So the piece I wrote yesterday got a lot of attention, and a lot of positive feedback, for which I’m grateful. When I stray beyond foreign policy and world affairs I’m the first to admit that I’m out of my comfort zone, and I certainly didn’t intend that post to be anything more than a collection of thoughts loosely organized around a particular theme. But some of the reaction I got on Twitter was about the Democratic Party’s policies–aren’t those policies intended to be good for workers? Isn’t the Democratic Party manifestly better on economic issues for anybody outside the top 1% than the Republican Party?
My answer to this is two-fold. First, the fact is that “better than the Republicans” is a low bar, and the Democrats only barely clear it in a lot of cases. “Free” trade, as it’s been fetishized in Washington by the establishments in both parties, hurts people all over the country, and the usual Democratic solution, throwing money at “training” that demonstrably doesn’t help, is arguably worse than doing nothing at all. Obamacare, while a necessary first step compared to what came before, was a grotesque compromise of basic principles that is hurting people all over the country. That compromise was unavoidable given the political constraints that existed in 2010, but the Democratic Party should be talking loudly and often about how much more work needs to be done, and how obstructionist Republicans are blocking any improvements. So no, the policies need work.
Obamacare actually leads me to the second part of my answer, which is that it’s not all about policies. The Democratic Party can have the greatest, most just, most sensible policy platform ever conceived, but we’ve learned over the last several elections that when your default campaign strategy is simply to point at your Republican opponent and say “man, can you believe this guy?” people are going to stop paying attention. It’s not enough to be against things, and it’s not enough to throw a collection of policy ideas up on a website and direct people to it when they have questions. Your political movement, your party, has to stand for something, it has to have a story to tell. And no, that story can’t be “look at how experienced I am,” particularly not in a cycle when many voters are clearly not interested in experience. You have to have some basic principles–and sure, maybe we won’t all agree on how to achieve those principles, which is fine, but we should all be able to agree on what the principles are, shouldn’t we? It seems to work for the other folks.
“Black lives matter,” that’s a principle. “LGBTQ people should have the same rights and protections as the rest of us” is a principle. “We should fight, everyday, for justice–economic, environmental, in our courts, in our foreign policy, everywhere, because we live in a system that, left to its own devices, is manifestly unjust,” that’s a principle too. Whether they’re the “right electoral principles” should matter less than whether they’re the right principles, period. I don’t know what all the principles should be. We’ve already seized on some, but there need to be more, and the political left in this country needs to talk about them, all the time, to everyone. Which means forming a political party that campaigns on them, all the time, in every race, without exception. No more complaining about gerrymandering and leaving dozens of Republicans unopposed every cycle. Gerrymandering is bad, and hard to overcome, I get it, but I’m tired of giving my money and my votes to a party that won’t even try to contest the really tough races.
With only a few quibbles, basically I agree with what President Obama said in his press conference yesterday:
With respect to the Democratic Party. As I said in the Rose Garden right after the election, “When your team loses, everybody gets deflated. And it’s hard, and it’s challenging. And I think it’s a healthy thing for the Democratic Party to go through some reflection. I think it’s important for me not to be big-footing that conversation. I think we want to see new voices and new ideas emerge – that’s part of the reason why term limits are a really useful thing.
The Democrats should not waiver on our core beliefs and principles. The belief that we should have an economy that works for everybody, not just a few. The belief that America at its best is inclusive and not exclusive. That we insist on the dignity and God- given potential and work of every child, regardless of race or gender or sexual orientation or what zip code they were born in. That we are committed to a world in which we keep America safe, but we recognize that our power doesn’t just flow from our extraordinary military but also flows from the strength in our ideals and our principles and our values.
So there are gonna be a core set of values that shouldn’t be up for debate. Should be our north star. But how we organize politically, I think is something that we should spend some time thinking about.
I believe that we have better ideas. But I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them. And one of the issues the Democrats have to be clear on is the given population distribution across the country. We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grassroots level, something that’s been a running thread in my career.
I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and BFW Hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. There’s some counties maybe I won, that people didn’t expect, because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for.
And the challenge for a national party is how do you dig in there and create those kinds of structures so that people have a sense of what it is that you stand for. And that increasingly is difficult to do just through a national press strategy. It’s increasingly difficult to do because of the splintering of the press (ph). And so I think the discussions that have been taking place about, how do you build more grassroots organizing, how do you build state parties and local parties and school board elections you’re paying attention to, state rep races and city council races, that all, I think, will contribute to stronger outcomes in the future. And I’m optimistic that will happen.
I’m actually not optimistic that it will happen, because it never does. When Democrats lose the instinct, fed by centrist pundit shills in the corporate media, is always to move a little more to the right, get a little further from the party’s working class roots, be a little more pro-business, ease up on this environmental stuff, stop talking about protecting all these at risk groups, get a little “tougher on crime,” get a little “tougher on foreign policy,” pull more resources out of states and districts that seem out of reach, and on and on. That’s what happened in the 1980s, in the 1990s, and again in the 2000s, and if you look at any level of government below the presidency, the fact of the matter is that it’s not working, and save for a maybe 2 year window in the early 90s it really never has. And no matter how much the party loses, it never seems to wake up to the need to, as the president said, “show up everywhere.” “White House or Bust” isn’t a sustainable political model, because eventually you will go bust, and then you’re in for a pretty awful ride.