The Democracy Prospect: Democratic Party Rifts Go Public

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Democratic National Committee chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks before a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, November 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. 

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Until now, ideological clashes between grassroots activists and national party leaders have largely played out on GOP territory. But Democrats, too, are weathering disputes between rank-and-file organizers and national party leaders, and these have started breaking out more publicly in recent days.

Progressive anger at their party’s establishment, and particularly at Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, found a concrete outlet this week in the persona of Tim Canova. A liberal economist and champion of Wall Street reforms, Canova announced a primary challenge to Wasserman Schultz in Florida’s 23rd Congressional District.

In an interview with the Prospect’s Justin Miller, Canova accused Wasserman Schultz of becoming a “corporate Democrat,” and declared: “That kind of unaccountable power needs to be challenged.” (Canova has previously written for the Prospect.)

Some of what ails Democrats is personal to Wasserman Schultz. As David Dayen noted in The New Republic, the DNC chair has stirred up liberal outrage on several fronts, including her strangely curtailed Democratic debate schedule and her clashes with the Bernie Sanders campaign. After a Sanders aide improperly accessed voter data gathered by Hillary Clinton, the DNC suspended the Sanders team’s access to key databases—prompting a Sanders lawsuit. That’s been dropped and the dispute is ostensibly settled—but the bad feelings linger.

Still, much of what’s dividing Democrats goes beyond Wasserman Schultz and taps the same populist strains that are splitting the GOP. Voters in both parties are complaining loudly over unchecked corporate power and unaccountable political leaders. It’s not helping Clinton, whose once-substantial lead over Sanders in the polls has been shrinking in recent days, both nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The rifts dividing Republicans remain more dramatic, deeper, and potentially more damaging in the long run. But as David Brooks noted in The New York Times this week, millennials are much more skeptical of institutional entities, from marriage to organized religion, than middle-aged and older voters. Millennials are also ideologically hard to pin down, and that appears to be part of what’s hurting Clinton. One Fox News poll showed that Clinton enjoyed a 14-point lead over Sanders in Iowa last month, but that Sanders was trouncing Clinton by 56 to 34 percent among likely caucus goers younger than 45.

Hard Labor

Labor unions have long been one of the Democratic Party’s strongest allies, but the movement may soon meet its toughest political test. The Supreme Court’s recent oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association prompted broad speculation that the high court may be poised to take direct aim at collective bargaining, the heart of unions’ organizational power.

As Harold Meyerson wrote for the Prospect, a win for the plaintiffs in Friedrichs would reverse decades-long Supreme Court precedent. At issue is whether workers covered by union contracts must pay dues even when they decline membership. The last time the high court considered this question, in a case known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the justices agreed without dissent that fees for non-members are constitutional.

A ruling to diminish public sector unions’ membership and budget “would effectively tilt elections toward the Republicans,” argues Meyerson. He’s not the only one who thinks so. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank called the oral arguments in Friedrichs “at times as partisan as a debate on the House floor,” and warned that a ruling against the unions is “virtually certain to be another step toward American oligarchy.”

A loss for unions would be a loss for democracy, argued Richard D. Kahlenberg in a Times op-ed. Unions, he noted, have long been critical to the “thriving civic associations that keep American democracy vitalized” that were so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville, whom conservatives love to quote. Teachers unions champion the nation’s schools, bolstering democracy and civic life. Unions, Kahlenberg concluded, are clinging to “a thin hope that one of the conservative justices will resist partisan pressure to tilt the political playing field against Democrats.”

State of Disappointment

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address prompted much commentary on his failed record as a champion of change, and whether there’s any hope that the White House may still take meaningful action to build “a better politics” for the nation. Campaign-finance reform advocates have not given up hope that the president may still sign an executive order that would require federal contractors to more fully disclose their political activities.

My own take is that Obama is unlikely to act decisively at this late stage on an issue that would yet again antagonize Republicans, and that would likely draw an immediate court challenge. As I’ve argued before, Obama’s sweeping reform agenda, which tantalized voters in 2008 with the promise that he would change politics as usual, did nothing but backfire. Obama punted on multiple fronts, from public financing to transparency to super PACs to strengthening the Federal Election Commission and holding the Internal Revenue Service accountable.

Obama, of course, is not entirely to blame. Blocked at every turn by Republicans on Capitol Hill, Obama chose to expend his limited political capital in other areas, including his ambitious health-care overhaul. As others have noted, the dysfunction and partisanship that hampered Obama had been building for years. And fixing what’s broken in American politics will demand difficult changes on multiple fronts.

Obama’s pledge to travel the country promoting redistricting reforms, campaign-finance limits and improvements in voting will not salvage his democracy agenda. But it signals that he has heard the complaints of fed-up voters, and that he shares them. As he suggested in his final State of the Union speech, it will ultimately be up to voters to press for fixes. The costly, ugly 2016 election now under way can be expected to push angry voters just that much closer to demanding action—not from this president, but from the next one.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Debbie Wasserman Schultz faced a challenger for DNC chair. In fact, she faces a challenger for her House seat. 

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