Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hypocrisy or Democracy? The DNC Has a Fateful Choice

The Democratic National Committee will choose a new chair at its February 23-26 Winter Meeting in Atlanta.  That choice will be a fateful one.  

Despite being the smaller party, Republicans hold the country in an iron grip.  Their dream of dismantling New Deal social programs is within reach.  They’re racing to accelerate global warming by mining, drilling, and burning all the fossil fuels they can lay their hands on.  They seem bent on stripping millions of families of health care, threatening more millions of immigrant families, and demonizing 3.3 million Muslims who are our fellow students, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. 

A lot of responsibility for that falls on the DNC’s shoulders. The party’s collapse this past election was obviously a stunning rejection of Hillary Clinton.  But the rejection wasn’t just personal, it was systemic.  Millions of voters were turned off by the party’s hypocrisy and the DNC’s subservience to corporate money.  

Let’s tell it like it is.  The DNC gamed its own system, killed enthusiasm, and drove huge numbers of newly-engaged voters out of the campaign.  They ushered Hillary Clinton into the nomination and the party over a cliff.

What needs to be fixed?

Don’t underestimate the problems.  The less difficult fixes are managerial, and even those will require major effort to accomplish.  But after one of the most humiliating defeats in U.S. history, all of the candidates for chair agree they need to happen.  Those fixes include:

  • reviving the 50-state (plus 7-territories) strategy; 
  • pouring substantial resources into making the party competitive in state and local levels; 
  • contesting races up and down the entire ticket rather than beginning and ending at the top; 
  • supporting, not starving, progressive candidates; 
  • listening to the grassroots.  

Publicly, that’s all the candidates are willing to discuss.  The corporate wing of the party wants to keep it that way.  What they don’t want is to own their part in the problem.

It was the corporatists who abandoned Howard Dean’s 50-state approach, sucked the money and support away from downticket efforts, and sought out lobbyists and big-dollar donors—and they don’t intend to change their ways.  

The corporatists’ basic pitch in framing the DNC’s choice of a new chair is a bureaucratic two-step.  1) The party needs to bury its “philosophical differences” over big donors (i.e., keep on living off corporate handouts), ignore the outrageous abuses of the last campaign, and unify.  2) The best fit for heading the rebuilding job is a good manager who will reach out and rebuild the party at its lower levels. 

In other words, their recipe for success is a better-run version of the status quo.  

Why is that not enough?

That argument may sound plausible.  But it won’t work. In fact, it’s actually a recipe for further disaster. 

Young people, working class people, and people of color deserted the party in droves this last election.  Even the shock of a Donald Trump administration won’t be enough to bring them back unless there is major systemic change—starting with the chair. In their encounters with the Democratic Party last primary season, attempts to squelch them were every bit as ugly and undemocratic as Republicans’ efforts to suppress minority votes. They’ve had it with the cynicism and hypocrisy of corporate Democrats.

Beyond that, there are structural problems plaguing the DNC like multiple cancers--the caucus system, the superdelegate system, and the core issue destroying the party: its dependence on donations from corporate lobbyists. 

What really needs to be fixed? 

The DNC is sick.  It has an addiction to corporate money.  And your dealers don’t stop coming around just because you’ve lost your house, been fired from your job, and been rejected by your kids.  You’re the dealers’ mealticket, and in their own way, they’re as sick as you are. 

As any addict or member of an addict’s family will tell you, recovery begins by acknowledging that you have a problem.  That was Bernie Sanders’ role in the last campaign.  He was the unlikely young boy who blurted out—in a Brooklyn accent—that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.  The wonder wasn’t just that Sanders couldn’t be bullied or bought; it was that he actually talked about Wall Street and corporate money as corrupting democracy.  He broke the party’s sick silence.  It was the greatest contribution he could have made to the party—and the party turned it down. 

Once the silence was broken, volunteers poured into Sanders’ campaign.  His massive support via small donations was unprecedented.  Hundreds of thousands of those same folks, along with other energized, passionate people, are now out jamming airports, filling our cities’ streets, and hounding members of Congress.  They’re pouring millions of dollars into the ACLU.  Do the powers-that-be in the DNC actually believe that managerial fixes will satisfy people’s demands for change?  

As crazy as that sounds, they may.  Never underestimate addicts’ ability to delude themselves. 

How do things look at the moment?

Early on, Keith Ellison, a strong progressive and early Bernie Sanders supporter, was the clear frontrunner to become the new DNC chair.  But the party’s Clinton/Obama corporate wing, threatened by the prospect of real reform, pushed Tom Perez into the race.  Perez, ex-Labor Secretary under Obama and one-time prospect to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate, is now Ellison’s main competition.

Unfortunately for Perez, he had a temporary lapse into frankness.  He told county leaders in Kansas, “We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the [party’s primary] process was rigged, and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s why we need a chair who is transparent.”  

His straight talk was quickly followed by a humiliating flurry of tweets in which he claimed he “misspoke” and that “Hillary became our nominee fair and square, and she won more votes in the primary—and general—than her opponents.”  

That Clinton won more votes is obviously true; that she won the nomination “fair and square” is a lie.  Emails released via Wikileaks, as well as the debate schedule, the stacked deck in debate questions, and the abuses in party caucuses all confirmed the process was rigged. 

By now we all cringe each time Kellyanne Conway debases herself by excusing or lying about yet another vile thing Donald Trump has said or done.  But here’s Tom Perez doing the same thing, flip-flopping at Clinton’s command. 

The speed with which Clinton//Wall Street forces were able to pull Perez’s strings and jerk him back into line is all we need to know about his fitness for the job. The last thing the DNC needs is a male version of Debbie Wasserman Schultz at its helm.  Nevertheless, Perez now claims he has the support of at least 180 DNC members.

Keith Ellison has been low key, presumably because he’s trying not to poke a stick in the eye of people he’ll need to work with if elected.  But Sam Ronan’s late entry into the race is a plus for Ellison because the young Ohio vet is making Ellison’s case for him, putting 2016’s rigged nomination front and center and demanding the DNC hold itself accountable.

Ellison’s bid has also been bolstered in the last few days by a strong endorsement from Ray Buckley, who dropped out of the race.  Of key importance here is that Buckley is not only the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, but also President of the Association of State Democratic Chairs and Vice Chair of the DNC.  He has been engaged in Democratic politics since he was eight years old and is widely respected.  His endorsement carries a lot of weight.

If the DNC blows this one, it can kiss the party’s future—and ours—goodbye.

What can you do?

Call your state’s members on the DNC.  If you can’t find out who they are, get their names and contact info from your state’s Democratic Party office.  Don’t put it off; time is short.  Tell the DNC members what you want and who you support.  Let them know the public is watching, and expects real reform.

© Tony Russell, 2017

Monday, February 20, 2017

“I’m Going to Have to Wear That Phrase Like Sackcloth”

“Kellyanne, good gracious!  What’s wrong with you, honey, you look terrible!”

“Please, I don’t need to hear that.  I already know.  I’ve been having trouble sleeping, and I get up in the morning exhausted. Everybody at work is going non-stop, and it makes me look like a slacker to take time off, but I had to take a break.”

“What’s the matter, sweetie?  What is it?  Are you ... you and George aren’t having problems, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that.  George and I are fine.  He’s been great.  It’s... it’s my job.”

“Oh, we’ve been so proud of you, Kellyanne.  You were always such a hard worker.  Picking blueberries all those summers.  We knew you’d make something of yourself.  And you have.  First the president’s campaign manager and now Counselor to the President!”

Awkwardly:  “That’s the problem, really.  I’m not proud of myself anymore.”

“Why in the world not?  You’ve worked hard for everything you’ve got.  You’re an American success story, honey.  You earned a law degree, you started your own polling business, and now you’re working in the Oval Office!”

Eyes turning downward, her voice quivering:  “Right.  And I felt good about those things and about myself.  But now, every day, I have to go on TV and lie in front of millions of people.  I cringe.  I toss and turn for hours every night wondering what stupid lie I’m going to have to go out and defend the next day.”

“What are you saying, Kellyanne?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t be telling you these things, but you’ve always been there for me.  Please don’t repeat this to anybody.”

“You know you can depend on me, Kellyanne.  What is it, child?”  

“He just makes things up, he contradicts himself, he exaggerates so much that he’s like a three-year-old.  It was sort of fun for a while.  It was lively and different from all those canned speeches and scripted talking points, you know?   But he can’t help himself; it’s like a disease.  He lies nonstop.”

“Well that’s his problem, isn’t it?”

“That’s not how it works.  I’m his spokesperson.  What am I supposed to do when he claims he had the biggest inauguration crowd ever and there are all these photos that show huge empty spaces on the Mall?  When he claims thousands of people were bused from Massachusetts to vote in New Hampshire illegally, but there’s zero evidence to support that claim?  When he says that he’ll release his tax returns when the audit is completed, and then after the election says he won’t release them?  When he says that Mexico will pay for the wall and then it turns out we’re going to pay for the wall?  He lies about important stuff and he lies about trivia!  And then I have to go on TV and double down on the lies.”

Sympathetically.  “Have you been going to confession, Kellyanne?  Don’t you think it would help to unburden yourself and do an act of contrition?”

“I’ve thought of it, but I’ve been avoiding it.  What am I going to say?  That I know I’m sinning, but I’m going to keep on doing it because that’s basically what my job consists of?  That I go out and lie, day after day, in order to defend a president who lies, day after day?”

“Come on, Kellyanne, this isn’t like you.  Buck up.  You can figure your way out of this.  You were Phi Beta Kappa in college!”

“Don’t remind me.  When I came up with that phrase ‘alternative facts,‘ I thought it was clever.  Now it just sounds idiotic.  When people hear my name, that’s what they think of--that cheesy way to recast a lie.   I’m going to have to wear that phrase like sackcloth for the rest of my life.  Then there was that horrible ‘Bowling Green massacre’ fiasco.  And that Fatal Attraction skit on Saturday Night Live to top things off.” 

“I saw a clip of that, Kellyanne.  I thought it was mean.  You’re nothing like that woman.”

“It stung.  But the bottom-line is, it’s true.”

“What do you mean it’s true?  You’d never go after somebody with a knife.  Don’t be silly.”

“Of course I wouldn’t attack anybody with a knife.  But I’ve been acting just as crazy as Glenn Close in the film.  I’m attached to this man who uses me but would drop me like a red-hot horseshoe if it suited him.  I’m sick enough to go out and humiliate myself time and time again, for his sake, when I don’t mean anything to him.” 

“Is it really that bad?”

“It’s worse.  Have you been watching when I go on TV news shows now?  I’m a laughing stock!  I start to offer some explanation for the latest whopper from the White House and TV hosts just cut me off.  Or giggle uncontrollably.  Do you know how embarrassing that is—to have some veteran TV person unable to stop giggling because what you’ve said is so ridiculous?  I’ve even been banned from Morning Joe—Morning Joe, for crying out loud—because of my ‘propensity to bring forth falsehoods on multiple occasions’.” 

“Oh sweetie, that must really hurt.”

“I’m starting to go numb.  When somebody acts as if what I’ve just said is nonsense, I don’t even have a comeback.  I catch myself staring at them for a minute like ‘Don’t make me do this again, will you not?  Please?’”

“Kellyanne, it sounds as if you hit rock bottom when you reached the top.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like that monkey trap, where the monkey sticks her hand through a hole to grab a banana and then traps herself because she won’t let go.  Maybe you need to start asking yourself what your success is worth.”

© Tony Russell, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

“If We Could Change Ourselves”: The DNC and Transformational Change

The Democratic sweep of 2008 built on an overwhelming public hunger for a shift in the direction the country was moving.  In a skillfully crafted campaign, Barack Obama presented himself as the personification of hope and change.  He and the party turned pent-up demand for a more equal society and a less belligerent foreign policy into a smashing victory.  Obama swept into office along with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

Yet as soon as he was inaugurated, Obama installed a Wall Street-selected cabinet and economic team, and chose Rahm Emanuel—an abrasive cynic, former investment banker, and pipeline to donors and powerbrokers—as his Chief of Staff. The new Democratic administration failed to deliver the kinds of change people had voted for, and its Congressional majority rapidly eroded.

The Republican sweep of 2016 drew on an even greater public hunger for a change of course.  Donald Trump ran as a bull-in-a-china-shop outsider who would break up a rigged system, shred trade agreements that had devastated American factories and their workers’ lives, and “Make America Great Again.”

By contrast, Hillary Clinton ran as the embodiment of the status quo.  She  downsized voters’ expectations, preaching incremental change in tiny steps.  And instead of an inspirational campaign slogan, she offered “I’m with Her”--a tone-deaf choice that focused attention exclusively on herself.

The new Republican administration, like the 2008 Democratic administration, immediately set about disappointing the voters who put it into office.  But unlike Democrats in 2008, Republicans are bulldozing their brutal agenda through with the throttle wide open.  It’s change on a mammoth scale, but it’s not the change people were hoping for.  Instead it’s a return to the robber barons‘ heyday at the turn of the last century.

So whether the Democratic Party recognizes it or not, the election of a new DNC chair pivots on a double-barreled question:  Will the DNC offer change, and what kind of changes is the party willing to commit itself to? 

The first part is easy: Change is coming.  The second part is what the election of a new chair is all about.

Will it be a limited, strategic change that mainly involves reinvesting in local and state party structures?  That’s the kind of change the party’s establishment wants.  That’s what they’re offering with Tom Perez.  It’s what they were offering with Jaime Harrison too before he dropped out and threw his support to Perez.

The change Perez and Harrison represent is from the top down.  Perez was recruited by Obama and Clinton insiders once it looked as if Keith Ellison was going to win the DNC job. Perez appears to be a decent guy, but his constituency is the insiders, the lobbyists, the big donors, and the network they’ve built up inside the DNC.  Harrison, also a likable and capable person, is a lobbyist with The Podesta Group, formed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta and his brother.  The Podesta Group is the primary funnel for corporate cash into the top levels of the DNC.

Keith Ellison represents transformational change, change from the bottom up.  He voices the hopes and dreams of ordinary people as well as the overwhelming majority of young people.  He represents a bridge between what the party is and what it needs to become.  The party needs him, or someone like him, in ways it may not appreciate.  

Ellison is on the right side of history.  He’s on the right side of opportunity, equality, and salvaging democracy.  He’s on the right side to draw in fired-up citizens eager to be put to work. He’s on the right side in terms of holding the party together. 

Contrast Ellison’s openness with that of Marcel Groen, chair of Pennsylvania Democrats, who responded to the groundswell of emails and calls he was receiving in support of Ellison by announcing his support of Perez. Groen wrote, “You don’t want 300 people calling you and telling you what to do.”  

You don’t?  

That’s a head-scratcher.  Isn’t input from the grassroots what the party is now claiming it wants?  

Being flooded by calls from energized, passionate people should be an organizer’s dream. It’s the key to rebuilding the party at the county and state levels.  It’s democracy at work.  And you respond by thumbing your nose at people, telling them to shut up and get lost?

That kind of rejection is more than spiteful.  It’s also short-sighted and counter-productive. It alienates people who are fired up to do good work, and it instantly pulls the plug on a vast reservoir of untapped energy.  It opens the door to numerous challenges in Democratic primaries, and maybe even to the development of a vote-siphoning third party. It shouldn’t have to be said that for people who are claiming that party unity is critical, this is not the way to go about it.  

Gandhi once wrote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”  That’s true not just of individuals; it’s true of political parties as well. 

© Tony Russell, 2017