By Andy Hatem
If Facebook and Oculus Rift have their way, it won’t be long before virtual reality is a widespread amenity. With nothing more than a headset, it’ll let us journey to the past at the flick of a switch. Until then, watching last Saturday’s DNC elections may be the next best thing.
The race for DNC chair, a tight contest between Tom Perez, Keith Ellison, and a cast of supporting actors was, in some respects, a blast from the past. While the candidates themselves did their best to project unity, the contest saw no shortage of the off-the-record sniping that plagues any party, and some of the antics that inspired Will Rogers to quip “I belong to no organized party; I am a Democrat.” More significantly, it was largely waged outside the public eye. Though the DNC held four regional forums and a pair of debates, while the media gave us an endless stream of punditry, bickering over whip counts, and messages from activists, there’s every indication the chairmanship was won in Washington’s “smoke-filled rooms.”
To understand why, consider the Republican Party before William McKinley’s 1896 campaign. Until that year, the Republican nomination process was controlled by an informal alliance known as the Combine. At the start of every presidential race, the Combine’s leaders, Thomas Platt and Matthew Quay, recruited a slate of “favorite son” candidates – usually governors or senators popular in their home states. These candidates didn’t expect to be nominated; their task was simply to lock down their states’ delegations and deny serious contenders a majority. This done, the Combine men became kingmakers. They could throw their support to a friendly candidate, and receive control of thousands of government jobs in return. The Republican nomination, in short, was settled not by voters but through backroom deals.
The parallels between the pre-1896 GOP and the DNC race aren’t hard to see. With Keith Ellison in the race, endorsed by a bevy of Democratic leaders, and Obama ally Tom Perez a likely entrant, did Jaime Harrison really expect to prevail? Did Ray Buckley? Their actions suggest otherwise; both withdrew before the DNC met in Atlanta, endorsing Perez and Ellison, respectively. Like the favorite sons of the past, Harrison and Buckley each amassed a small following, corralling most of the South Carolina and New Hampshire delegations, respectively, then threw their support to a leading contender for the chairmanship. The Democratic Party isn’t controlled by a shadowy Combine, but the tradition of favorite sons is alive and well. Now, if the past is any indication, South Carolina will have the DNC’s attention while Harrison chairs the state party. New Hampshire won’t be ignored, of course; its voters have sent four Democrats to Washington over the past three years, and 2018 promises several competitive elections. Still, it’s striking that in the 21st century our party’s elections are reminiscent of the 19th.
That said, much has changed since the heyday of machine politics. One change was procedural; the reforms that followed the 1968 election, when Hubert Humphrey was nominated without winning a single primary, placed presidential nominations squarely in the hands of the voters. Others were more substantial; in our lifetimes, we’ve seen the first African-American president win two nationwide majorities, and now the Democratic Party will be led by a son of Dominican migrants and his deputy is a proud Muslim. Diversity alone can’t win elections, but it’s a sign that the highest offices in the land are open to millions whose backgrounds would’ve been toxic in the not-so-distant past. These changes have come at a cost – the likes of Strom Thurmond left the party in response, and moderate white Democrats have all but vanished from the South – but they’ve put our party firmly on the right side of history, and Tom Perez’s election was another step in that journey.
Now, it’s up to Perez and Ellison – newly elected as deputy chair – to unite progressives and moderates, and lead the party to a banner year in the 2018 midterms. This will take more than knee-jerk opposition to Donald Trump; in many swing districts, including a dozen held by Democrats, he won more votes than Hillary Clinton. Retaking the House means regaining lost ground in Rust Belt, but our party also needs to win well-educated suburban districts, where partisan posturing is deeply unpopular. Abject surrender to the Trump agenda isn’t a viable choice, but neither are the tactics Republicans adopted against President Obama; while Republicans maintain that government doesn’t work, the Democratic Party is united by a belief that it does, so gridlock for its own sake won’t help Democrats as it helped Republicans in the Obama era. Dysfunction can’t energize our base, win back Trump Democrats, and sway educated voters. The question is, what will?
A series of interviews conducted by Diane Hessan, who chairs the marketing firm C Space, may hold the answer – or at least the beginnings of one. Her work suggests many Trump supporters feel unwelcome in the Democratic Party, and see the programs we champion as a giveaway to “others.” If that’s the case, the difference between Tom Perez and Keith Ellison may be immaterial to swing voters; neither of them is Hillary Clinton, who promised to fight for women and minorities, while labeling Trump’s largely white supporters a “basket of deplorables.” It’s hard to win working-class whites’ votes by promising reform in one breath, and name-checking every demographic groups save their own in the next. Clinton’s policies made her by far the best choice last November, but as her messaging blunders made that a moot point.
The Democratic Party can’t – and shouldn’t – abandon its fight for racial and gender justice. Our party needs a big tent, but there are limits. Voters like Scott Sievwright, who believes LGBT people should “stay in the closet,” aren’t persuadable while we stick to our core values. Those like George, a Pennsylvanian worried that “everyone is being taken care of but me,” may well be. The challenge is to show George, and millions like him, that Democratic policies which help the urban poor and suburban professionals can also serve the interests of the urban poor. Our new DNC chair hasn’t labeled George a racist or a misogynist, though it’s undeniable some Trump supporters fit the bill. That’s a start. But we need to do more.
The plight of an unemployed welder in Scranton isn’t too different from that of an underpaid barber in San Diego or a teacher struggling to get by in Selma. All are victims of a larger trend: the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 0.1%, at levels we haven’t seen since the 1920s. Laissez-faire policies helped the rich then; automation and unfair tax laws favor them now. Both led a system that produces a handful of winners, and widespread anxiety among those who fall behind. The losers of 21st-century economics, it’s safe to say, don’t particularly care if Russia annexes Crimea or Kellyanne Conway hawks Trump products on Fox. They want a raise, and a path to the middle class. College-educated professionals face a brighter outlook, but many are struggling with student loans, or worry their children won’t have the same opportunities. Since the Great Recession, economic anxiety has risen across the board – among the working class who fear they’ll remain stuck in place, the middle class who worry about joining them, and even the affluent who see the super-rich leaving them behind. This anxiety has persisted, even as the economy’s improved, and it’s driven the middle class and the working class to vote against each other’s interests, vying for a larger piece of what seems like a shrinking pie.
The Democratic Party’s agenda could use tweaks here or there, but by and large it’ll ensure prosperity and security for every American. Ensuring that every American, rich or poor, has a path to college and a stable career would go a long way towards alleviating our national anxiety. Progressive taxation and a strong safety net will make the 99% better off. This will keep poverty from becoming a lifelong trap, so it’ll be a plight best avoided, but not feared as it is now. The working class will support this goal, because it offers them a better life. The middle class should favor it as well, because it promises a security they haven’t enjoyed for years. Hillary Clinton’s platform was good for the country, and Bernie Sanders’ platform was good for the country, though each emphasized different policies, and catered to different elements of our arty. There’s less daylight between Tom Perez’s positions and Keith Ellison’s views than there was between Clinton and Sanders; both have defended workers for much of their political careers, and their ascendance is a sign that our party’s moving left. Still, if we want voters to heed our message, we need their attention first. That means more talk of helping all Americans, and less condemnation of the white working class. Democratic policies hold the answers to our country’s most pressing questions. Our mission now is to make sure voters know it.