Election 2016

Robert Reich: How the Democratic Party Can Win Back Its Soul

"To tell you the truth, I haven’t cared. And that’s part of the problem," says Reich on DNC leadership.

Photo Credit: HarvardEthics / Flickr

Who will become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee? This leadership contest has significant implications for the future of American politics. The choice will help determine how the Democratic party responds to its extraordinary defeats in recent years, ending with the election of Donald Trump. 

You might think this overwhelming drubbing would cause the Democratic party to reorganize itself into a very different party from the one it’s become – which is essentially a giant fundraising machine, too often reflecting the goals and values of the moneyed interests that make up the bulk of its funding. 

Don’t bet on it.

For one thing, many vested interests don’t want the Democratic party to change. Most of the money it raises ends up in the pockets of political consultants, pollsters, strategists, lawyers, advertising consultants and advertisers themselves, many of whom have become rich off the current arrangement. They naturally want to keep it.

For another, the Democratic party apparatus is ingrown and entrenched. Like any old bureaucracy, it only knows how to do what it has done for years. Its state and quadrennial national conventions are opportunities for insiders to meet old friends and for aspiring politicians to make contacts among the rich and powerful. Insiders and the rich aren’t going to happily relinquish their power and perquisites, and hand them to outsiders and the non-rich. 

Most Americans who call themselves Democrats never hear from the Democratic party except when it asks for money, typically through mass mailings and recorded telephone calls in the months leading up to an election. The vast majority of Democrats don’t know the name of the chair of the Democratic National Committee or of their state committee. Almost no registered Democrats have any idea how to go about electing their state Democratic chair or vice-chair, and, hence, almost none have any influence over whom the next chair of the Democratic National Committee may be. 

I have been a Democrat for 50 years – I have even served in two Democratic administrations in Washington, including a stint in the cabinet and have run for the Democratic nomination for governor in one state – yet I have never voted for the chair or vice-chair of my state Democratic party. That means I, too, have had absolutely no say over who the chair of the Democratic National Committee will be. To tell you the truth, I haven’t cared. And that’s part of the problem. 

Nor, for that matter, has Barack Obama cared. He basically ignored the Democratic National Committee during his presidency, starting his own organization called Organizing for America. It was originally intended to marshal grass-roots support for the major initiatives he sought to achieve during his presidency, but morphed into a fund-raising machine of its own.

Finally, the party chairmanship has become a part-time sinecure for politicians on their way up or down, not a full-time position for a professional organizer. In 2011, Tim Kaine (who subsequently became Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 election) left the chairmanship to run, successfully, for the Senate from Virginia. 

The chair then went to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida congresswoman who had co-chaired Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. This generated allegations in the 2016 race that the Democratic National Committee was siding with Clinton against Bernie Sanders – allegations substantiated by leaks of emails from the DNC.

So what we now have is a Democratic party that has been repudiated at the polls, headed by a Democratic National Committee that has become irrelevant at best, run part-time by a series of insider politicians. It has no deep or broad-based grass-roots, no capacity for mobilizing vast numbers of people to take any action other than donate money, no visibility between elections, no ongoing activism. 

If it is to be relevant to the future, the Democratic party must be capable of organizing and mobilizing Americans in opposition to Donald Trump’s Republican party – turning millions of people into an activist army to peacefully resist what is about to happen by providing them with daily explanations of what is occurring in Trump’s administration, along with tasks that individuals and groups can do to stop or mitigate their harmful effects.

It must harness the energies and idealism of young people across the nation who were drawn to Bernie Sanders’s campaign because of its promise to get big money out of politics; reverse widening inequality; turn the nation’s wildly expensive and baroque healthcare complex into a single-payer system; reverse climate change; end the militarization of our police and the mass incarceration of our people and stop interminable and open-ended warfare. 

And it must create a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of working-class, middle-class, and poor white and black Americans and Latinos determined to wrest control of the economy back from an oligarchy of Wall Street moguls, corporate titans and billionaires who have used it for their own gain – starting with the president-elect. 

That means helping working-class white people understand they’ve been conned by Trump into believing he’s a populist, and that their economic insecurities are due to a rigged game rather than to immigrants, black people, Latinos and Muslims.

In other words, to become a credible force that wins elections and addresses what ails America, the Democratic party must no longer represent America’s ruling class. It must be the voice of the dispossessed – now the majority of Americans. 

The Democratic party will choose its new chair soon after the start of the year. So far the contestants include Howard Dean, a former DNC chair, Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, Naral Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and South Carolina Democratic party chair Jaime Harrison.

Between now and then, there will be a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle among the handful of contenders. I don’t know who will win, but I do know this: the party must transform itself from a fund-raising machine into a movement. That will be difficult, but not impossible. The times demand it. If the Democratic party fails in this mission, it will be supplanted by another organization capable of doing so.

Robert B. Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. His latest book is "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few." His website is www.robertreich.org.

 

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