Tom Perez’s victory over Keith Ellison in the race for DNC chair isn’t a catastrophe. Perez was a good secretary of labor, pushing through a number of fine regulations on overtime pay and the like. He may even turn out to be a good steward for the organization in his limited role, though his career bears little history of party-building. But there are reasons, nonetheless, to be exercised. Perez is a stand in for—and beneficiary of—the Democratic Party’s ranks-closing, turf-guarding, conflict-averse tendencies: those congenital qualities that make dealing with Democrats feel like wading through waist-high mud. As is well known, Perez only became a candidate at the behest of Barack Obama, picked explicitly to scuttle Ellison’s otherwise smooth path to the chairmanship. This turned the contest into a referendum on how the party feels about the Sanders activists. Evidently it feels quite hostile. Of course, the Sanders wing knew this already—but the Democrats apparently felt the need to make a point of it. This is the salient fact for anyone on the left who looks at the DNC and thinks it can be changed.
I spent a weekend in Baltimore last month for one of the chair debate forums, which was, surprisingly enough, not entirely without interest. There was open discussion of the party’s treatment of Sanders—from Perez too. There was some public, sonorous “soul-searching,” a necessary performance for a party in dire straits. In the contest for vice chair, the extremities of political positions within the party were represented by Melissa Byrne, a former Sanders staffer who campaigned as “vice chair of the resistance” and invoked the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline; and by Liz Jaff, a tech entrepreneur who wanted to open access data to anyone anywhere in the country who wanted to run. Ellison himself was by far the most energetic, talented presence on the stage, and he stayed relentlessly on message, emphasizing his electoral victories.
Naturally there were longueurs. The Clintonoid apparatchik wing was in force, best represented by Adam Parkhomenko, a 31-year-old whose experience amounts to running various pro-Clinton PACs and Super PACs; he wanted the Democrats “to send a strong message to Donald Trump—and to PUTIN.” Many tried openly to disavow what the contest had explicitly become, as when Congresswoman Grace Meng said that it was “not about the insurgency versus the establishment,” which it very obviously was. South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, the McKinsey-slick, inglorious offspring of the great Gramsci translator Joseph A. Buttigieg, tried lamely to nail Trump by calling him a “draft-dodger.” A DNC member who described himself as a “refugee immigrant” who “bleeds workplace democracy” charged the Democrats, correctly, with failing to protect collective bargaining; six states have gone right-to-work in only five years. His respondent Michael Blake, assemblyman from New York (and successful vice chair candidate), danced ably around the question, never committing the party or himself to the goals of the labor movement. His disgraceful performance proved that the right wing of the party remained—to use a term Pete Buttigieg’s dad would have liked—“hegemonic.”
But the most significant moment of the Forum came when one of the members asked the chair candidates what they would do about superdelegates. Perez dodged the question as long as he could, before being confronted by Ellison and Buttigieg supporters in the crowd, who spontaneously shouted that he “answer the question.” He eventually gave an answer suggesting that he would fold the number of superdelegates inside the regular pledged delegates, reducing their number. But the burst of adversarial energy clearly startled the DNC members, still traumatized from last summer’s unusually exciting convention. Maryland Democrat Yvette Lewis asked the candidates what they would do with—she deliberated over the word—the “passion” exhibited by the people who had interrupted Perez. Later she would come out publicly in favor of Perez. She wasn’t the only DNC member to exhibit symptoms of anxiety: over the last few weeks, Marcel Groen, chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, has been running to the right-wing press complaining about the potential of “anarchy” if Ellison were to win. (He has avoided the Islamophobic tendencies other Democrats have exhibited in their discussion of Ellison.)
Nothing appears to scare Democrats more than energy and debate. The fact that most social movements were behind Ellison was a source of genuine terror for a party still somehow convinced that, if it were not for the FBI and the Russians, they would be in serene command of the nation’s major institutions. (Even sections of the resistance movement—as the many anti-Russian signs at the Women’s March in Washington displayed—are susceptible to the delusion.) Frightened by the prospect of an obvious leftward tilt, Democrats are no less frightened by the idea of being turned into a party that does not consist of bland managers, turning out ever-diminishing quantities of voters. The Democratic Party would rather take a chance on maintaining its group of aging supervoters than take a risk on young, untested enthusiasts, whose party loyalties are more in doubt. It was undoubtedly for this reason that Obama, manager-prince of a party that enjoyed historic lows under his tenure, deputized Perez to flip the bird to the left.
For the movements themselves, there is a strategic question. We find ourselves in that cyclical, even farcical left-wing position of confronting the Democratic Party as such. It blocks our way like a series of more or less fatal obstacles: a boulder shielding the path to a frayed rope bridge that crosses a fathomless ravine only to end at the mouth of a thick, impassable forest. We may be able to creep past the boulder, but then there’s still the bridge across the abyss, from which we’ll look down at the pile of skeletons that represent the numberless generations who thought, with a mad glint in their eye, “Yes, this time, we are in a position to change the Democratic Party.”
More prosaically, was it wise to invest so much psychic energy in the contest for DNC chair?1 The intransigence of the party, even regarding this symbolic fillip, suggests that there was little room for maneuver at this level. In an elucidating recent interview with John Judis at Talking Points Memo, the scholar and veteran of social movements Marshall Ganz forthrightly suggests that the DNC is not and should not be the main avenue for the left. “For one thing, the rise of the conservative movement didn’t happen through the RNC,” Ganz says:
Conservatives successfully created a more or less coherent network of organizations linked to local, state and national politics, which is a traditional form of effective political organization in the US . . . You look in vain for something like that on the progressive side. There is such a proliferation of groups, all kinds of groups, some of which take up space without filling it.
In other words, the outcome of the DNC contest is as much evidence of the left’s institutional weakness as of the party’s immovability. The sheer numbers in the streets and even the millions of primary votes for Sanders are not signs of achievement, but of incipience. There are still millions more—disengaged, electorally nonparticipating, unattached to party, most of them among the most vulnerable populations in society. This is the working-class the media and political organizations should be concerned about—a group that may be more susceptible to movement-building, around issues like police and schools and workplaces, than, for the moment anyway, questions of party. Certainly the Democratic Party evinces little interest in representing them. But they remain a vital constituency for a left clearly still finding its feet.
Disclosure: I’m on the steering committee of Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization that came out of the Sanders campaign, and whose membership endorsed Ellison. ↩