All for None: The Democratic Party's Reluctance to Embrace Progressivism

Finn Collom

Jake Abraham

Jake Abraham

The Democratic Party loves to lose.

Following their candidate’s historic defeat at the hands of Donald J. Trump, you might be forgiven for thinking they might want to do some soul-searching to find out what went wrong with the Democratic Party’s nominee. You might ask, what was it about Hillary Clinton’s campaign—their algorithm-driven decision to skip campaigning in the Midwest, their willingness to dismiss Trump voters as “deplorables,” the primary battle waged against Bernie Sanders and the Party’s popular progressive wing—that signaled a path to defeat at the hands of one of the most visceral human manifestations of the ruling class?

Unfortunately, soul-searching is not what the Democratic Party is interested in doing. Instead, the Party establishment has consolidated around its neoliberal agenda and attempted to punish, silence, and co-opt those who dare question its strategic efficacy. Liberal pundits have made blatantly unsubstantiated claims that Sanders and his supporters hope to destroy the Democratic Party, his support was bolstered by a overwhelmingly male army of sexist “Bernie Bros,” and his policies don't connect to a broad-based intersectional fight for civil rights and feminism. If attacking the left doesn’t work? Just say that Russian hackers stole the election from Hillary, a claim widely circulated but blown out of factual proportion.

This post-November ideological assault found its proxy war in the race to elect a new Democratic National Conference Chairperson. Former chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, resigned in July after Wikileaks released pro-HRC email correspondences between her and other notable party officials, and was replaced by Donna Brazile as interim chair. Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District entered the race on November 15th, and quickly became the party’s frontrunner. Soon thereafter in December, Tom Perez, former Secretary of Labor to President Obama, announced his candidacy for the position with the backing of the majority of establishment Democrats close to the Obama wing, setting up a matchup of party disunity, featuring Perez as party loyalist and Keith Ellison as maverick outsider.

We still might look at Tom Perez and not see an especially reactionary figure. I agree with Clio Chang in “The Case for Tom Perez Makes No Sense” when she argues that Ellison and Perez’s campaign messages were in many ways compatible. Both subscribe to the frame of Abstract Liberalism, effectively defined as subscription to “a ‘set of distinctive features,’ namely, individualism, universalism, egalitarianism, and meliorism (the idea that people and institutions can be improved).”

By nature of representing the Democratic Party platform in their campaigns, both Ellison and Perez believe in the “big tent” political party as a means of bringing people together, echoing certain qualities of universalism. Additionally, both support aspects of the tame, albeit egalitarian reforms proposed by the Democratic Party platform, including protection of reproductive rights, carceral state reform, and expanding access to college. Both figures are historically congruent with the centrist positioning of the Democratic Party—neither will be talking about mass nationalization of industry or grain requisitioning anytime soon.

So then, you might ask: Why did the Democratic mainstream recruit a candidate to run against the progressive guy while emphasizing party unity if their message is that they’re the essentially the same?

Their divergence on the issue of Israel/Palestine is one big answer to that question. In a coordinated smear campaign, Perez backers with vested interests in the continuance of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, including billionaire Haim Saban, attorney Alan Dershowitz, and the Anti-Defamation League, attempted to paint Ellison as an anti-Semite by highlighting his long-retracted support of the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan in college and Ellison’s past criticism of Israeli settlement expansion. In contrast, Tom Perez has served effectively as a yes-man for the United States’ bipartisan policy of enabling militarized occupation. Following his campaign’s victory, Perez attended the AIPAC 2017 Policy Conference, where he gave a speech congratulating the Democratic Party for its opposition to the BDS Movement.

The attacks on Ellison rely overwhelmingly on the conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of Zionism or anti-Zionism. Zionists have long justified the Jewish state as a place where the principle of equality for people of all ethnicities and religions should be recognized, but Israel continues to enforce a multitude of laws which sanction discrimination against Palestinian Arabs. Take, for example, the 2016 “Stop and Frisk” Amendment, which permits police to search people at random in areas suspected to be hosting “hostile sabotage activity.” This and other discriminatory laws don’t actually spell out that “their intent in creating a law is to discriminate,” but are still are hugely disproportional in practice, targeting predominantly non-Jewish ‘others’. Still, these policies are enabled by an adherence in Israel and in the United States to the use of “the language of liberal individualism to describe collective experience,” which effectively masks “collective exercises of group power relentlessly channeling rewards, resources, and opportunities from one group to another…”

Perez’s victory over Ellison was not the first time the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been beaten back by the extreme center, nor will it be the last. While we can continue to agitate within the Democratic Party for stronger center-left stances on issues like Medicare-for-All and universally free public colleges, we must also recognize the strategic limitations to organizing under the same Democratic banner as reactionary warmongers and insurance company mouthpieces. Seeking out modest reforms within the current institutional framework will win the working class some fights, and it might even move us towards Sanders’ vision of social democracy. However, its gains will stop far short of truly intersectional socialism, based on a message of political and economic self-determination for all people.