Shackled to a Corpse: Progressives and the Democratic Party
“Shackled to a corpse” is a quote widely attributed to General Eric von Ludendorff, which allegedly described his feelings toward Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally during World War I. Today, when I consider the position of progressives and democratic socialists in the Democratic Party, I can’t help being reminded of this image. The rot that has engulfed this once powerful institution, which dominated American politics for generations, began to take hold during the 1970s when the New Deal coalition began to fray. In 1992, the great, old-school journalist, William Greider (1936–2019) published a book entitled, Who Will Tell The People: The Betrayal of American Democracy, where he examined the decline of the Democratic Party within the larger context of the atrophying of democracy in general, already well set in by the early 1990s. At the beginning of his chapter, “Who Owns the Democrats,” Greider tells us:
The empty space at the center of American democracy is defined ultimately by its failed political institutions. At the highest level of politics, there is no one who now reliably speaks for the people, no one who listens patiently to their concerns or teaches them the hard facts involved in governing decisions. There is no major institution committed to mobilizing the power of citizens around their own interests and aspirations.”
Greider began his exploration of the Democrats by noting that, in 1992 at least, the party still traced its origin “with excessive precision” to the twenty-third day of May in 1792 when Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to George Washington, where he “described political alignments that were already visible in the young Republic — the yeomanry [but also indebted slaveholding plantation owners like himself] versus the Tory financiers.” Jefferson urged Washington to rally the people in a party that would defend democracy against the corrupt ambitions of the monied interests.
Today, the Democrats have written Jefferson out of the party’s history. The DNC website’s “About the Democratic Party” section makes no mention of either him or of Andrew Jackson, another slave owning southerner, who had been a long standing icon of party history until fairly recently. The “Our History” section now goes back to all of 1920. Today’s DNC apparently feels it’s better to hide from the party’s history, rather than deal with its more uncomfortable aspects. It seems unable to reconcile the idea that men who were deeply flawed in many respects could also have been genuine champions of democracy and the “common man,” albeit the common man being restricted to the common white male at that point in history.
But some three decades ago, the DNC still viewed 1992 as the party’s bicentennial and began to make plans for a “two hundredth birthday spectacular,” as Greider notes. But whom to invite? Naturally, staff officials thought first of the direct mail lists stored in computers — the people who gave money to the party more or less regularly. Then, of course, they would include all the elected officials.
Then someone suggested the DNC invite some of the many thousands of people active in local party affairs — the “regulars” who serve on county committees or tend to the mechanics of election precincts or campaign operations, “the legions of people who faithfully rally around the ticket.”
But then it was asked, “Who are these people? Where are their names and addresses?” DNC staffers searched the party’s files and discovered that such lists no longer existed, at least not readily available. Greider tells us, “The old lists presumably still existed but not at party headquarters. They were believed to be in permanent storage at the National Archives — boxes and boxes of index cards from the 1950s and 60s with the names and addresses of the people who, in that day, made the party real.”
The Democratic Party, as a political organization, is no longer quite real itself. The various strands of personal communication and loyalty that once made it representative and responsive to the people are gone…It acts as neither a faithful mediator between citizens and government nor as a forum for policy debate and resolution nor even as a structure around which political power can accumulate. It functions mainly as a mail drop for political money.
Most of the state-party structures, though once important power centers themselves, are now as atrophied as the national organization. “A lot of state parties have devolved into dinner committees or debt-management committees or very small bore operations to pick judges and that sort of thing,” said Paul Tully, [then] the DNC’s director of organization. A few states have stronger organizations — Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New York — but none is what it used to be.
Greider acknowledges, as should we all, that the decline of the Democratic Party and the decline of the old, stronger party system in general, is not just the fault of the people who run its machinery. Social changes that broke up neighborhoods and new electoral techniques, which enabled individual candidates to invent their own self-centered political organizations played a role, as did the influence of television. Purchasing television ads in particular, raised the cost of campaigns exponentially and made candidates more likely to see eye to eye with the wealthy individuals and corporate entities that could provide the sums necessary to get on tv.
Greider quotes Bob Schrum, a longtime Democratic political consultant on the disconnect that began to grow between candidates, elected officials and much of the party rank and file in the age of television:
It costs so much to get elected and re-elected that the system inhibits anyone from taking positions that will be too controversial and make it more difficult to raise money. Do people in a campaign say that directly? No. What they say is, ‘What’s the responsible position on this issue?’ That’s a code word for fundraising. Even when it’s not consciously used as a code word, that’s the effect.
Coincidentally, Shrum wrote the famous “Dream Shall Never Die” concession speech delivered by Senator Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic National Convention after his defeat by incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the primaries. This was the first what would become a series of defeats for the more progressive, economic justice oriented wing of the party. Significantly, much of Kennedy’s support came from blacks, other racial minorities and feminists who didn’t flinch when he identified Jefferson and Jackson, both slaveholders and proponents of the forceful removal Native Americans from lands coveted by whites, as being the originating source of the Democrats’ commitment to “the cause of the common man and common woman.”
Greider wrote, “The Democratic Party establishment is understandably burdened by its own past and tends to dwell on what went wrong in the last presidential election.” In 2021, the party establishment still has a marked tendency to dwell on what went wrong in the past even though since 1972, the Democrats have won six presidential elections to the Republicans’ seven, with two of those (2000 and 2016) being only Electoral College victories, where the Republicans were unable to win the popular vote. Since 1992, the Democrats have also reelected two presidents (Bill Clinton and Barak Obama) to the Republicans’ one (George W Bush). Yet, to this day, the party establishment remains haunted by the ghosts of the 1972 and ’84 blowouts against George McGovern and Walter Mondale, though they both had probably more to do with the state of the economy rather than ideology. McGovern, in particular, also faced a stunning loss of support and outright attacks from powerful members of his own party.
The Democratic Party establishment has also shown a propensity to draw the wrong lessons from electoral defeats. One tragic result of this was the formation of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council in 1985. The stated goal of the DLC was to shift the party away from the leftward turn it took in the 1960s and 70s or in other words to shift it towards the right. Any cogent observer of American history could tell you that’s the wrong approach. It’s exactly what the Republicans did in the era of FDR, becoming largely a “me too” party that accepted the premises of the New Deal, only promising to run programs more efficiently and less corruptly than the Democrats. You can win elections like this, especially if you have an appealing candidate, like Eisenhower in the 1950s but it’s no way to establish a long-term, dominant presence on the political scene. Conservative activists on what was then the right-wing fringe of the Republican Party, like Phyllis Schlafly, understood this, saying the party needed to offer voters, “A Choice Not An Echo.” They managed to get Barry Goldwater nominated in 1964, who then proceeded to be demolished by Lyndon Johnson in the general election. Goldwater’s popular vote total was even less than McGovern’s eight years later. But did the Republicans have a collective nervous breakdown over this shattering loss? Did they attack their right-wing relentlessly over it? No. They understood better than many in the party supposedly of the left, that material circumstances are constantly changing, as are people’s perceptions of them. A devastating electoral loss in the near term, did not necessarily mean there was no place for conservative politics in America in the long run.
The difference with the Democrats couldn’t be starker. Greider tells us:
The DLC’s main objective, however, was an attack on the Democratic Party’s core constituencies — labor, schoolteachers, women’s rights groups, peace and disarmament activists, racial minorities and supporters of affirmative action. It’s stated goal was to restore the party’s appeal to disaffected white males, especially in the South but the DLC discussions did not focus on the economic decline affecting those citizens. Instead, it promoted the notion that Democrats must distance themselves from the demands of women or blacks or other aggrieved groups within the party. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and his provocative economic agenda aimed at workers, white and black, was a favorite target of the Democratic Leadership Council and , on Capitol Hill, the DLC was sometimes waggishly referred to as the “the white boys caucus.”
Thus, in addition to all its other organizational weaknesses, the Democratic Party is divided by nasty ideological combat between the party’s Washington elites and its rank-and-file constituencies — the people at the grassroots who are most active in Democratic politics. The establishment’s quarrel was with the party’s own voters. The people they belittled as “activists” and “interest groups” were the very people who cared most intensely about public issues and who formed the faithful core of the party’s electorate, win or lose.
Greider concludes by noting:
Nothing is likely to change until people decide to change it…Someone will have to invent a genuine political party that takes active responsibility for its adherents. This is an awesomely large project, of course, for it literally means trying to construct, piece by piece, in a fractured modern society, the personal and institutional relationships that might draw people back into the process of democratic governance.
The Democratic Party, given the legacy of Jefferson and Jackson [substitute FDR, if you prefer] , seems the likelier candidate for this sort of renewal. It’s advanced state of deterioration makes it vulnerable to change.
I have doubts about Greider’s last point. Since he wrote and even before, the DNC and Democratic Party establishment have proved remarkably adept at short-circuiting attempts to revitalize the party as a both national and local institution, most recently that of Bernie Sanders and the movement that grew up around his 2016 and 2020 candidacies. It is without question the one thing they do very well and it presents progressives and democratic socialists with a deep dilemma. As AOC noted in 2020, progressives and democratic socialists don’t really belong in the same party with Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe or Abigail Spanberger but what choice do they have given U.S. ballot access, election laws and regulations, all of which are largely written by the two major parties and clearly favor them?
If there is a solution, it may possibly lie in the kind of hybrid party , practicing “the electoral equivalent of guerilla insurgency,” described by Jacobin executive editor Seth Ackerman in an article written shortly before the Electoral College put Trump in power. This would be a bona fide, stand alone organization, as well as a real political party in the modern sense. It would have dues-paying members, each with one vote for a coherent platform that all candidates/elected officials would be required to abide by in order to receive and maintain party support. It would have a strong national issue education apparatus. It would attempt to rebuild the kind of strong, ongoing, community engaged neighborhood-level organization the Democratic Party once had in many areas of the country. Most importantly, it would emanate from the bottom up and would not be so dependent on the fortunes of an individual candidate like Sanders (or ideally, not dependent on them at all). Such a party could also use changes in campaign finance since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to its own advantage. The key difference would be, as Ackerman wrote:
But [the new party]would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.
Perhaps, in a sense, the biggest questions for our time is do progressives and democratic socialists have it in them to unshackle themselves from the corpse of the Democratic Party and help in the words of William Greider, to invent a genuine political party for the United States?