With the public increasingly rejecting the neoliberal consensus that has dominated the Democratic Party for decades, establishment Democrats have a mission to complete in the coming years. They need to convince voters that a neoliberal candidate who is funded by the donor class, is in fact a populist, social Democrat like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
The grassroots base is too strong to be totally ignored, but powerful forces hope it is weak enough to be successfully manipulated.
They must then fool the left into voting for a representative of the neoliberal wing of the party. This is where we stand at the start of 2018: The grassroots base is too strong to be totally ignored, but powerful forces hope it is weak enough to be successfully manipulated.
Progressives are already expecting strong efforts to undercut potential presidential candidates who will not strictly adhere to the party's corporatist ways. An NBC/WSJ poll shows 85 percent of voters polled agreed with the statement: "For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the reward of government while the people have borne the cost." A recent report, "Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis," funded by Action for a Progressive Future, shows these concerns may be justified. "The party experienced a falloff of voter turnout and support among people of color, the young and the working class," it concluded.
The report cites, for example, an 11 percent drop among Black women voters in 2016, normally Democrats' most reliable voting bloc. The percentage of Black women who said neither party represents them went from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017, the report adds. Moreover, an alarming number of low-income voters swung to the Republican side -- a 16 percent swing toward Republicans among those making less than $30,000 a year, and a 6 percent increase for those between $30,000 and $50,000.
The Democrats are focusing on winning back white Trump voters, more so than energizing its base or people of color.
A poll in spring 2017, the autopsy notes, found that two-thirds of the public sees the Democratic Party as "out of touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today." The Democratic Party doesn't have a "white working-class problem," but "a working-class problem." Despite this, the Democrats are focusing on winning back white Trump voters, more so than energizing its base or people of color. This emphasis, amplified by the media many times over, is one reason the report says, "the Democratic leadership has done little to indicate that it is heeding key lessons from the 2016 disaster."
Establishment Democrats have numerous methods with which to keep the progressive grassroots -- and their candidates -- from succeeding. They will blur the distinction between neoliberal elites and candidates who reflect an actual shift away from neoliberalism. They will rely on corporate media allies and their many powerful surrogates to help shape the narrative most useful for them. And they can rely on the existing electoral processes from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) -- staffed mostly with establishment loyalists -- which already gives the establishment major control over the nomination process. These advantages exist even if the DNC doesn't resort to colluding with a candidate, as they did with Hillary Clinton, to help undermine anti-establishment candidates.
This is all, of course, in addition to traditional dirty tricks and opposition research, which will launch all sorts of character attacks against progressive candidates. "I believe we are already seeing [attacks on progressives]. Just recently, Howard Dean made an offhand statement about how people over 50 shouldn't run," said Moumita Ahmed, an activist and founder of Millennials for Revolution. "And I took that as a shot at Bernie and the grassroots movement."
Muddying the Progressive Waters
One key strategy is to try and create the illusion that the Democratic Party's slate of candidates is already filled with strong, progressive voices, and that the distinction between them is of little consequence. "There will be concerted efforts to portray other candidates in the presidential race as progressives, when they are really nothing of the sort," said Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction, an online grassroots organization which focuses on progressive causes, including the DNC's establishment bent. "We are already seeing this happen. Democrats are recalibrating their positions."
A recent Politico article is a glaring example of this. It discusses a flood of left-leaning potential candidates for president that are "pulling the Democratic Party's center of gravity further to the left." To some extent, the publication of such an article reflects progress; it is telling that Democrats feel obligated to adopt progressive positions. But this narrative is also what the Democratic establishment wants you to read. It lumps six Democratic candidates together as if they are all basically the same, making the establishment blend in with the rest.
The tone of the article is evident from the first sentence. "It used to be that Bernie Sanders was an ideological lone ranger in the Senate. Now, a whole host of presidential hopefuls are racing to represent the liberal grass roots on their issues of the day," it says.
It then lists five other potential candidates, inconspicuously placing Warren fourth on the list, as if there is no distinction between her and the rest; Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Kamala Harris (California), Cory Booker (New Jersey), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon).
Where's the Money Coming From?
It is misleading to lump these candidates together, and to imply that each of their ideologies matches Sanders's. At least three are deeply distrusted by progressives, and four of them rely on corporate donations, as opposed to grassroots donors.
Booker, for instance, has tried to win progressive support with glowing speeches. But his actions and his rhetoric don't match. In 2012, he decried President Obama and others for villainizing Wall Street, a laughable assertion, given that Obama was largely financed by Wall Street and was soft on bankers following the 2008 economic crisis.
"We live in a time when people are painting [with] unfairly broad brushes (about) bankers on Wall Street in a way that makes me uncomfortable," Booker said while mayor of Newark. At the time, the New Jersey Star reported, he had collected "at least $491,000 in political contributions from the financial services industry in the last nine months."
Now in the Senate, Booker relies even more heavily on Wall Street money. When he was on the short list for vice president, he received the largest percentage of his donations from Wall Street (12.4 percent of the total) -- more any other candidate in consideration. The Center for Responsive Politics's data shows that Wall Street is his second-largest industry donor, just behind lawyers/law firms. Booker has collected more than $2.4 million in donations from the financial industry as a member of Congress since 2013, not including dark money that doesn't have to be made public.
Booker is not alone, of course. Gillibrand has received more than $4.5 million from Wall Street in her nearly 10 years in Congress, including donations from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Sen. Kamala Harris has collected more than $700,000 in her short career in Congress. She also gets a lot of money from big media corporations, such as Time Warner and Fox -- companies that are pushing against media ownership caps, net neutrality protections and other important measures.
Meanwhile, a look at Bernie Sanders's campaign donors shows that he is virtually non-reliant on corporate money. His support comes from individual donations, as well as some liberal groups and unions. This is also true of Warren, who has made a career of challenging big banks. In fact, the difference between where the candidates get their money is extreme.
Sanders, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, gets more than 80 percent of his contributions from small, individual donors. Warren gets more than 60 percent from small donors. This contrasts mightily with the others: Merkley gets about a third of his contributions from small donors, Harris gets just under 20 percent and Booker gets only 9 percent. (Data on Gillibrand's exact ratio was unavailable at press time).
Another metric that will no doubt matter to many progressives is where candidates stood in the 2016 election. In this case, three of the six -- Booker, Harris and Gillibrand -- were militant Clinton supporters. Warren did not endorse either candidate, which separates her from the pack, though many progressives were upset by her failure to endorse Sanders.
Splitting the Progressive Vote?
Merkley is a little more interesting. He is the lone member of the Senate who endorsed Sanders in the primary, which sets him apart from Warren. A Politico profile claimed Merkley may "inherit Bernie Sanders' progressive mantle," and reported he could run even if Sanders and Warren are both in the race. Other favorable articles have suggested this as well, including liberal publications like The Nation.
Plus, while all of these candidates have co-sponsored a Medicare for All bill from Sanders, they did so knowing it is, as of now, symbolic. (Notably, no senator co-sponsored Sanders's single-payer legislation in 2013, before he became such a powerful figure within the party.) Merkley, however, has expressed support for the policy since 2009.
One area where the establishment will be able to undermine progressive candidates is through the elitist rules of the DNC.
But can Merkley, whose fourth-largest contributor is Wall Street, really represent the left flank of the party? He also lacks the name recognition and fundraising capacity of Warren or Sanders, so it is hard to see him as viable if either of them runs.
The establishment would likely be happy to see these candidates split the left vote to allow a centrist candidate (Joe Biden, for example) to win. This is another concern some progressive have, especially if Sanders and Warren run at the same time.
"I'd be very surprised if both Bernie and Warren run for the presidential nomination in 2020," Solomon said. "I think they're too aligned on core economic issues to want to battle each other."
The DNC's Toolbox Against Democracy
As we learned the hard way in 2016, one area where the establishment will be able to undermine progressive candidates is through the elitist rules of the DNC. With so many closed primaries, a weak, non-binding platform and the existence of superdelegates, there are many ways that powerful figures within the party can hinder or help a candidate.
The establishment will argue that it has dealt with these concerns by creating a "Unity Reform Commission" between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters in the DNC. But the results of this commission were disappointing, and many Sanders supporters, such as James Zogby, were purged from the process. The committee came to no consensus on open primaries, which means independents cannot vote in many state primaries. "We need to focus on voting laws and making sure independents can vote in primaries," said Ahmed, who was a Sanders delegate in 2016. The Unity Reform Commission could only agree on reducing, not eliminating, superdelegates.
In sum, most of the Unity Reform Commission's report relates to non-controversial matters within party circles. For instance, one recommendation the commission agreed on was that the "party must prioritize voting rights at all levels." This statement lacks specifics and doesn't really bridge any divide between the establishment and the grassroots. "The tough questions were mostly avoided.
If the establishment could not live with losing the DNC chairmanship to a progressive in 2017, one can only imagine the extent of its resistance to nominating one for president.
Further, these modest recommendations may never be implemented. They must be passed by DNC members in 2018. In 2016, when the DNC met, it voted to keep superdelegates, not allow Medicare for All in its platform, and a host of other egregious omissions. While the commission's recommendations on paper sound good, it is hard to be optimistic that the DNC will act fairly or adopt new policies that limit its control over the process. Some slight concessions will be made, but chances are, they will be mostly symbolic.
Plus, the commission and the DNC are being run by Tom Perez, who was hand-picked by the establishment to face Keith Ellison in the election for chairman. Ellison had Sanders's backing to lead the DNC. With help from the Obama administration, Democrats decided to resist letting the Sanders wing of the party control the DNC chair position, and found a free-trader and loyal Clintonite to challenge him (while trying to argue Perez was just as progressive as Ellison). Meanwhile, Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, was targeted with xenophobic smears.
That proxy war shows the extent to which the establishment wants to avoid ceding control of the party to left-leaning social Democrats. It also shows how they are able to defeat progressives using the DNC's structure and ability to control the national debate. Democrats were so resistant to Ellison grabbing a victory for the grassroots that his opponents baselessly accused him of being anti-Semitic and skewered him for unpaid parking tickets from two decades ago. If the establishment could not live with losing the DNC chairmanship to a progressive in 2017, one can only imagine the extent of its resistance to nominating one for president (or vice president, for that matter) in 2020.
Shaping the Narrative
The candidates are playing the part. The presidential hopefuls who portray themselves as "progressive" were quick to endorse Sanders's Medicare for All bill, or risk losing all credibility among the left. But they co-sponsored the bill knowing it would not be voted on anytime soon, so the move didn't require much courage. As noted, the DNC also refused to adopt single-payer as part of a non-binding platform in 2016.
The 2020 presidential election will be an important test to gauge whether the establishment's iron grip on the party can be weakened in a serious way.
Meanwhile, one co-sponsor, Kamala Harris, is courting Clinton donors for her campaign, and reports suggest she may be an establishment choice in 2020. But Harris is aware that her relationship with Clinton donors and loyalists won't win her many trust credits among progressives. So, as the Observer reports, "Harris has also maneuvered to try to protect herself from being blindsided by possible challengers fueled by grassroots campaigning." For instance, data from the Center of Responsive Politics shows her Senate campaign donated $467,000 to Revolution Messaging, a firm that helped build Sanders's digital strategy for the 2016 campaign.
This is the kind of tactic we can expect. We will see candidates cozying up to corporate donors on a Tuesday and trying to win over the grassroots on a Wednesday. As class consciousness is rising in the US, the challenge will be to see past rhetoric and look at a candidate's record and funding sources.
Progressives have been talking about transforming the Democratic Party since the early days of the 2016 primary. The 2020 presidential election will be an important test to gauge whether the establishment's iron grip on the party can be weakened in a serious way.
"We should be getting more involved in electoral politics since we have proof that democratic socialists can be elected," Ahmed said. "We will need all the allies we can get in 2020 pushing the Democratic Party from the inside."