Analysis by Reporting San Diego
Feb 23, 2017 (San Diego) There are different forces tugging at the Democratic Party. They were on display at the CNN debate. They have been openly in display at town hall meetings, airports, and even the incredibly large Women’s March. For the record, the 40,000 who turned out in San Diego on Jan 21 made history in ways that many people fail to comprehend. That was the largest demonstration in the history of this city, So it was not a minor thing.
First, we need to look back. We need to look back at the 2010s when I did attend a few tea party express events. I was not a reporter however, these observations apply to the activism that is now rising. The largest rally that I attended was a Tea Party Express, one of the three strains of the movement, and was about 600 people strong. This was a large gathering downtown, near the USS Midway museum. It was mostly older, and mostly white and with plenty of silly hats.
The energy in this small gathering was also electric. People were fed up, and they were fed up with the insiders in the conservative movement. These insiders within the Republican Party told them many times, yes we hear you, but you have to have patience. The main complaint from the people speaking that day was that the party, in that case, the Republican Party, was not listening to them, or their concerns. They were more interested in what lobbyists had to say. At the time there were many charges, mostly at the time from Democrats, that these were paid protesters, It was AstroTurf. While later in the Tea Party history the Koch brothers did get involved, early on this was not the case. Just like Indivisible, it was grass roots.
Years later, during Occupy San Diego, one of the speakers during one of the many General Assemblies I sat at as a reporter was one of the founders of the Tea Party movement. I believe he was Karl Denninger, a financial blogger. He came to San Diego to give Occupiers one message: Be careful of those forces that want to take over your movement and co-opt it for their own goals. That was his experience. He delivered this message to a group of activists, some experienced, some not, and he was serious. He started a movement, one that did change a political party. In the end, he was pushed out of the movement he helped create. This is the moment the Tea Party movement lost some of the grassroots, non-paid protesters, organized at the very local level, with a goal… LISTEN TO US! In the end, it became a tool for powerful interests.
One could argue that one of the reasons that Occupy did peter out was not the message, but that they refused to be coopted. This purity of cause meant that they were short on resources. Another is that they took on a shotgun effect to causes, with so many that it was impossible to keep track. The groups that have survived, such as Women Occupy San Diego, have one or two goals, that’s it.
Occupy Wall Street also became a danger to the powers that be. They were taken down by Democratic and Republican mayors alike. This brings us to the present.
Fast Forwards to February of 2017
The Women’s March is symptomatic of this issue. Many direct actions on what passes for the left in the United States embrace multiple causes. It is great that people are willing to take intersectionality of causes. Yes, poverty and racism are related to women’s rights and mass incarceration. We could also mention climate change and both economic and social justice. All these and more were present during the Women’s March, both in San Diego and Washington DC. You could say that the march in Sydney Australia was far more focused, on President Donald Trump.
This takes away the effectiveness of the movement since there are so many causes that there is not one laser-focused message. The Civil Rights movement succeeded because they kept their eye on the prize for not just a decade or two, but many decades. Black Lives Matter is a continuation of this incidentally, and while the methods are different, the message is still laser focused now on mass incarceration, economic and civil rights. In the 1960s it was about jobs and the vote. With the new administration, we are afraid it will have to go back to those roots.
Then there is the Democratic Party, which is not a left wing party. Or rather, the only reason you could call it left is that the Republicans are so far right that by default Democrats are to their left. This party has focused on transactional identity politics that it seems unwilling, or unable to listen to those younger people who yearn for economic justice. It has also abandoned many of the causes it once embraced, such as Social Security and the expansion of the social safety net. This is a party that is quite coastal, and regional. It has almost zero penetration in rural America, partly because it has abandoned that part of the country.
The primary revealed that schism. The populist party that once was is almost extinct. It has been replaced by a pro-corporate party that serves a meritocracy of coastal elites. and still, is led by those same coastal elites in Congress. It no longer speaks to the working class, or to the immigrant. There are exceptions, to a point. such as the California Democratic Party, that has control of all levers of power. It helps that the California Republican Party is as dysfunctional as the DNC. Perhaps even more dysfunctional.
The debate revealed two schisms. Both could prove lethal to the party. The first were the wounds opened during the primary between the Sanders wing and the Clinton, neoliberal wings of the party have not begun to heal. They are as powerful and open as the day they were opened. This is a festering wound, and some of the solutions offered by people on the stage included things that those inside the party will fight. One of them was to open primaries to independents. There is a recognition that the Democratic Party is contracting and it needs to grow. Those insiders, however, do not want to open primaries.
The second schism is far deeper and has festered for decades. This is the machine nature of the party and the split between the insiders and the outsiders. The dinner where Kieth Ellison and Tom Perez agreed to work with each other was instructive. Both are party insiders and both are leading the way to win election as party chair. Their dinner, excluding those not on the inside track, is symbolic of the way the party works, in less smoke-filled rooms, but still closed rooms, with a tightly oiled party machine.
Those outside this inside track have maybe a voice, but not one that insiders have to listen to necessarily. They might have good ideas, including experience in Internet Technology, but they are not part of the club. This aversion to those outside the inside track might prove lethal to the party, as it proves it lacks an ability to react to a fast-changing society.
There is another factor. This is where we come back to activism and in this case the town hall meetings. We heard this at both Scott Peters town hall, but also at the Darrell Issa town hall (with no congressman.) People want money out of politics. This is not just Democratic activists mind you. This is an undertow in American politics that will threaten the system. This is one reason for President Trump, who self-funded his campaign. People understand that if any politician gets money from Goldman Sachs, they will not regulate Goldman Sachs. This goes for any industry. There is an increasing feeling that politicians talk to voters but do not listen to voters. This is a minor, but critical distinction. Nor is this limited to one party.
I know that staffers do not like constituents. These people get in the way. I am far from the first reporter to make this observation. Nor is this limited to one party. DC (and to a lesser extent Sacramento) do have an insular culture. What goes in DC stays in DC. Constituents are seen as ignorant of how the sausage is made and preferably kept in the dark as to how the sausage is made. They are also seen as a purist, that do not understand compromise is necessary, not that politicians compromise much these days either. But the illusion has to be maintained for the sake of comity.
So we go back to those halcyon days of the Tea Party before they were coopted. They were driven by a culture of self-reliance and open disdain for the Federal Government. Why partly they rejected the Affordable Care Act, which became a symbol of overreach. They were dismissed by the professional politicians in DC. People like Eric Cantor could never imagine they would lose to a country hick, who was self-financing. This could not happen to Cantor, a rising star in the Republican Party. Democrats are about to make the same mistake since they do think they can both control and redirect the activists from Indivisible.
The energy among activists is such that they are ready to primary even old stalwarts in the party. The question is whether these activists will be able to focus on one or two issues, or continue with the shotgun approach? That could derail them. The other thing that could derail them is organizations, such as MoveOn. Org, or other democratic centric groups, taking over these groups.
San Diego alone has over 40 of these groups. Just at the Peters town hall, we could distinguish 10 of them. These groups are self-directed and using the Tea Party template, of very local resistance to policy from DC. They are not all Democrats. This is critical to point out. Just like not, all Tea Party groups were just Republicans.
We are at the beginning of the 7th political system in the United States. And this system might rely less on national parties and far more on local, social media directed activism. What we saw in the 2010s from the Tea Party, and later with Occupy and now with Indivisible is the same thing. They want government and elected officials to work for the people. They are far more engaged in government than we have seen in a long time. But there is still an open question if this energy will continue and whether it will focus? The success of the Tea Party and the failure of Occupy lies precisely in that focus, or lack off.
We are ready to make one bold prediction, however. We expect to see Democratic (and Republican) elected officials face primary challenges. Whether it is going to have the effect of the Tea Party is still an open question.
Updated to correct a spelling name error