Fighting for the soul of a political party


The seemingly never-ending slog of choosing candidates for president has more to offer than dick measuring contests and misogynist attacks on people’s wives. It’s an opportunity to define the vision of the two major political parties and send a message to politicians about the future we want for our country. 

Both parties find themselves at something of a crossroads. For Democrats, they are feeling the power and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to push for racial justice. They’re recognizing the growing influence of voters of color and taking bolder positions on immigration. Bernie Sanders is stoking a fierce distaste for corporate politics and energy around fighting economic inequality. For Republicans, they are manifesting eight years of anger, frustration and racism in reaction to the Obama presidency, and spotlighting the most shameful and offensive elements of their party. These are both trends that progressives can take advantage of in pushing a bolder vision for the future.

For months, no one believed Donald Trump was a legitimate presidential candidate. We understandably laughed off his antics and reveled in the disgrace he was bringing to the Republican Party. But we’re not laughing anymore, especially not so-called “establishment” Republicans. They’ve insisted that Trump would fade away and an establishment candidate would emerge to lead a legitimate campaign. But as Frank Rich writes in New York Magazinethey have to come face to face with the fact that Trump isn’t actually fringe in their party; in fact he “has smashed the illusion, one I harbored as much as anyone, that there’s still some center-right GOP Establishment that could restore old-school Republican order if the crazies took over the asylum.”

Rich calls out the fact that Trump’s blatant racism is right at home in the GOP:

The fiction that Trump’s exploitation of racial resentments is a shocking breach of Republican values has been fiercely asserted by Romney, Ryan, and the rest of the GOP Establishment for the obvious reason: A nearly all-white party, staring down the barrel of a looming minority-white America, can’t compete in national elections unless it can claim to have retained its founding identity as the party of Lincoln. That’s why there have been so many recent revisionist histories in conservative publications (not to mention a book by Joe Scarborough) attempting to sanitize the racial animus of the Goldwater-Nixon “Southern strategy” of a half-century ago. As voters went to the polls on Super Tuesday, March 1, Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist at the Journal who loathes Trump, captured the Establishment’s panic that Trump might now be sabotaging that elaborate airbrushing effort. “It would be terrible to think the left was right about the right all these years,” he wrote, and to discover that its “tendentious” accusations of “racial prejudice” were validated by Trump’s success among the Republican electorate of 2016.

As much hand-wringing and finger-wagging we’re seeing now, Rich thinks the party will fall ultimately fall in line:

Win or lose, Trump, like Goldwater, may be further hastening the party’s steady consolidation rightward. For all their blustery threats of third-party campaigns, defections to Hillary, and other acts of rebellion, Republican elites in the political game are more likely to bend to Trump than the other way around, no matter how many conservative op-ed columnists beg them not to do so.

The race to the bottom on the GOP side opens up opportunities for progressives, not just on the presidential level. The Democratic presidential candidates are starting to reflect a demand for more progressive policies, but is everyone on board? Bill Moyers and Michael Winship made a bold call for Clinton to push out two Democrats that represent what should be the fading past of the party: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Congresswoman and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Moyers and Winship lay out their histories, but two recent examples make the point clearly. Rahm Emanuel tried to suppress the video of the police murder of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old who was shot 16 times, while he faced a tough reelection bid. His administration paid McDonald’s family $5 million even though the family had not filed a lawsuit at that point. Emanuel claims that he never saw the video in the 400 days the police kept it secret; as Moyers and Winship point out, “if that’s true, he was guilty of dreadful mismanagement; if he did know, he’s guilty of far worse.”

Wasserman Schultz, meanwhile, is attacking a major progressive victory, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, championed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She is working to weaken it in collusion with the payday loan companies, a predatory industry that charges exorbitant interest rates and keeps poor people in crippling and growing debt. Do people who put exploitative corporations over poor and working class people, or who actively cover up gross police misconduct, have a place in the leadership of today’s Democratic Party?

There’s often a backlash to efforts by progressives to hold Democrats accountable (Emanuel reportedly called liberal groups “retarded” for planning to run ads against Democrats opposing Obamacare). Many Democrats sigh in exasperation when progressives go after a Democrat like Ami Bera who supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership and voted to block Syrian refugees from entering the US. In competitive districts like Bera’s, of course it is likely that having a Democrat who is with us on some things that a Democrat who stands in the way of the entire agenda. At the same time, if Democrats get a free pass on major issues, if we never put a scare into them, how can we expect them to take a stand? How do we move an agenda without accountability? Why should we welcome Democrats who kowtow to a vocal minority rather than representing that majority that support immigration reform, reproductive rights and gun control? I have no particular loyalty to or affinity for the Democratic Party, but within the limitations of our two party system, fighting for a progressive vision and holding accountable those Democrats who don’t adhere to it is the best chance we have to push a more aggressive vision. There is ample evidence that this kind of agenda is a winning one politically, and we need to make the case, with the carrot and the stick, that it’s the one they should follow. We can’t let the message be that Democrats don’t have to work for our votes, no matter what their district looks like. And we certainly shouldn’t reward Democrats who blatantly undermine major priorities with leadership positions.

The GOP seems to be on the path to self destruction. Democrats need to let them deal with the pieces and not worry about picking up voters in that crumbling coalition that never would support a Democrat anyway. With the demographic shifts happening in the US, now is the time to make sure progressives win the fight for the soul of the party and the Democrats are held accountable to representing the diverse majority.




Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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