions have been made, a precedent has been set. It becomes harder to justify a political bait and switch, wherein a candidate makes numerous political promises and then “moderates” or changes their mind after having been elected. Clinton’s infamous “public and private position” comments reflect this habit. The narrowing base of support under President Donald Trump should be noted by those cynics who believe that such behavior frequently occurs without electoral consequence. Research strongly suggests that most politicians in the United States actually deliver on the majority of their campaign promises, partially as a way to deter primary challengers and ensure re-election. With this in mind, one should still consider problems of ideological extremism, gerrymandering, the infringing of economic liberties, infringements of voting rights, and a lack of responsiveness to voter needs and concerns, all of which leave voters disaffected, certain that their voices have been disregarded. In the face of these ever present challenges with American political parties, it is not irrational for these unheard masses to forgo voting and to simply stay at home. Enter the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
The progressive movement is not a new one, and traces its roots to the values of personal liberty, political equality, and the promotion of the general welfare that were championed during the American Revolution, and enshrined within the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These beliefs were wed to a dynamic view of the nature of the US Constitution, eschewing the more constant and unchanging conception provided by many conservative political thinkers. Despite the widespread myth of harmonious unity in purpose between the American Founding Fathers, progressives throughout history have consistently relied on American founding principles to advance broad agendas and generate widespread social change. To be sure, it would be historical revisionism to project modern standards and views onto the work of long passed progressive activists. Many of them had very different reasons than a modern citizen may expect for supporting causes that many now celebrate. For example, while early progressive abolitionists were strongly anti-slavery, some undeniably viewed white Americans as superior in nature over black ones, freed or otherwise. Thomas Jefferson infamously owned slaves despite widely being considered the progressive founding father. He asserted that democracy, more than being founded on the words of the Constitution alone, was also derived from “the spirit of the people”, and an educated and informed citizenry.
As such, while many progressives have had, and continue to have, nuanced and scrutinizable intentions, views, and results of their political advocacy, the work of progressives has resulted in among the most strident victories in the defense of individual liberties, rights, and protections in America. The minimum wage, the secret ballot, McGovern-Fraser reforms, labor protections, criminal justice reforms, universal suffrage, funding allotments for public education, and the promotion of ethical capitalist practices, among other topic areas, have all fallen under the purview of American progressives, but not always the Democratic Party. It was only until the mid 20th century that it began to be associated with these causes, and American political parties used to be a lot more cosmopolitan across party lines; Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were both members of the Republican party for instance, despite many seeing them as liberal thinkers, and no longer associating the modern Republican Party with liberalism.
This serves as a testament to how fluid and dynamic the essence of politics is. One should always question established definitions of left, right, liberal, and conservative, as well as the idea of an “ideological spectrum”, which still implies that those on one side of the spectrum have the same views on different issues. While one may call both Frederick Douglass and Sanders progressive, the two have undeniably distinctive understandings of race in America. Douglass’ criticisms of American society center on the particular experiences of himself as a black man living in a systemically oppressive environment, one that upholds whiteness as a standard above all others; one in which political struggle was paramount to overcome. Sanders, while certainly acknowledging institutional prejudice, has a distinctively economic populist worldview, highlighting a “rigged economy”, class dynamics, and the dominance of wealthy interests. It would appear that mere labels can be a tad unreliable. As such, one would be intellectually constrained when viewing the progressive movement under a single lens. As is the case with many segments of American politics, it has been as diverse and manifold as the 200 million voters it seeks to represent.
Recently there have been efforts to publicly air grievances after the 2016 election, particularly emergent in the anger over how the DNC is currently being managed. Many charge that the Democratic Party has not sufficiently learned its lesson from the 2016 loss to Trump, with party leaders like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer receiving the brunt of the criticisms. The party finds itself caught between attempting to serve as the American voters’ defense against abuses by the Trump administration, and contending with the many who view it as lacking the moral and political legitimacy to do so. On the opposing side, those who side with the Democratic Establishment argue that “purism”, or the demanding that a candidate align with one’s moral and political principles in a near total capacity, is unrealistic and polarizing. The debate has become framed in terms of generating fervor versus generating funds, and what is pragmatic versus what is ideal.
The cause of this disharmony can be attributed primarily to the moderate side of the party. The current dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party is a failure of the pragmatic approach, and the politics of cynicism. If out fundraising one’s opponent and having a cautious, focus group tested campaign was the superior strategy to win elections, Clinton would be the current President of the United States. Her win of the popular vote by four million voters should not be underplayed. Indeed, if not for the electoral college system, if instead the American presidency was decided based upon the popular vote, she would have won. Her win however would have been delivered by voters with less enthusiasm, optimism, and excitement over their chosen candidate. The perspectives of the progressive movement should be considered not just on a policy basis, but for the purpose of rousing support for an ideal future. Not merely playing defense against Trump, but creating a proactive vision for the country. To be fair, Clinton attempted to do this, but as is clearly evident, she did not succeed.
Ideological factions can be dangerous in their single minded vision for how things should be run. All ideologies have limits, and while all are not equally meritable, their flaws are equally present. Ideological criticism is applicable to, and should be reserved for, all ideologies; as Thomas Aquinas said, “I fear the man of a single book”. Therefore this criticism equally applies to moderatism, or the politics of let’s not go too far. It is no longer pragmatic to moderate one’s goals for systemic reforms, when a system is critically failing. Put more succinctly, desperate times call for desperate measures. Many examples of this platitude can be found in the widespread emergence of “anti-establishment” candidates of many political persuasions, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis. The Democratic Party platform does establish an official, pro-reform stance. Even with this in mind, it is still very hard to deny that more could be done to improve the faith of Democratic voters in their party.
As others have noted, in order to run for Congress, one must run against Congress. An obvious example is Trump, whose message of political corruption hit home for many tired of the same old politics as usual. In this regard he had an advantage over Clinton, whose resume as the most qualified and experienced political candidate also rendered her the least innovative in the minds of voters. Clinton cemented this view by her insistence that she was the common sense candidate, particularly during the general election, where she intentionally counterpointed the brash and offensive nature of Trump’s campaign. This narrative of a disaffected electorate however, should not be overstated. Trump won 45.95 percent of the national vote, a smaller share than Mitt Romney’s 47.12 percent in 2012 and few would consider Romney, the moderate Republican Governor of Massachusetts, a political outsider. Still, there are lessons to be learned from Trump’s win over Clinton. One such lesson is that when many view the political establishment’s agenda as having failed them, the rhetoric of common sense rings hollow. What is needed now is not a common sense approach, but moral clarity. Once moral clarity is established, common sense on how to proceed will follow. A response to this notion might be that morality and politics have nothing to do with each other. Very funny. But on one level this is true. A public policy idea is no more immoral than an equation for the nuclear fission of uranium. Such ideas become immoral when they seriously impede upon the general well-being of the republic. Even if done inadvertently, this will lead to a moral crisis. In the midst of such a crisis, policy advocates who seek to redress policy grievances become defenders of America’s moral conscience, serving as an important means for moral clarity. Who do the Democrats advocate for? What are the values of the Democratic establishment? What kind of society do Democrats hope to cultivate? This is the role that the progressive movement now serves for the Democratic Party.
The prior public policy approach, largely negotiated by the Obama administration under a Republican-controlled Congress, is commonly referred to as neoliberalism, and is characterized by free trade, lower taxes, deregulation, and increased globalization. It has resulted in some growth for the national economy, but the negative perceptions it has received have arrived in response to widespread income inequality, stagnated wages despite higher overall worker productivity, rising business profits that have not returned to consumers, and more limited job growth, among other issues. The 2016 Democratic primary election was in essence a clarion call for Democrats to seriously reconsider neoliberalism. Far too many see it falling short on current problems plaguing the American underclass, defying the need for proper political representation. It’s not simply that the establishment is corrupt, though the influence of major political donors over American democracy should not be understated. The crucial problem is how many in power are so wed to this constrained ideological narrative, that it has stagnated much needed progress in American political life and discourse.
In response to these challenges, the Democratic Party has begun to undergo a reform process, with the creation of a Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee to promote outreach to progressive voters, and a “Better Deal” which attempts to address the aforementioned grievances with longstanding public policy strategies. These reforms are an excellent first step in addressing longheld skepticism about what the party’s central message is, and to whom it is accountable. But what are its limitations? First, the Better Deal already risks sounding more like a public relations move, than a serious reevaluation of the core values at the heart of the party. Ironically, the New Deal proposal championed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and which the name Better Deal is attempting to signal within people’s minds, overlooked the concerns of black Americans on critical areas, and was actively designed to marginalize them in some cases. The current Better Deal of the Democrats does not include serious discussions of long standing policies that disproportionately harm minority Americans, as has been noted by other writers. The prominent “white working class” narrative that many Democrats and media pundits alike have adopted, and which is at the heart of the Better Deal, centers on how disaffected white voters are the reason why Trump is President. Following this contested logic, policies designed to court them should be embraced, and issues of “identity politics” should be downplayed.
Identity politics is an ambiguous term. For some it reflects trite pleas for politically correct policy. If it instead refers to substantive institutional problems, such as those for which understanding race is essential to understanding them, then to pivot to the white working class is a mistake. Democrats should not downplay their already well-scrutinized commitment to the interests of minorities, and in particular black voters. Now is not the time to dismiss legitimate identity based grievances as trite pleas for politically correct policy. Were this strategy employed, black voters, whose interests have at times been taken for granted due to deep rooted loyalties to the Democratic Party, will have even greater incentive to stay home come election day. Even small declines in black political participation hurt Democratic candidates come election time, and these voters then see even greater diminished considerations for their needs and concerns. Like all voters, black voters need a compelling case to vote for a party that too often has been accused of not taking them seriously. Now is the time to address that concern. It would also likely help with stagnant DNC fundraising, and outreach for the 2018 midterm congressional races. It should be noted that not all criticisms of identity politics are illegitimate. Lip service to issues and ideas, or even a minority candidate, without a robust, historically conscious policy agenda to match, will not earn the respect of anyone, minority supporters or otherwise. The goal here is not to merely point out how harmful the Trump agenda is, but to provide a legitimate alternative to it. This is what moral clarity looks like. A point to make here is that this process should be coupled with a championing of free speech rights, and community participation. Vulnerable communities will have differing and nuanced conceptions of what progress looks like. Instead of stifling debate, or worse, taking on a paternalistic view, the concerns of community leaders should be well considered in return for the expectation of community votes.
Moving forward, the answer will lie in the tough work of speaking to a broad multiracial coalition, similar to the kind organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Appealing to minority voters and white voters is not a zero sum game. Democrats must emphasize with boldness that when marginalized people are taken seriously, and their grievances acted upon, the benefits reverberate through all segments of society. These policy shifts should not be about creating overbearing government bureaucracy, but could instead start with fighting for the enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws, implementing small donor matching for campaigns, streamlining existing bureaucracy to cut waste, improving Democratic primary procedures to avoid demagoguery and candidate suppression, encouraging grassroots engagement, creating DNC sponsored townhalls during non-election years, and emphasizing the economic costs of climate change. Having a narrow focus on the next election cycle limits possibilities in the present to keep people continually informed and engaged in their democracy. More importantly, focusing solely on the next presidential election reflects an obsession with winning and celebrity candidates, over proper political representation; though to be fair, this may largely be a media problem. The notion of the need for moral clarity sets a high bar for public policy coming from the Democratic Party, and leaves room for all sorts of debates on which steps are most sensible to get there. If the party hopes to truly reaffirm its moral legitimacy, clarity would be a prudent goal to strive for. What could be a better deal than that?
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a Senior Writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.