Analysis by Reporting San Diego
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Feb 27, 2017 (San Diego) by now you have likely heard. Tom Perez, Labor Secretary for President Barak Obama, was elected Chair of the National Democratic Committee. We could look at this through the modern lens. This is the betrayal of the modern progressive movement. Instead, we would rather look at it from the point of view of last century, and the fall of the last great party. That is the Whigs. There are parallels that are worth exploring, and there are also critical differences from that era and the modern day.
First off, there was a more significant vote taken earlier in the day. This was the moment the party decided against what some Democrats might call unilateral disarmament. Others might read as a surrender of principles. The party decided to continue accepting corporate backing and work with political advisors with a checkered record. In other words, the party decided to continue the same practices that have been a disaster over the last eight years. Partly, it is what they know how to do, and ideologically, they are part of the mostly coastal meritocracy that the party continues to favor.
Perez’ selection is symbolic of this crisis. The party is bleeding membership. It has lost close to 1000 legislative seats at the state level. It has no control at the Federal level. Even local offices are in crisis. Yet, it chose to do the same thing that has led to this disaster, and the least influence in over 100 years. It is no exaggeration to say that Democrats are a party in retreat, and collapse.
The emergence of groups out of the direct control of Democrats is a clear sign of discontent, These groups range from Justice Democrats to Indivisible, and others we have yet to hear from. The party cannot wait to try to bring them to heel. Their track record coopting movements, from civil rights, to the labor movement, and the antiwar movement has been flawless. Yet, there is one movement they were unable to coop. This is Occupy Wall. Street. There are many reasons for this. It is clear that by 2012 the party was already in decline and unable to take over a social and economic justice movement that was a direct challenge to the political and economic system. They were unable to lead Occupiers into the fold. Partly, many occupiers are the same progressives, and liberals, that see through the Neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party. Most were young and became aware of their politics at a time of economic retreat.
The level of retreat for Democrats is not unprecedented in American history. It is just unprecedented in modern times. During the 1840s and 1850s something very familiar to our present did happen. A great American party left for the dust bin of history and was replaced by another. One of the issues at the time was slavery. Member of the left flank of the Whig party did not think slavery was a winning argument. At the time the peace that has lasted due to the Missouri Compromise was shattered by the Kansas Act, which led to the little war in Kansas, This war, in the 1850s, was a prelude to the civil war. They also had some strange ideas about the rights of labor. They were for them, and one of their leaders considered labor, not capital, the reason why wealth expanded. He wrote:
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.
His party was not responding well to any of this. It was early machine politics, not unlike that of the Democratic Party of the time, or the current Democratic Party. Abraham Lincoln and a few others went on to found the Grand Old Party Republicans arose from the kind of split we are currently seeing with Democrats. It was the left, far more liberal, Whig Party base that decided the party insiders of the Whig Party were not going to change. So they left and created a new party. One that won the White House within eight years. It’s leader, led the country through the trials of the Civil War. This party, republican, was named such by Horace Greeley, one of the most influential men of the age, who also left the Whigs. He wrote in 1854:
“We should not care much whether those thus united (against slavery) were designated ‘Whig,’ ‘Free Democrat’ or something else; though we think some simple name like ‘Republican’ would more fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”
These days we hear a similar sentiment from may progressives, less so from Liberals. (Yes, there is a distinct difference between the two groups.) Most of the progressives are to the left of the party. They feel abandoned and disrespected. They also think the party serves special interests and is in the hands of those who are very powerful. This is where similarities end since the politics of the 1850s allowed for third parties to have a role, and even replace one of the two majority parties. It was not the first time that happened. The Whigs rose in 1834 in opposition to Andrew Jackson, a Democrat who was contentious and ran the Presidency in a very authoritarian way. He famously refused to follow Supreme Court rulings’ and challenged the SCOTUS to enforce them. Worcester V Georgia was a loss for the president, however, he still went on to displace first peoples, not just Cherokees, in what is known as the Path of Tears. It was the first conflict between Art. 1 and Art II authorities, and it is back within the context of the Donald Trump era.
Over the last 150 years. Democrats and Republicans have passed a slew of ballot access laws that make is nearly impossible for a new party to enter the fray and have any chance of winning local, let alone national office. Both the Libertarian and GreenGreen parties have found this to be the case. While the former has ballot access nationwide, and the latter is reaching that point, the process did not take eight years, but a generation. This is hardly accidental. Both major parties have made it near impossible to qualify for ballot access.
We also live at a time when major media outlets do not give the time of day to most third parties. When they do, it is to mock them. Horace Greeley would not have written that editorial today. He would not have acknowledged the existence of that third party that formed on the left flank of the Whig and Democratic party. Granted. Greeley was also a proponent of that third party.
Yet, we are at a moment in time when the conditions are near perfect for either one of the already established third parties to replace the Democrats, or a new party rising from the multiple movements on that now very fertile, if not well focused, left flank. They know that either major party does not have their interest at heart.
However, there are two problems. The first is legal, as outlined above. It is not an insurmountable problem, but one that any third party faces. How to get to the ballot? The second is ideological. The United States used to have a vibrant left. This was obvious in the labor and civil rights movements, even though they were separated by a generation, and partially by the second red scare.It started to show signs of life during Occupy Wall Street and later with Bernie Sanders and the primary where the party fractured. The McCarthy era though did major damage to a once vibrant left. Especially younger people these days know what they stand against, but what they stand for is harder to pin down. Partly Americans have a very poor education in both political science and history, so they are trying to recreate the wheel when once there was a wheel. It is the case, though, that younger people are more tolerant of large government programs, for example. The word socialism no longer scares them, the way it did Americans who grew up during the cold war.
We saw this during an exchange between a young millennial and Leader Nancy Pelosi on CNN. He confronted her on her party’s commitment to a corporate culture that has left people like him in the dust. Her answer was not just tone deaf, but dismissive of his concerns He did state that his generation is more open to socialism. And while the young man did not use the term neoliberal, this is what the modern Democratic Party continues to be committed to. Her answer was clear on that.
A few years back Bill Moyers described Occupy Wall Street as follows:
But that may be changing. Look at the forces that created Occupy Wall Street. The men and women who assembled in September 2011 in Zuccotti Park bore three key characteristics. First, they were young. According to a survey published by City University of New York’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor, 40 percent of the core activists involved taking over the park were under 30 years old. Second, they were highly educated. Eighty percent possessed at least a bachelors’ degree, more than twice the percentage of New Yorkers overall. Third, they were frustrated economically. According to the CUNY study, more than half the Occupy activists under 30 owed at least $1,000 in student debt. More than a one-third had lost a job or been laid off in the previous five years. In the words of David Graeber, the man widely credited with coining the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” the Occupy activists were “forward-looking people who had been stopped dead in their tracks” by bad economic times.
His writing matches my observations and why the Democratic Party is clashing with the future. While the powerful insiders are followers of Bill Clinton and committed to the Third Way, Millennial voters are not. This conflict is just starting. The primaries were the first open sign of this intramural war. Perez’ selection will turn out to be a strategic mistake. The election of the chair was symbolic. What the insiders told millennials, and older voters who have rejected the third way is that they don’t matter.
Time will tell whether the Party divests from the third way, or it continues down this road. Time will also tell whether an alternative will emerge, either from parties with ballot access already, or a new organization. What is true is that Democrats continue down a path that has only brought them defeat after defeat, yet they persist. If the definition of insanity is doing the same, then one most conclude that Democrats are indeed insane.