Despite the disarray of the Republican Party currently, the Democratic Party has not been able to capitalize on the confusion due to internal conflict of their own as various factions within the Party battle it out for hearts and minds and control. The “ruling” faction is assumed to reflect the priorities of the Party’s majority and will determine everything from new planks in the Party’s platform, plum committee assignments, and most importantly how the Party operates.
The First Domino
In March of this year, former Senator Harry Reid’s Nevada Democratic Party turned left. All but one of the progressives who won in a very contentious race for Nevada Party leadership were members of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The Old Guard, the moderates, quit en masse and, in an accurate reading of the tea leaves, had already moved $450,000 into the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s account. The money will go toward the reelection of vulnerable first-timer Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
A Look at Party Structure
When the factions within the Democratic Party are examined separately, there are four distinct groups with some overlap. There are the conservative Democrats, a rare breed in California except in the middle of the state farming communities and other, smaller pockets. Orange County, once a bastion of conservative political leadership by both Democrats and Republicans, has been transformed by changing demographics.
There are the neoliberals. Bill Clinton is held up as an iconic neoliberal, someone who espouses free-market capitalism and fails to see that accepting contributions, i.e., dark money, from oil and coal producers, and tobacco companies, among others, are compromising our values. It’s a commonly held belief by all factions that neoliberals currently control the Democratic Party and are ever on the lookout for any challenges to their authority. They are seen as allied with moderates and may consider themselves to be moderates because they take what they consider to be a pragmatic approach to fundraising. “How can we win elections if we can’t match the Republican candidate dollar for dollar?” they ask.
Many use “liberal” and “progressive” interchangeably as though they mean the same thing, but to those who wear the progressive title the degree of dedication to proclaimed principles marks the difference. A Progressive Democrat may seem an odd creature at times, full of self-loathing for the self-imposed limitations of their fellow Democrats and their own choice to identify with a Party that fails to adhere to its proclaimed principles. Progressives take their principles seriously, so much so that other Dems grow impatient with them for clinging to and treating ideology as sacrosanct. Progressives also hold capitalism at fault for many of society’s ills. Income inequality, exacerbated by corporate greed, leads many progressives to embrace some form of socialism as a counterbalance.
A liberal Democrat, on the other hand, cringes at corporate contributions, but is at a loss for “fixing” the system. A liberal is also less concerned with bold action, perceiving it to be rash and sometimes hasty. “The devil’s in the details,” they say, often placing a much-desired piece of legislation on indefinite hold to the consternation of their progressive siblings. Another approach to legislation by liberals that draws the ire of progressives is the incremental step. An environmental bill authored by State Senator Fran Pavley a number of years ago originally included a penalty for corporations that failed to follow the new proposed law. “Baby steps,” said State Senator Alan Robbins. “That’s how we get it passed.”
The Occupy Movement exposed many of America’s sacred cows to millennials as hollowed out ideals thinly covering a cauldron of corruption. The 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders aligned with the jaded view of the newly “woke” that the two-party system was rife with hype and hypocrisy.
A Progressively Better Party
But Bernie offered solutions. Even as he presented the $15 an hour minimum wage, “free” college, the Green New Deal, and other legislation, even as the establishment Democrats called his agenda pie-in-the-sky, two years on found each of these “radical” ideas considered mainstream issues.
Sanders’ modest deflection of “Not me, us!” energized a new generation of activists that dared to be bold. And in 2020 another wave of activists added their voices to the cries for change. The 2020 election proved what was known back in 2016: the fix was in. Bernie’s bandwagon was sidelined by moderate Democrats who couldn’t cotton with a socialist in the White House. In 2016 the cries were “He’s not a REAL Democrat!” But the real issue? It was Hillary’s moment and nothing was going to get in the way of her ascendancy. In 2020, the Democratic Bernie opposition revealed the scattershot approach to denying him the Party’s nomination. Several candidates were promoted with hopes that one would catch fire and waylay the Bernie Bros once again. After several failed primaries where the Sanders campaign rolled over his opposition, Old Guard Joe Biden finally caught fire. All of a sudden, once again, it was “Bernie Who?” from the Democratic Party.
A Change in Course
This frustration with the status quo that attempts to perpetuate itself to the detriment of progress within the Democratic Party has led many to desert in disgust. In other states, like California, progressives look at Nevada and feel emboldened.
Kara, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America (LVDSA) explained that realignment of the state Party was not their intention. “It took almost zero time and zero effort here in Nevada,” she said. “Most of the central committee seats were empty at the time and Clark County makes up 75 percent of the entire state.” A slate of Sen. Bernie Sanders-inspired progressives won elections to top state Party leadership positions. Moderates left in droves. How they accomplished the takeover will probably not occur again in other states now that moderates have been scared out of complacency.
Us vs. Them
In the bluest state in the nation, California Democratic Party chair Rusty Hicks attempts to keep the antics and protestations of the progressive caucus sequestered, a lone voice from the wilderness. And some in the caucus are fine with that because their anti-establishment posture has won the caucus a following by those who think “gotcha” politics, the old 60 Minutes ambush style of journalism, is a fair tactic when rooting out corruption. The issue that fired up progressives was the Chair’s apparent violation of a pledge he had made to the environmental caucus to take no contributions from fossil fuel companies.
“Tom” is a Progressive, one of the bright young minds who got involved in the wake of Bernie’s first campaign. After rising to a position within the important Rules Committee, he has thrown in the towel, but not without first expressing his opinions about the machinations going on within the California state Democratic Party.
On a 45-minute Facebook Live event April 16, Tom laid out the problems endemic to the CDP and even offered some optimism. He started by saying, “The Democratic Party of California pays lip service to the issues.” Clearly there are still ill feelings between Party moderates and Progressives. His sentiments were echoed by many who had tuned in.
“The Party doesn’t influence elections or policy and they don’t get a lot of things done,” Tom complained. He pointed to the multiple unsuccessful efforts to create a single-payer healthcare system in the state. He lamented the attempt by elected officials to do an end run around the Party with Assembly Bill AB 84. “That would have permitted leaders to create their own committees and their own PACs,” he said. The legislation would have undercut the exclusive power that the Party machine has to raise money for candidates and ballot initiatives.
This threat to the Party brought about a huge mobilization effort to quash the legislation and was successful. “That’s when I learned the Party could mobilize around an issue if they really wanted to,” said Tom.
It’s not surprising moderate campaign strategist James Carville thinks the way Democratic Party progressives communicate is a problem. In a recent interview Carville complained about what he referred to as “wokeness.” He called phrases like this “faculty lounge politics.”
“This is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk.” This jargon, he said, “signals that you’re trying to talk around them. This ‘too cool for school’ shit doesn’t work and we have to stop it. I think it’s because large parts of the country view us as an urban, coastal, arrogant party…”
Status Quo: 5 Progressives: 0
In late April, Democrats headed into another state virtual convention in California with a newly-elected slate of state party officers. NONE of the officers elected were the progressive candidates endorsed by members of the progressive caucus. Establishment Dems can breathe a sigh of relief that California politics are still in the hands of moderates and a progressive coup is at least two years down the road. For now, a “Progressive Party” remains a dream. Under moderate control, California’s attempt to create a Single-Payer healthcare system or advance other progressive programs in the bluest state in the nation will be relegated to “baby steps.”