The more alarmed one is by the Trump administration, the more one should focus on how to fix the systemic, fundamental sickness of the Democratic Party. That Hillary Clinton won the meaningless popular vote on her way to losing to Donald Trump, and that the singular charisma of Barack Obama kept him popular, have enabled many to ignore just how broken and failed the Democrats are as a national political force.
An endless array of stunning statistics can be marshaled to demonstrate the extent of that collapse. But perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence is that even one of the U.S. media’s most stalwart Democratic loyalists, writing in an outlet that is as much of a reliable party organ as the DNC itself, has acknowledged the severity of the destruction. “The Obama years have created a Democratic Party that’s essentially a smoking pile of rubble,” wrote Vox’s Matthew Yglesias after the 2016 debacle, adding that “the story of the 21st-century Democratic Party looks to be overwhelmingly the story of failure.”
A failed, collapsed party cannot form an effective resistance. Trump did not become president and the Republicans do not dominate virtually all levels of government because there is some sort of massive surge in enthusiasm for right-wing extremism. Quite the contrary: This all happened because the Democrats are perceived — with good reason — to be out of touch, artificial, talking points-spouting automatons who serve Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the agenda of endless war, led by millionaires and funded by oligarchs to do the least amount possible for ordinary, powerless citizens while still keeping their votes.
What drove Bernie Sanders’s remarkably potent challenge to Hillary Clinton was the extreme animosity of huge numbers of Democrats — led by its youngest voters — to the values, practices, and corporatist loyalties of the party’s establishment. Unlike the 2008 Democratic primary war — which was far more vicious and nasty but devoid of any real ideological conflict — the 2016 primary was grounded in important and substantive disputes about what the Democratic Party should be, what principles should guide it, and, most important of all, whose interests it should serve.
That’s why those disputes have not disappeared with the inauguration of Trump, nor should they. It matters a great deal, perhaps more than anything else, who leads the resistance to Trump and what the nature of that opposition is. Everyone knows the popular cliché that insanity means doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes; it illustrates why Democrats cannot continue as is and expect anything other than ongoing impotence and failure. The party’s steadfast refusal to change course even in symbolic ways — We hereby elevate by acclamation Chuck “Wall Street” Schumer and re-install Nancy “I’m a multimillionaire and we are capitalists” Pelosi — bodes very poorly for its future success.
In sum, demanding that one refrain from critiquing the Democratic Party in order to exclusively denounce Trump over and over is akin to demanding that one single-mindedly denounce cancer without worrying about who the treating doctor is or what type of research is being conducted to cure it. Trump happened because the Democrats failed. And he and similar (or worse) phenomena will continue to happen until they are fixed.
The obvious determination of Democratic establishment leaders to follow the same failed and dreary course explains why the race for DNC chair has become so heated. In reality, that position is little more than a functionary role — mostly focused on fundraising and building the party apparatus at the state level — but whoever occupies it does serve as a leading public face of the party.
For the last five years, the face of the DNC was the living, breathing embodiment of everything awful about the party: the sleazy, corrupt corporatist, and centrist hawk Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who — as a result of WikiLeaks’ publication of DNC emails — had to resign in disgrace after she got caught engaging in sustained cheating in order to ensure that Hillary Clinton would be the party’s nominee.
But her disgrace was short-lived: Upon resigning, she was quickly rewarded for her corruption by being named to a high position with the Clinton campaign, as well as having the D.C. establishment Democrats, led by Joe Biden and Clinton herself, support her in vanquishing a Sanders-supported primary challenger for her seat in Congress. As a result of the support from the party establishment (as well as massive funding from corporate and banking interests), she defeated that challenger, Tim Canova, and the nation rejoiced as she returned for her seventh term in Congress.
Wasserman Schultz was replaced as DNC chair on an interim basis by longtime party operative Donna Brazile, who was quickly engulfed by her own scandal when she got caught secretly passing CNN debate questions to the Clinton campaign, then repeatedly lying about it by denying it and insinuating the emails were forged by the Russians. For that misconduct, CNN fired her, as anchor Jake Tapper denounced her cheating as “horrifying” and CNN said it made the network “completely uncomfortable.”
But Brazile continues to this day to run the DNC. Think about that: Her behavior was so unethical, dishonest, and corrupt that Jeff Zucker-led CNN denounced it and publicly disassociated itself from her. But the DNC seems perfectly comfortable having her continue to lead the party until the next chair is chosen.
Perhaps worse than the serial cheating itself was that it was all in service of coronating a candidate who — as many of us tried to warn at the time — all empirical data showed was the most vulnerable to lose to Donald Trump. So the very same people who bear the blame for Trump’s presidency — by cheating to elevate the candidate most likely to lose to him — continue to dominate the Democratic Party. To describe the situation is to demonstrate the urgency of debating and fixing it, rather than ignoring it in the name of talking only about Trump.
Early on in the race for DNC chair, Keith Ellison — the first American Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress and an early Sanders supporter who resides on the left wing of the party — emerged as a clear favorite. He racked up endorsements not only from progressives like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jesse Jackson but also party stalwarts such as Walter Mondale, John Lewis, and even Schumer himself, who seems to recognize that throwing a few symbolic crumbs to the Sanders wing of the party is strategically wise in light of the enduring bitterness many of them harbor toward the DNC’s behavior and the party’s centrist, neoliberal, pro-war policies.
But then panic erupted among the Democratic establishment. It began when Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban — the largest single funder of both the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign — smeared Ellison as “an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual” and said his election “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.” In the minds of D.C. mavens, you can’t have someone as chair of the DNC who is disliked by billionaire funders. That is the Democratic Party.
The knives were then out for Ellison, as operatives began dumping controversial college-age comments about Louis Farrakhan and Israel into the media. The New York Times began running articles with headlines such as “Jewish Groups and Unions Grow Uneasy With Keith Ellison” — a strange headline given that Ellison has been endorsed by multiple unions, including the AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers, UNITE HERE, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, among others. Even unpaid parking tickets from the 1990s made an appearance thanks to Democratic slime artists.
The assault on Ellison’s candidacy was formalized when the Obama White House recruited and promised to back one of its loyalists, Labor Secretary Tom Perez. As he did with his endorsement of Wasserman Schultz, Biden made the establishment’s support for Perez official by publicly endorsing him last week.
Perez is a pleasant liberal and loyal party stalwart: Before the first primary vote was cast, he endorsed Clinton over Sanders and became one of her most outspoken surrogates. Despite claiming to be devoted to American workers, he was a loyal supporter of TPP even after Clinton was forced into insincere opposition.
It’s not hard to see why the Obama and Clinton circles want him to run the party instead of Ellison. He’s acceptable to big donors. He has proven himself loyal to the party establishment’s agenda. He is a reliable party operative. And, most importantly of all, he will change nothing of substance: ensuring that the same policies, rhetoric, and factions that have prevailed continue to do so, all while protecting the power base of the same people who have run the party into the ground.
Two recent incidents vividly highlight why Tom Perez so perfectly embodies the Democratic Party status quo. The first occurred two weeks ago, when my colleague Zaid Jilani attended an event where Perez was speaking and politely but repeatedly asked him about Israeli human rights abuses — which had been in the news that week because of new demolitions by the IDF of Palestinian homes, and because Perez had been asked about his views on boycotting Israel as a way of stopping its decadeslong occupation.
With the domination of the Democratic Party by Saban and others looming, just watch how this profile in courage who wants to lead the Democratic Party responded to being asked about his opinions on this matter:
An even more illustrative episode occurred late Wednesday. Perez was in Kansas campaigning for votes from county leaders and was asked about the need for the party to retain the support of the Sanders contingent. Perez unexpectedly blurted out a truth that party functionaries to this day steadfastly bury and deny even in the face of the mountain of evidence proving it. This is what Perez said:
We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it. That’s why we need a chair who is transparent.
That’s quite an admission from the party establishment’s own candidate: “The process was rigged.” And he commendably acknowledged how important it is to admit this — “to be honest about it” — because “we need a chair who is transparent.”
But Perez’s commitment to “transparency” and “being honest” had a very short life-span. After his admission predictably caused controversy — with furious Clinton supporters protesting the truth — Perez demonstrated the same leadership qualities that were so evident when Zaid Jilani asked him about Israeli human rights abuses.
He quickly slinked onto Twitter with a series of tweets to retract what he said, claim that he “misspoke” (does anyone know what that word means?), apologize for it, and proclaim Hillary Clinton the fair and rightful winner:
I have been asked by friends about a quote and want to be clear about what I said and that I misspoke.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) February 9, 2017
As I've said repeatedly, we can't have a primary process where it is even perceived that a thumb was on the scale.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) February 9, 2017
Hillary became our nominee fair and square, and she won more votes in the primary—and general—than her opponents.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) February 9, 2017
To ensure there was no mistaking his loyalty oath, he made that last tweet his pinned tweet, ensuring it would sit at the top of his Twitter page. (He also included a couple of scripted, empty banalities about the importance of transparency, objectivity, and “fighting like hell.”)
So in Tom Perez’s conduct, one sees the mentality and posture that has shaped the Democratic Party: a defense of jobs-killing free trade agreements that big corporate funders love; an inability to speak plainly, without desperately clinging to focus-group, talking-points scripts; a petrified fear of addressing controversial issues even (especially) when they involve severe human rights violations by allies; a religious-like commitment never to offend rich donors; and a limitless willingness to publicly abase oneself in pursuit of power by submitting to an apology ritual for having told the truth.
That is the template that has driven the Democratic Party into a ditch so deep and disastrous that even Vox acknowledges it without euphemisms. That is the template that has alienated voters across the country at all levels of elected office and that enabled the Donald Trump presidency. And it is the template that Democratic Party establishment leaders are more determined than ever to protect and further entrench by ensuring that yet another detached, lifeless functionary who embodies it becomes the next face of the party.
One can spend all of one’s time and energy denouncing Donald Trump. But until the systemic causes that gave rise to him are addressed and resolved, those denunciations will do little other than generate social media benefits and flattering applause from those already devoted to opposing him. Focusing on and attempting to counter the fundamental flaws of the Democratic Party is not a distraction from #TheResistance; it is a central priority, a prerequisite for any kind of success.