I recently wrote about the recent race for DNC Chair between Sanders-endorsed and CPC co-chair Keith Ellison on the one hand, and Obama- and Clinton-wing-endorsed Tom Perez on the other (see "Field Notes from the Battle Within the Democratic Party"), and concluded the following...
- There's also no question, whatever the organizational merits of any of the DNC Chair candidates, that for medium- to low-information voters this is seen as a proxy battle between the Obama-Clinton wing and the Sanders wing of the Party (search here for the phrase "proxy battle").
- And there's absolutely no question that one of Sanders' big issues in the primary was (a) the role of money in politics, and (b) the role of money in the way the Party does business. Needless to say, that message resonated with a great many supporters who had no interest in seeing the Party's current leadership continue. That was not only true for all Sanders voters in the primary; it was true for many Sanders supporters who failed to turn out in general election as well.
After all, don't you think that if every Sanders supporter had pulled the lever for Clinton, she'd have won in a landslide instead of lost in a squeaker?
- Which means, finally, that if Perez wins this contest, those medium- to low-information voters may well think the Party hasn't changed much after all, and just stay home again in 2018.
Whatever the merits of the two leading candidates, Perez and Ellison, with respect to this position, it could not be more obvious that the Party establishment, including and especially its outgoing, still-popular, eight-year president, really really wanted Perez to win.
Control, the Appearance of Control...
For whatever combination of reasons, the need of many long-time Party insiders, from the county level up through the national level, for control of the Party is extremely great. This may be in part due to the nature of humans to protect territory, especially long-held territory. The local clique that has always run Cub Pack 257 our of your local church, for example, may resent like hell the influx of a group of new parents who start thinking, "Why are you running things this way?"
(And imagine their irritation if those parents discovered that much of their Cub Pack money went into the hands of a "preferred supplier" of equipment who happened to be married to the Assistant Pack Leader?)
Of course, organizations don't always end up filled with insiders holding tight to power for its own sake. My local HOA, for example, went in two years from having a self-protective, angry, clique-led insider club to a welcoming, "let's hear from the owners" inclusive leadership group -- but only after a series of electoral coups took out the lower-level insiders and finally, the board chair himself (who suddenly discovered a need to move to a penthouse in a different city).
But it happens often enough, and it's certainly -- and for those with eyes, obviously -- happening inside the modern (post-Reagan) Democratic Party. There may be any number of causes, but the result is the same.
Control of the Party
However it came about -- I have a private opinion on the source of this need for dominance -- starting with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, when the Democratic Party reshaped itself in response to 12 years of Republican rule, hatred by establishment Democrats directed at those to their left grew fierce. It also became quite noticeable.
For example, Matthew Karp recently wrote at Jacobin:
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"Two stark facts have defined the 2016 Democratic primary since the campaign began last spring. The first is the remarkable success of self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders, who appears to be mobilizing far more support from lower-income voters than any other Democratic underdog in a generation.
"The second fact, evident since the beginning of the campaign but even more visible in recent weeks, is the fierce determination of the Democratic Party elite to nominate Hillary Clinton.
"With both Sanders and Donald Trump surging in the polls, many observers have framed the 2016 race as one that pits insurgent populist campaigns against consolidated party establishments. It's easy for this kind of insider versus outsider analysis to become sloppy and conspiratorial. In fact, the contours of 'the establishment' are often difficult to define, and a closer examination frequently reveals several different elite factions facing off against each other.
"Yet there is abundant evidence that the Democratic Party elite has thrown its full weight behind Clinton -- and against Sanders -- in ways that surpass any other primary campaign in recent history."
I won't comment here about the reasons for this animus, but I will state it as a fact. "Third way," establishment Democrats, by and large, hate "the left." Jesse Jackson and his supporters used to be the incarnation of those "to the left," which explains and accounts perfectly for Bill Clinton's cruel and public Sister Souljah moment. Today, Sanders and his supporters are the current incarnation. Establishment Democrats' need to keep control of the Party -- to keep the rest of the Party in line and under their thumb -- is still clearly one of their guiding principles.
"Top Clinton fundraiser who whipped votes for Perez says Ellison was blocked to stop the left." https://t.co/juxHQxjeoYpic.twitter.com/O8Kq2X6flK
-- David Sirota (@davidsirota) February 27, 2017
The Appearance of Control
Once a leadership elite seeks that degree of control -- as linked just above, Chuck Schumer reportedly preferred to see Republican Pat Toomey re-elected to the Senate than let someone as independent as Democrat Joe Sestak into the insider club he's in charge of -- the appearance of control is also critical. (It should be noted that Schumer was an early supporter of Ellison's candidacy.)
Much of the press commentary about this race, in attempting [to] minimize the split between the Sanders wing and the Obama-Clinton wing, saw either of the choices, Perez and Ellison, as good ones for the Party. For example, US News concluded prior to the voting, "Ellison would likely serve the party well, and his Muslim faith would serve as clear symbolic counterpoint to the policies of the Trump administration. However, the party should resist the factionalizing between Sanders and Clinton supporters and focus on the candidate who can build the infrastructure, organization, messaging and fundraising networks to make the party more competitive across the 50 states." Nathan Robinson writes much the same in the piece linked near the end. Neither is alone in this view.
So if these two candidates were presented as roughly equivalent (note the word "presented"), why did winning DNC Chair matter so much that Barack Obama, personally, whipped for Perez? Two of the three answers are obvious -- not only did control of the DNC matter to him and his fellow insiders, but the appearance of control matters as well.
Put crudely, a machine boss can't be seen to lose, even when next to nothing is actually lost. To those for whom power matters very very much, they can't even seem to be losing it.
Which bring us to the final point, the third reason Obama-insiders wanted Perez to beat Ellison for this position. It's not just about control. There are real dollars at stake if power within the DNC, the smaller than 500-member insiders club, passes into the "wrong hands."
Remember my Cub Scout example above, the one about the "preferred supplier" of equipment being the spouse of a pack leader? What if that "preferred supplier" derived all of his income from dealings with the scouts? How motivated would his pack leader-spouse be to keep complaining parents, all of them, off of her pack committee? The answer is obvious. Very motivated.
Nomiki Konst, investigative reporter for TYT Network, who covered the DNC Chair contest closely (see also here), had this to say via email after the election (my emphasis):
"I keep saying to any reporters who plan on writing about Bernie vs Hillary/Obama Wing proxy fight that this was actually a proxy battle between Unity democrats vs. HRC & OFA elitists.
"Keith had so many establishment Dems and progressives. Unions and even most state party chairs.
"Perez still won because he had elitists Dems -- the biggest bundlers and political operatives, as well as the president and VP, working on his behalf.
"Remember, Perez had barely any union endorsements, a couple state Party Chair endorsements, did not have the minority leader of the senate and absolutely NO Sanders supporter endorsements.
"And he still won by 35 votes."
"The biggest bundlers and political operatives" means, first, the bag men and women ("bundlers," collectors of the millions that come into Party hands) and, second, those to whom that money goes ("operatives," consultants, pollsters, campaign advisers and very well paid media buyers). "Bundlers and operatives" are, in other words, the suppliers and recipients of what, in a presidential election year, amounts to billions of dollars spent per candidate, and all the political favors big money purchases for its ultimate sources.
Konst highlighted that problem in a striking interview with Perez just a few days before the election (written up here):
"Konst: Aren't conflicts of interest a concern? If you're going to change the culture on the ground, how do you change it without banning these conflicts of interest who want to keep the party bloated?
"Perez: When you say that someone wants to keep the party bloated, I don't know. The people that I talk to want to build a Democratic Party that works for everyone. ... The folks that are running the Unity Commission, there's going to be a lot of different perspectives that are put to bear -- that's what we want!
"Konst (incredulous): Including consultants?
"Perez: We have a big tent in the Democratic Party...."
Keeping the party "bloated" means keeping corporate money, hedge fund money and cash from very high wealth individuals (example, Haim Saban) flowing freely into Party hands so it can just as freely pass out to the hands of its friends -- who in turn help Party insiders stay in power.
Few will write the story this way -- Konst is one of the exceptions -- but following the "flow of funds" explains much of what's behind the fierce determination of Democratic insiders (that is, the 447 women and men who actually vote for DNC Chair) to keep things just as Nancy Pelosi wants -- the way they are right now, thank you very much.
The miracle is that Ellison got even 200 votes at all, and lost by only 35. Still, despite the support of "unions and most state party chairs," he lost by a significant margin. Ellison gained zero votes from the crowded first round of voting to the two-person second round, while Perez sprinted to a win.
What's Next for Democrats?
What's next for Democrats deserves an essay by itself. But needless to say, an increase in #DemExit is one of the anticipated options, even by several of the delegates Konst interview on the floor at the DNC meeting.
A worst-case scenario is painted below. First, consider this from NBC News on whether the public views insiders of either party favorably, (my emphasis): "One sentiment that unites the fractured nation is fury at the establishment in Washington. Fully 86 percent of those surveyed said they believe that a small group in D.C. has "reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. That includes 88 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats."
Then consider how that broad unpopularity of insiders may intersect with this DNC election. Of that, Nathan Robinson, editor at Current Affairs, writes, "By failing to appoint Keith Ellison to chair the DNC, Democrats have written their suicide note."
Here's just a taste of the longer piece:
"They Must Be Trying to Fail
"At this point, one has to conclude that the national Democratic Party has a death wish. ...
"[I]t was incredibly important that the Democratic Party take some steps to indicate that it cared about progressives. Since the election, it hadn't been doing a very good job of this. (Nancy Pelosi's insistence that nothing needed to change, and her rebuke to a young leftist, demonstrated the prevailing attitude.) Appointing Keith Ellison to chair the DNC was the perfect opportunity. After all, chairing the DNC is a pretty minor role. It would mostly have been a gesture of friendship and unity, showing that even after the catastrophic mistake of ignoring leftist warnings not to run Clinton, the party was capable of valuing its leftmost members.
"But no. Instead of granting the tiniest possible concession, the party has decided to affirm precisely what Nancy Pelosi has indicated: democratic socialists and social democrats don't belong in the party. It's not for them. What the party does depends on what billionaire donors want it to do.
"This is politically suicidal."
As if that wasn't enough, Robinson adds, "Now, progressives in the party are further alienated. Good luck getting them to vote for Democrats. ... The progressives needed to receive some kind of gesture. And they have received one: an enormous middle finger." Indeed.
Your Bottom Line
Consider these facts:
1. It clearly mattered very much, to Obama, to high Party insiders, and to the support ecosystem around them, that no one representing the Sanders camp be allowed real power in the Party. (Sanders himself is in charge of "outreach" and reports in that capacity to Chuck Schumer.) Even when the role is highly visible but "minor." The DNC Chair does have a modicum of control, unlike those who hold "messaging" roles, but even that much control won't be allowed.
2. Yet all you hear from Democrats, correctly in my view, is "Defeating Trump is Job One." The nation, indeed the world, is at a crossroads -- on the climate front, a crossroads of world-historical proportions.
3. Yet there's an obvious disconnect between the Party's rhetoric and its actions. Is control of the Party more important than bringing in the groundswell of popular support needed to defeat the Republicans in all branches of government?
4. And people do notice that disconnect, more now than before. Some might even call it, not a disconnect, but a contradiction. Or hypocrisy. Some, those who couldn't pull the lever for Clinton, may even call it that at election time.
5. If so -- if the insider-controlled Democratic Party puts its own need for party dominance over the needs of the nation -- the nation and indeed the world will suffer greatly. Will insider Democrats suffer to the same degree as the rest of us? If they think they're getting what they want, no.
So a question for those who gaze into the future. None of this dire predicting is certain, but it's certainly possible. Will there be a price, for the Party and the world, attached to adherence to power at any price? If there is, establishment Democrats sure are flirting with it.