A little civil war can be a good thing

Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio (Credit: Reuters/Joshua RobertsAP/Ricardo Arduengo)

Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio (Credit: Reuters/Joshua RobertsAP/Ricardo Arduengo)

Joan Walsh writes in Salon this week that pundits and hopeful right-wingers trying to drum up drama are wrong in thinking there’s a civil war among Democrats. She goes after centrists who claim the party is threatened by “dead end” populism.

Personally, I think it’s really not helpful for Democrats to caricature other Democrats as selling “hate” if they point to the disproportionate income, wealth and political power currently enjoyed by the 1 percent. Hell, even some 1 percenters think the pendulum has swung too far. (Not crazy sore winners like Tom Perkins, of course.)

I debated Third Way’s Matt Bennett about this topic on “Hardball.” It was a friendly, civil debate; you can watch at the end of this post. But I was struck by a couple of things. Bennett — correctly, I think — insisted candidates and parties win when they have a vision for the future. And yet he – like his centrist comrades in the Balz-Rucker piece – continue to push Third Way’s 30-year-old Democratic Leadership Council approach, on a country that’s crying out for new ideas. It’s Third Way that’s looking backward, not progressives.

The attitude Walsh calls out is epitomized by a tone deaf op-ed by Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler in the Wall Street Journal:

If you talk to leading progressives these days, you’ll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.

While New Yorkers think of their city as the center of the universe, the last time its mayor won a race for governor or senator—let alone president—was 1869. For the past 144 years, what has happened in the Big Apple stayed in the Big Apple. Some liberals believe Sen. Warren would be the Democratic Party’s strongest presidential candidate in 2016. But what works in midnight-blue Massachusetts—a state that has had a Republican senator for a total of 152 weeks since 1979—hasn’t sold on a national level since 1960.

This debate surfaces eternal frustrations I have with the Democratic Party and people who would pull it to the center. It’s often repeated that the Democratic Party isn’t nearly as liberal as Republicans are conservative (though a recent Gallup poll showed liberal identification at it highest ever). But many of the policies that are painted with the liberal brush are hardly fringe.

As Greg Sargent points out, a majority of voters in a recent poll favor not just taxing the wealthy, but taxing them specifically to help the poor, which one would not expect to be the most popular use of those funds given the recurring dramatic cries of “class war.” Most Americans recognize that the wealth gap has widened, and a majority of Democrats, independents and even Republicans favor government action to help the poor. Some of the populist upstarts running for office featured in a recent Washington Post piece on the subject are speaking out on the mind-blowingly radical idea of raising the minimum wage.

There’s solid evidence that progressive messages could resonate with voters, but there’s an assumption that these are big-city liberal ideas that can’t make it in the heartland. Former SEIU president Andrew Stern notes:

“It is fair to say that more liberal places find politicians first who are more willing to step out on these issues,” he said. “But it is not a shift until it’s seen to work in Minnesota or Wisconsin or New Mexico or Arizona.”

If it’s going to work, it’s going to take a belief in the power of a progressive vision and a real commitment of resources to selling that vision effectively and mobilizing voters. But the Democratic Party is too scared to take the risk.

In my years of working with candidates and campaigns, I’ve seen the party come in and try to tamp down candidates’ progressive tendencies. I’ve seen them abandon others who are steadfast in their vision. When those underfunded campaigns don’t win, it’s taken as validation of their caution. You can’t fairly claim that these issues and candidates can’t win if you don’t put as much energy and resources behind them as behind the kind of tepid Democrats that keep me from every donating directly to the Democratic Party.

Based on those frustrations, I think a little civil war in the party could be a good thing. Not a civil war based on corporate Democrats feeding political fear that’s brought us to a place where the income gap continues to widen and fighting back against that is somehow controversial. A civil war in which progressives are forcing the party to follow the leaders who are capturing grassroots energy and showing that well-run, progressive campaigns can win.

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