Can We Build a Strong Democratic Party?

strengthIn a Facebook dialog about “The Future of the Democratic Party,” Joseph Wilson said he could not envision the Democratic Party, “as currently structured,” becoming an activist organization that serves local needs and fights for its platform year-round. He said, the Party needs to become “rooted in the community, relevant to it, and accountable to it.”

The Party’s lack of accountability is highlighted in a recent Robert Borosage post, “Does the Democratic Party Platform Matter?”  Though Borasage affirms the value of the platform, he acknowledges:

Candidates are not required to run on the platform. They are free to contradict some or all of its planks. They sculpt their own message and their own agenda.

That is the heart of the problem. The result is an incoherent Party. No one knows what it stands for.

In a prescient 2011 essay about risks associated with populism, “The American Political Parties Are Breaking Down,” Walter Russell Mead warned:

American political parties are increasingly being reduced to flags of convenience…. The decline of party structures leaves our politics less coherent and more subject to rapid mood swings [and the potential election of an authoritarian populist!]…. [When] our parties start to stand for something less superficial and knee-jerk, party structures may regain some importance.

To build a strong Democratic Party, the 2016 platform should stipulate that the Democratic National Committee will only back candidates who support its platform.

Incumbents will resist any such move. Most of them prefer not to be bothered by constituents or any structure that would hold them accountable.

Nevertheless, rank-and-file Democrats can make the Party a real, coherent, activist organization that holds its leaders accountable to promoting its mission.

Overcoming Despair

despairWhen I discuss whether Democrats can transform the Party into an activist organization, I often hear cynicism. The cynics say the Establishment is too powerful.

But Bernie’s campaign refutes that proposition. His ability to raise money and get a progressive majority on the platform drafting committee is evidence of our potential.

One correspondent asked, “How do you think outsiders can take over the Establishment? What’s the process you could foresee to do so?”

I replied:

1) Formulate a reform platform…
2) During regularly scheduled elections, registered rank-and-file Democrats elect candidates to the local Central Committee who support that platform.
3) During regularly scheduled Assembly-district caucuses registered rank-and-file Democrats elect Democrats who support that platform.
4) Those Central Committees and Assembly-district committees elect representatives to the State Party who support that platform.
5) The State Party elects representatives to the Democratic National Committee who support that platform.

Though the California Democratic Party is a bit more complex than that brief outline, its basic bottom-up structure is in place. And I believe the Party in other states is similar.

Thus far no one has presented an argument for why Bernie and his people, in alliance with other Democrats, cannot restructure the Party into an activist organization that serves local needs and fights for its platform year-round.

That scenario certainly seems more realistic than the notion of building a new national organization or developing the Green Party into the coalition that we need, as another correspondent recommends.

So I remain hopeful that Bernie will focus like a laser beam on reforming the Democratic Party.

Why Forget the Platform?

platformFor the Democrats to forget their platform after the Convention is puzzling. That’s why I opened “Make It Binding?” with a series of questions, including “Why must it merely be symbolic?” and “Could all Democratic office holders be expected to actively support the platform?”

On Facebook, Valerie Winemiller replied, “Why go to the bother if it’s going to be dumped in weeks?” I responded:

Good question. If you are so inclined and are able to get an answer, it might be interesting to ask your Congressperson that question. Personally, I think people do it because ideologues like to have ideological battles.

They can make a point, educate the public, and build support for the future, while sacrificing the present and failing to establish democratic collaborative structures.

Valerie commented, “Sounds about right. I will write to Barbara Lee [who’s on the Drafting Committee].”

It will be interesting to see if Congresswoman Lee clarifies the reasons.

Later Roy Birchard touched on another point that was already on my mind. He said, “Because it’s the pretty wrapping on the present under the tree.” His comment prompted me to say, “Yes. A marketing tool. That may be the main reason.”

But those answers don’t seem sufficient. So later I googled “why political parties weak,” reviewed some results, and reflected more on the issue.

Two thoughts come to mind. Party leaders hesitate to punish officeholders who don’t support the platform on one issue because they want support on other issues. And leaders don’t want the rank-and-file to oppose disloyal incumbents in primaries, because any such challenge might be a precedent that could threaten them as well later.

Regardless, if only to satisfy my curiosity, I intend to investigate the matter further. Your thoughts are welcome.

Make It Binding?

handshakeWhy is the Democratic Party platform neglected after the Convention?

Why must it merely be symbolic?

Couldn’t it be more than a public education exercise?

Could it be used as an organizing tool to help transform the Party into an activist organization that serves local needs and fights for its platform year-round?

Could all Democratic office holders be expected to actively support the platform?

Could decisions concerning Party leadership positions be based on whether the official fully supports the platform?

Could Party funds for local campaigns only go to candidates who back the platform?

If Democratic officeholders repeatedly fail to uphold the platform, could the Party support an alternative in the next primary election?

Could those and other steps be taken to make the platform binding?

If not, why not?

With that approach, Democrats could widely distribute a clear, concise, and powerful platform. The Party could hold its officeholders accountable. And the Party could become a real, coherent, activist organization, rather than merely help Democrats get elected.

With cost-effective precinct organizing, the Party could nurture face-to-face community with Democrats who share a commitment to the platform, a desire to help improve it in the future, and a willingness to learn from one another in order to become more effective.

If this year’s convention declines to make the platform a binding organizing tool, a caucus within the Party could push for that goal in the future.

By electing supportive candidates to local Party committees, and then doing the same with state committees and the Democratic National Committee, we can eventually transform the Democratic Party into a powerful activist organization.


NOTE: After receiving feedback to this draft and making revisions, I may soon send it to the Drafting Committee.

“The System” or “The Establishment”?

estab;oshmentA recent cover story by Michael Kazin for The Nation magazine offers a strong critique of populism. The essay is titled, “We Know We Hate the Establishment—but Do We Know What It Is? The vague term obscures where power really lies.”

Kazin argues:

To train one’s ire at the establishment is to embrace a baby-simple analysis of how power works…. Any substitute for the vapid critique of “the establishment” must reckon with the structures and ideology that sustain an unjust system….

Railing against the establishment also ignores the mass resistance to ways of thinking that would have to undergird a truly democratic and egalitarian society. The hope that we can bring about fundamental change by exposing an immoral cabal and crushing its power fails to confront the deeply held belief in the essential fairness of capitalist society. The tenacity of this conviction helps explain why Americans keep [voting the way they vote]. There’s a feedback loop between the political and economic institutions that sustain inequality and an ideology that forecloses alternatives…..

Nor does Bernie San­ders’s bashing of wealthy insiders get at the real obstacles to advancing toward a society that would ensure a decent life to every American….

Until we are able to speak more realistically about those obstacles and why they persist, protesting the establishment will obsess and frustrate us….

Unfortunately, Kazin only addresses “political and economic institutions,” and one deeply held belief concerning our current economic system.

But all of our major institutions are woven into our dominant social system. Many other beliefs are critical. And many personal behaviors reinforce the system.

Those omissions discount the value of comprehensive, simultaneous personal, social, cultural, and institutional reform throughout society.

Nevertheless, his essay points us in the direction of a deep systemic analysis.

Wade’s Weekly: Don’t Follow Leaders

Blind loyalty to Trump is scary. But the reluctance of Bernie’s followers to criticize their candidate is cause for concern.

In New York magazine,” Andrew Sullivan writes:

It is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment….  He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

[To read more, click here.]

Bernie and Racism

racismFor months, prominent progressives have criticized Bernie Sanders for not adequately addressing racism. Surely he’s aware of that criticism. But it’s had little impact on his campaign.

On The Guardian, Steven W Thrasher argued:

The senator should be making racism a cornerstone of his stump speech, but instead he’s practically ceding black and Latino voters to Hillary Clinton.

On Sunday, I went to Bernie Sanders’s press conference in Washington DC. … I left the press event extremely disappointed. …Two things he failed to mention: black and Hispanic voters, two constituencies whose support he has failed, repeatedly, to gain.

On Facebook Live, Van Jones commented:

Bernie got stopped by Black voters. How did that happen? … The economic populists did not have a well-articulated view of racism. It’s almost as if they were putting forward a view of what you could call “trickle down justice.” Deal with the economy, and then racism will disappear, that everything is a function of class and the economic elite robbing the country. That perspective made it more difficult to develop relationships.

… We can no longer have an analysis that is not “inter-sectional,” that affirms class above everything else, and does not deal with race, gender, and sexuality.

On Facebook, Steven Shults stated:

My fellow white folks, ask your non-white friends about this topic and *listen* to them when they explain why they need to hear more from Bernie, why the usual campaign platitudes are not enough, and why marching with Dr. King doesn’t count as a promise to put these issues front and center.

All forms of oppression are inter-related. A systemic analysis is imperative. But Bernie’s focus on economics discounts other issues.

Admitting Mistakes


While participating on a panel at an book-release party decades ago, Van Jones said, “We need to be more confessional and less pro-fessional.” That comment stuck with me because activists rarely speak openly about self-improvement, though the need is urgent.

Being able and willing to admit mistakes while in the heat of battle is not easy. It requires a delicate degree of detachment. As a friend’s grandmother advised him, “Never go to sleep angry.”

Unfortunately, criticisms are often muted by blaming others. “Yes, but….” and the speaker elaborates on why the mistake was made.

At the Nevada convention last weekend, Bernie’s supporters were not disciplined. Whether or not any chairs were thrown or flipped, they employed far too much verbal violence. But Bernie has not criticized their lack of civility. Rather, he’s focused his fire on the Party. That decision is unfortunate.

At its 1964 convention, the Democratic Party offered the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) a weak, insulting compromise. Dr. King accepted the offer, but the MFDP angrily rejected it. Many of us activists were furious at the Democrats and Dr. King.

That moment was a key turning point. Thereafter the Movement became characterized by anger and violence.

By 1968, the American people hated the anti-war movement even more than they hated the war and Richard Nixon was President. Not long after, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the “conservative” movement was ascendant.

Donald Trump is even more dangerous. Here’s hoping Bernie and his people don’t serve him the election on a silver platter.

Hillary and the Party leadership can help avoid that disaster by acknowledging their own mistakes.

We need more humble, honest introspection all around.


Scapegoating, Violence, and Bernie’s Campaign

goatOur primary problem is “the system” — that is, our institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals, all of which reinforce one another. That system, rooted in inequality, is fueled by efforts to climb the social ladder and legitimized by the notion that everyone deserves what they get. No one controls the system. Blaming “enemies,” scapegoating, nurtures counter-productive rage.

Tapping anger, as Bernie has done, can mobilize people. But it can quickly unleash mob violence, both physical and verbal.

One example is the chaos at the recent Democratic Party convention in Nevada. Bernie’s campaign has legitimate complaints about how the Party has operated. It rightly plans to push for structural reforms to make the Party more democratic.

Throwing chairs* and Issuing personal threats, however, hurt the cause. Other instances of verbal violence directed at Hillary have also been problematic.

Unfortunately, Bernie has not acknowledged that his own supporters engaged in violence and criticized them for it, though he did state, “I condemn any and all forms of violence.” And in general he has not faulted his supporters for resorting to verbal violence. During one live interview last week, in response to footage of incendiary personal attacks on Hillary by his supporters, he merely objected to physical violence and defended their right to “free speech.”

Early in the campaign, Bernie did not launch personal attacks directed at Hillary. If he had maintained that policy, the tone of the campaign might be much different. Ad hominem arguments are unnecessary.

If Bernie begins to demonstrate and encourage nonviolent communication, his effort to reform the Democratic Party can be a productive “struggle” focused on winnable demands, rather than a divisive “fight” that contributes to Donald Trump’s election.

  • Subsequent reports indicate that chairs probably were not “thrown.” They may have been “flipped” or “tripped over. ” One man who held one in the air was restrained. Regardless, scapegoating ideology and abusive rhetoric are dangerous.
  • Fortunately on May 22 on ABC Bernie criticized his supporters at the Nevada convention for “booing,” being “rude,” and being “boorish.” He said, “That’s not good.”