Do Progressives Have a Seat at the Democrats’ Table?

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Tom Perez may be progressive like Keith Ellison and may have grass-roots appeal. But as the establishment wing of the Democratic Party’s pick to neutralize Ellison as a figurehead of the “Sanders wing” of the party and someone with more a nuanced view of Israel’s role in the Middle East, his victory in the race for DNC chair is symbolic of the notion that the Democrats don’t want to jeopardize their big-dollar donors by bringing in more progressives and younger voters. In doing so, however, they risk damage to their sense of party unity and the ability to recruit independents to their cause. (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

Don’t get me wrong—Tom Perez, the newly-elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, seems like a nice enough guy, not to mention that as Hillary Clinton’s nomination for the office of President of the United States was an historic one because it meant that a woman was a presidential nominee for a major political party for the first time, so too is Perez’s victory in that he holds the distinction of being the first Latino DNC chair in the party’s storied history. Also as with Clinton’s capture of the nomination, once more, the emphasis from ranking members of the Democratic Party and from its most fervent supporters is on a unified party as the best way to defeat Donald Trump and other Republicans in Congress and down the ticket. Unfortunately, much in the way tensions between factions in the Democratic Party have lingered related to the presidential race and behind-the-scenes machinations of the Democratic National Committee, so too does a power play within the party related to the DNC vote threaten to undermine this call to arms and further sow the seeds of division among registered Democrats and would-be Democratic voters. Along these lines, and in short, when it comes to the notion of whether or not the Democratic Party has learned anything from its pattern of losses in the Senate and House and gubernatorial seats, aside from the obvious in their electoral loss to Trump this past November, the apparent answer is no, and it begs the question: will it anytime soon?

Let’s first step back and look at the particulars of the vote itself. Though there were other qualified candidates for the position of DNC chair on the ballot, so to speak, this was essentially a two-horse race between Tom Perez, the Obama administration’s pick to fill the vacancy left by Donna Brazile, who would not be continuing in her capacity as interim chair after Debbie Wasserman Schultz essentially left the post in disgrace, and Keith Ellison, backed by Bernie Sanders, prominent Democrats, various labor organizations, and more progressive members of the party. Perez missed the necessary majority of 214.5 votes (427 were cast) in the first round of voting by a scant one vote, requiring a second round of voting. In that second round, he was able to officially outlast Ellison to 235 to 200. Suffice it to say the vote was a close one, but what did not appear to be close was the enthusiasm behind the candidates, at least from those in attendance there in Atlanta where the vote took place. Jonathan Easley, writing for The Hill as part of a live blog about the proceedings, had this to say about Keith Ellison’s level of support:

It is clear who has the energy here. Ellison’s supporters are loud and in charge and erupting at every chance. “Don’t mourn organize!,” declared Ellison backer and labor leader Randi Weingarten to an outburst of shouts and applause. Minnesota Democratic leader Ken Martin followed, noting that Ellison’s district has gone from the lowest turnout in the state to the highest. “This party is going to rise from the ashes under Keith Ellison,” he said, turning out another standing ovation.

Like Perez, Ellison stressed unity. “Unity is essential, we have to walk out here unified, not just between the candidates but the groups that support all the candidates,” Ellison said. But if Ellison doesn’t win his enthusiastic supporters are going to be extremely let down.

As with Bernie Sanders’ concession of the nomination to Hillary Clinton, needless to say they were let down, as I was. I’m not sure that they were all that surprised, though. I sure wasn’t. This is the Democratic Party we’re talking about here, an organization primarily devoted to fundraising, and only secondarily to change, which it sees fit to dole out incrementally. Back in December, I wrote a piece devoted to the very topic of Keith Ellison’s bid for DNC chair, detailing why voting committee members may not have supported the representative from the state of Minnesota, and surmising that, despite the enthusiasm behind his campaign and endorsements from key political figures, Democrats may well pick someone other than Ellison because, well, they’ve made a habit of making poor decisions lately and getting behind the wrong candidates. About a month-and-a-half removed from the election, the complete list of people running for the top post in the Democratic National Committee had yet to be fully formed, and wounds from the presidential campaign and election were still fairly fresh. At that time, resistance to Keith Ellison’s designs to be DNC chair seemed strongest from those resenting his identity as a Bernie backer, with those vowing to vote for anyone but him dining on the faulty notion that Sanders cost Clinton the election. (Primarily, Hillary lost herself the election, though it was a complex mix of factors that lay behind the Dems’ electoral demise in November.) If the old standby about party unity above all else was a genuinely-held sentiment, come February when the vote was scheduled to take place, these frustrations had a chance to be brought down to a simmer and more people could conceivably have warmed to the idea of Keith Ellison as Donna Brazile’s/Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s successor.

A little over two months later, though, with the race for DNC chair having run its course and more candidates having entered the fray, the apparent reasons for Committee members to bypass Ellison in favor of someone else are yet more insidious and no less galling to progressives and younger Democratic voters. Keith Ellison announced his candidacy for Democratic National Committee chair on November 14, 2016, and pledged to forfeit his seat in the House of Representatives if elected on December 7. On December 15,  Secretary of Labor Tom Perez announced his candidacy, endorsed by the likes of Joe Biden and other Obama administration figures. Why do I mention these details concerning the chronology of the race for DNC chair? As Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept, argues, “the timeline here is critical.” Greenwald, who has written more than one piece on the resistance Ellison faced as a candidate to head the DNC, asks not why Perez ran, but knowingly questions why the White House recruited Perez to oppose Ellison. His analysis, as he himself readily acknowledges, owes a certain debt to an article authored by Clio Chang for New Republic, which tries to make sense of choosing Tom Perez in the first place. After all, if Keith Ellison and Tom Perez are ideologically similar, why bother actively trying to torpedo the chances of the former to buoy those of the latter?

The distinction between the two candidates, as Greenwald and Chang detail, is a two-headed monster in it of itself. The first, er, head is found in the death grip the Democratic Party establishment has evidenced it wants to maintain on leadership of and, thus, direction of the party at large. Clio Chang explains:

It appears that the underlying reason some Democrats prefer Perez over Ellison has nothing to do with ideology, but rather his loyalty to the Obama wing. As the head of the DNC, Perez would allow that wing to retain more control, even if Obama-ites are loath to admit it. Sanders has been accused of re-litigating the primary in his criticisms of Perez, but the fact that Perez was pushed to run, while Ellison was quickly and easily unifying the left and center, seems like the move most predicated on primary scars.

In reasoning out the conflict that manifested in the form of the split between supporters of Ellison and Perez, Chang diminishes the “progressive vs. establishment” narrative that has been spun by various outside sources trying to fashion a frame of reference for their audiences, in favor of depicting the struggle as a power struggle. Barack Obama and others high up on the Democratic Party food chain were uneasy about giving Keith Ellison and his less-moderate supporters too much control. This is almost unquestionably related to the antagonistic attitude Ellison and his main man Bernie Sanders have taken against big-ticket donations and highly-paid consultants. The Democrats may view themselves as morally superior to their counterparts in the Republican Party, but on the subject of money, they are all but addicted to mega-bucks fundraisers and wealthy patrons much as the GOP is. Chang connects this resistance among the Democratic elite to grassroots organizing and fundraising to a similar battle fought over the simultaneous existence of the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots fundraising creation from his initial campaign. Ultimately, the DNC absorbed this separate organization, and as Chang highlights, critics of the move blame it in part for the string of losses the Dems have suffered since Obama was first sworn in. The Democratic Party seems expressly averse to a reliance on bottom-up change and small donations, and a separate resolution by those voting Committee members at the festivities in Atlanta against a ban on corporate donations to the DNC exhibits this attitude perfectly.

Glenn Greenwald, meanwhile, while he acknowledges the White House’s role in thwarting Keith Ellison’s hopes to be DNC chair, also sees a more reprehensible dimension to his opposition, and from additional parties as well. Ellison, as you may well know, is the first Muslim to serve as a member of Congress. In the past, all the way back to his days as a college student, he expressed support for the likes of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, before reversing his position on them and condemning their anti-Semitic positions. This personal history of Ellison’s, while it could be and was used as fodder against him politically, was not enough to disqualify him in the minds of DNC voting members. His attitudes on Israel, however, break with the mainstream bipartisan lip service that the United States government pays to our chief ally in the Middle East. At first glance, the combination looks bad. A Muslim—waxing philosophical about our relationship with Istael—oy vey! In all seriousness, though, and in reality, Ellison’s past commentary on U.S.-Israel relations is relatively benign, all things considered. By a sizable margin, Israel receives the most aid of any foreign nation from the U.S., mostly in the form of training and weaponry for use by the Israeli Defense Forces. Keith Ellison, like any number of other critics, is justified in wondering why we shower Israel with money when they aggressively pursue the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and disputed territory in East Jerusalem against the consensus within the international community. To this end, why do we kowtow to Israel at the expense of our relationship with much of the Arab and Muslim world?

As you might have guessed with respect to these questions and in general, where there’s money, there’s an answer. Keith Ellison, because he appears more amenable to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and because he is not more staunchly pro-Israel, is at odds with wealthy Jewish patrons who possess strong ties to the upper ranks of the Democratic Party. In particular, billionaire Haim Saban, the foremost donor to the Democratic Party and both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s campaigns, demonstrably labeled Ellison an anti-Semite and an anti-Israel individual, and the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization Greenwald slyly quips is ironically named in this instance, saw fit to chime in with their reservations about Ellison and his views on Israel. Their combined influence and lobbying translates to considerable power in Democratic Party circles, and since we know the Democrats can’t get enough of big, fat campaign contributions, they are inapt to risk such important sources of revenue. The result was character assassination at its finest of Keith Ellison leading up to the chair vote. Coming from members of a group that identifies itself as the “chosen people,” it would seem the Jews pulling the strings are quite choosy themselves.

Whether seeing the progressive challenger with rabid support on the left as something of a nuisance or an outright threat, as with attempts to deep-six Bernie Sanders’ chances to capture the presidential nomination for the Democrats by discrediting him or showing favoritism to Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate, the smear campaign against Keith Ellison by people and organizations close to the Democratic Party alongside the power play made by the Obama White House in the first place to prop up Tom Perez betrays an unwillingness to authentically embrace party members and supporters more to the left on the political spectrum, often coinciding with younger entrants into the field. What’s more, in all likelihood, both moves were patently unnecessary on the part of those scheming to influence the final result. Going back to the primary race and clear evidence of bias in favor of Clinton on the part of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Donna Brazile, and others involved with the Democratic National Committee, as revealed by Wikileaks’ DNC leaks, for all their machinations, Hillary was almost certainly going to capture the nomination. Sanders did provide a spirited challenge for the bid, but Clinton had the support of superdelegates before the race even began, not to mention entrenched, loyal support elsewhere. In the case of Ellison and Perez, meanwhile, the thing that is perplexing to many is the notion the DNC chair is, as Glenn Greenwald describes it, “a largely functionary position, with little real power over party policy or messaging.” As Clio Chang helps buttress this notion, the role of chair is designed to help win elections by increasing turnout and facilitating small-dollar donations, and Ellison is well-experienced in this regard. But apparently, his progressive base of support is neither allowed by the Democrats to have its cake, nor is it allowed to eat it. And, if we’re sticking with the whole birthday party analogy, they are being asked to clean up afterwards, not be petty, and unite. For the good of the party.

All this chicanery, it can be argued, is detrimental to the Democratic Party’s ability to strengthen its base, particularly among younger voters and independents. The DNC’s bias in favor of Hillary Clinton only fueled sentiments that the primaries were “rigged” against Bernie Sanders, serving to erode confidence in a Democratic vote that was already shaky to begin with given Clinton’s scandal-dotted past. Now, with Tom Perez capturing the post of DNC chair over Keith Ellison despite the latter’s enthusiastic following, this fuels the whispers among Sanders supporters that something truly iniquitous has occurred, and in turn, that the Dems don’t really want them at the adults’ table, so to speak. It certainly didn’t help perception matters when, as noted in the Jonathan Easley live blog, the electronic recording devices initially planned on being used to record the chair vote were scrapped in favor of a paper balloting system mid-stream under the pretense that the devices were vulnerable to manipulation and thus unreliable. Then why even have them there at the event in the first place? This just makes it appear as if there is something to hide, a notion not lost on the Ellison supporters in attendance.

Tom Perez may be well suited to serve in his current capacity as DNC chair, and almost certainly will end his tenure on a higher note than either Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Donna Brazile did. Keith Ellison, because he is loyal to the Democratic Party, will soldier on as deputy chair, lending his support serving in a role that is seemingly of even less consequence than the chair itself. Once more, the Democratic Party brass has evidenced it is resistant to change, unwilling to move away from a moderate position, and that it simply doesn’t understand the American electorate—or doesn’t want to. Conceived of in different terms, it is playing not to lose, hoping its distinctiveness from Donald Trump and the regressive politics of the Republican Party are enough to win it back seats all the way up the levels of government. As sports fans can attest to, however, playing not to lose rarely is a sound strategy, especially when you’re already losing. The Democrats haven’t learned anything from their recent electoral defeats, and as the old saw goes that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, their prospects for 2018 and 2020 already look bleak.

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