The Democratic Party Gets Up Off the Mat

AP Photo/Branden Camp

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is a candidate to run the Democratic National Committee, before speaking during the general session of the DNC winter meeting in Atlanta, Saturday, Febuary 25, 2017. 

As soon as Tom Perez beat out Keith Ellison to become the next chair of the Democratic Party, the grumbling began, in press releases and Facebook posts and tweets. Instead of a real progressive whose heart beats to the thumping rhythm of grassroots organizers marching purposefully down the street to win over their fellow citizens, Democrats chose another establishment stooge, just showing how out of touch these captives of big business are! This party doesn't deserve the support of true progressives!

Give me a break.

That the race between Perez and Ellison turned in some quarters into a depressing rerun of the 2016 primary campaign was perhaps inevitable, even if neither Perez nor Ellison saw it that way. But there are some people for whom taking affront is their preferred mode of political engagement, who wouldn't know who they were if they weren't shaking their fists at a corrupt establishment. To those people, I say: You might want to do some thinking about what the Democratic Party is, and isn't.

For the record, I was firmly in the "either one of these candidates will be fine" camp. Ellison is a smart and talented congressman who would have made an excellent party chair, and if he decides to make his new position as deputy chair (which Perez nominated him for immediately after he won) into something real and not just a title, he could make a great contribution to the revival of the Democrats.

But the idea that Tom Perez is an establishment stooge is laughable. He rebuilt the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division after the horror of the Bush years, turning it into an aggressive advocate for the rights of all Americans. He was one of the most pro-worker labor secretaries we've ever had. And people who have worked with him positively gush over his skills as a manager and leader.

Not only that, Perez, Ellison, and pretty much everyone else agree on what Democrats need to do right now. They need to rebuild the party at the state and local level, spreading their message everywhere and becoming competitive in districts they've been ignoring. They need to be unbending in their opposition to what Donald Trump and the Republican Congress are trying to do. They need to focus on registering voters and fighting voter suppression efforts. In short, they need to construct the foundation on which future electoral victories will be built.

Nevertheless, there are some people who appear angry that the Democratic Party is not the ferry boat that will carry us across the poisonous River of Accommodation to the socialist utopia that awaits on the other side. Which is true. It's a liberal party, not a radical leftist one. But it has also moved significantly to the left in the last few years, on a whole range of issues.

It's also, interestingly enough, an entity that millions of progressive Americans angry and fearful over Trump are suddenly seeing as a perfectly appropriate vehicle for their newfound activism. As Ryan Grim and Amanda Terkel reported last week, local Democratic Party organizations have been inundated with people wanting to volunteer and get active. Organizing meetings that used to be attended by only a few aging stalwarts are now brimming with eager participants, including lots of young people. "The overflowing crowds have sent stunned party regulars scrambling to find new venues, while the surge in interest, and the coinciding fundraising boost, is enabling local chapters to hire staff and build infrastructure in previously unthinkable ways."

And it's already getting results. On Saturday, a special election for a Delaware state Senate seat—with control of the chamber at stake—drew an incredible outpouring of activity in support of Stephanie Hansen, the Democratic candidate. "More than 1,000 volunteers worked [for Hansen] during the course of the campaign, and about 500―many from nearby states―showed up Saturday for Election Day," according to a report from Paul Blumenthal. That's a grassroots mobilization many U.S. Senate candidates would envy; for a special election most people had no idea was happening for a state office in tiny Delaware, it's positively unreal.

Does that mean all those people are establishment sellouts? Of course not. It means, among other things, that right now they believe that defeating Republicans at the polls—which means helping Democrats get elected—is a priority, perhaps even one so urgent that arguments over ideological distinctions are going to have to wait for another day. To take another example, the thousands of people turning out to town meetings to press their members of Congress not to repeal the Affordable Care Act aren't debating how much of a betrayal it was for the ACA not to include a public option. They're trying to stop a catastrophe in the making.

That isn't to say that anyone on the left shouldn't try to make the Democratic Party more to their liking, in both ideological and organizational terms. Today's party is different from what it was ten years ago (in ways both good and bad), and it will be different ten years from now; every Democrat has an interest in determining how. But maybe there are more important things to worry about than whether someone you recently decided was the perfect candidate became the party's chair.

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