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.”
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