The DNC Election, and the Big Tent

Dems fear divisions will persist after DNC chair election

With Tom Perez’s narrow, second-ballot victory over progressive rival Keith Ellison for the chair of the Democratic National Committee this week, many on the left and center of American politics are revisiting last year’s primary win by Hillary Clinton over Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders.  The same hostility between certain factions of leftist and centrist politics in the United States is being repeated and expressed in similar terms as the continuing armchair quarterbacking of last year’s election.  This hostility means one thing only: a victory for the other side, for the Republicans under the guidance of Donald Trump, who want to destroy unions, fire workers, concentrate wealth, allow small businesses to be swallowed up by large corporations, and pursue an agenda of hatred and divisiveness not seen in this country since before the 1960s.

The United States is not a parliamentary democracy, but a presidential one; and while political parties are never mentioned in the Constitution, the methodologies devised for selecting national leaders, presidential and congressional, promote the existence of two large parties.  In some ways, some of the framers of the Constitution imagined not two but several or numerous “factions” (political parties); but this vision was intended to place the decision of the president’s election in the hands of the House of Representatives, rather than in the hands of the popular electorate.  And with the House controlled by a majority, that majority would be expected (the original framers imagined further) to elect a president friendly to that majority – the largest “faction,” or political party.

But the transformation of presidential elections into a popular vote at each state level, and the states’ collation into the Electoral College, puts power squarely into the hands of any political party that establishes itself as a “big tent,” as opposed to the multitude of smaller, competing parties found in modern European parliamentary democracies.  And ultimately, the only way to combat a “big tent” party is to form an opposing “big tent.” Hence the perpetuation of the domination of American politics by two parties.

Republicans and Democrats both, in order to win and to compete with each other, and especially in order specifically to get presidents elected, must be “big tents” that bring in a multitude of often disparate and competing interests.  These interests create a constant push and pull within both parties.  Both parties find themselves torn between, on the one hand, internal struggles for the helm of the “big tent,” and for the opportunity to set priorities for the rest of the occupants of the tent; and on the other hand, the external struggle with the other party and for those voters whose interests put them in the middle or are attracted by different positions to both parties simultaneously.

The Democratic Party’s “big tent” includes many gun-owners (roughly a third of self-identifying Democrats, according to a 2006 Gallup poll); the party includes religious conservatives who are opposed to abortion; the party includes fiscal conservatives unconvinced about the need to spend taxes on social supports.  A traditional demographic of the party during twentieth century was union voters; and these voters are hardly progressive in any real sense, often (even if quietly, and while denying that they do) expressing racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and other “traditional values.”  Many of these “traditional Democrats” voted for Trump and other Republican candidates last year, and many of them had, as former Democrats, voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.  The Democratic Party is losing elections ever more as it becomes less of a big tent, losing moderates and conservatives who have until now been suspicious of the Republicans to those very same Republicans.

During last year’s election, and again during this year’s battle for the DNC chair, the “Big Tent” saw continued struggles for partisan identity between those conservatives remaining (many frightened of the openly antidemocratic  – small “d” – promises and actions of the Trump Republicans), with the moderates and progressives wanting to push the right-centrist Democratic Party of the Obama era more to the left.  The struggle between Bernie and Hillary was one between those more hopeful of the Democratic Socialist vision, and others finding enough promise and realism for positive reform and governance from Hillary’s urge for the tent to be “Stronger Together.”  It was also a struggle between those who managed to buy from Republican detractors the message that Bernie’s promise was substantially contrary to that of Hillary’s, and those who had already followed both politicians long enough to know that there was in fact little sunlight between them – particularly when looking at their mutual voting records, in which they voted together roughly 97% of the time.  The battle for the primary ended with a newly energized Bernie “revolution,” shocked that a candidate almost identical to their own and who then embraced their very platform, had defeated their seemingly unconquerable hero – a hero who was losing the fight for the party’s popular vote long before the issue of superdelegates seemed to throw party contrivance and conspiracy into the light as the “reason” why Bernie lost.

In three key states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – Green Party candidate Jill Stein captured key progressive votes.  In each of these states, progressives tossed their votes out on Stein as a protest of the Hillary campaign’s win in the primary, angrily rejecting both their own platform (embraced by both the DNC and by Hillary Clinton’s campaign specifically) and their former candidate, Bernie (who also endorsed Hillary and spent the general campaign fighting for her election).  Stein votes in each of these three states were greater than the Trump campaign’s minuscule margin of victory over Hillary.  Had these progressives voted for the candidate who had embraced their very platform, and who was endorsed by their previous candidate, Clinton would have won those states, and the general election as well – and we would today be having an existentially different conversation about American politics than the one we are having now.

The battle for the DNC has dug up all of the hostilities from last year’s battles, as progressives fought for Rep. Keith Ellison (MN5-D) to be the new chair.  Ellison promised a progressive reshaping of the Democratic Party, attracting the praise of Bernie Sanders and his “revolutionaries” of last year.  And that promise resonated with enough of the ranking members of the DNC (the people who get to vote for chair and vice-chairs, elections closed to the general voters of the Democratic Party) that it took two votes for the chair to be decided.  Tom Perez, the Latino Secretary of Labor under President Obama, was also able to form a large base of diverse Democrats, by urging greater activism among the youth and for social and racial justice; moving donation drives to small-money donors rather than large, corporate-friendly donors; working more with state parties to  develop a 50-states strategy; forming a permanent organizing campaign; and other DNC means of supporting local and state parties’ fights for the upcoming elections of the next two years.  This powerful program, hardly an embrace of party conservatism, won over the admittedly moderate heads of the DNC, an election that nonetheless felt to many “revolutionaries” as another spit in the face by a party that they see as being insufficiently progressive and insufficiently “Democratic.”  Mutterings that, “Democrats are going to keep losing elections,” were heard across the social media as progressives felt shut out and rejected.

Those expressing such mutterings chose to ignore, or to see as a token attempt to sweeten the defeat of progressives, the election of Ellison to the Deputy Chair position.  This slate gives the highest powers of the DNC to a Latino and to a black Muslim, an indicator of the ethnic diversity around which the Democratic Party hopes to rally its forces.  Yet however much a token that Ellison’s deputy chair position seems to appear to progressives, the fact remains that the DNC has inherited from the campaigns of last year an agenda comprised of unimpeachably progressive values and goals.  Furthermore, the DNC is ultimately not a grassroots organizing agency or an ideological demagogue; but instead is a means of supporting the state Democratic parties and is a strategic planner for national resources utilization.  Individual state parties, and their committees, candidates, and elected leaders, will determine how progressive (or not) the Democrats are going into this year’s local elections and next year’s state and congressional elections.  Progressives should be encouraged by the power emanating from such mechanisms as the Indivisible movement, the Women’s March movement (which continues to organize and conduct protests, rallies, and other events), and other grassroots forces.  These forces can, if they do not give up their power, drive the state Democratic parties to retain their new-found progressivism, and put progressive issues and positions on the ballots and into public debates this year and next.  The DNC’s seemingly progressive agenda suggests that, although the DNC will also probably protect those conservative Democrats fighting to keep their seats in the many states that went for Trump, the DNC will likely empower the progressives and moderates in some local and state campaigns.

Headline image, of Rep. Keith Ellison, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, posted in The Hill, 2/24/27.

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