At this point, progressives and leftists should seriously be questioning whether the Democratic Party is for them. They already knew the Democratic establishment had contempt for Senator Bernie Sanders, the Independent gadfly whose focus on economic issues galvanized young liberals of all backgrounds. The hostility of the mainstream media and Democratic insiders toward the left’s candidate was already a red flag for progressives, and for some, the outcome of the DNC chair race may be the final straw.
The leaked DNC emails have shown just how distrustful of progressives the neoliberal establishment is. WikiLeaks revealed that both former DNC Chair Wasserman-Schultz and her interim successor Donna Brazile brazenly pressured the corporate media to work against Sanders and his backers. It is clear that Sanders and his oft-caricatured supporters struck a nerve with Democratic officialdom. In hindsight, Democratic higher-ups and friends should not have undermined highly popular Sanders, who was predicted to beat Trump by much safer margins than his opponent.
Nonetheless, after a bitter primary season and a disastrous general election, Democratic voters hoped the often overlooked DNC Chair race might unify the fractured Party. Many on the left also thought the DNC race could bring about a much needed paradigm shift, a shift away from the failed corporatist approach and toward youth-centric, grassroots organizing.
An obvious, though symbolic step toward Democratic reconciliation would have been to give an overtly left-wing Democrat the reins of the National Committee. After all, Sanders himself was only given a phony leadership position in the legislature. Indeed, it would have been refreshing for a true progressive to replace a chairperson who opposed medical marijuana for ailing cancer patients and wanted to delay harsher rules on payday-lending just to please donors. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the black Muslim co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, seemed like the perfect choice.
Ellison’s reputation as a bold advocate for workers and minorities garnered him the endorsements of progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, who understood (after 2016) that populist messaging wins. Ellison even enjoyed support from major establishment players such as Clintonites Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, and John Lewis. Despite a ridiculous attempt to paint Ellison as anti-Semitic, Senator Sanders and the Young Democrats of America Jewish Caucus backed the Minnesota Congressman. It appeared that Ellison’s victory, which would appease the Bernie crowd and bring the Party back together, was imminent.
But Obama and Clinton loyalists would not have it. They feared a progressive takeover, a Cleansing of the Temple. They could not fathom losing their influence over the Party. Out of their contempt for all things Bernie, they prodded Labor Secretary Tom Perez to obstruct Ellison in his (then) clear path to victory. Sure, Perez had a respectable track record doing civil rights work in the Department of Justice before joining the Labor Department as a pro-union advocate, and was touted as Obama’s “most liberal” cabinet member. Yet, if Perez is truly so liberal, it’s curious that while Ellison went after malfeasant banks post-recession, Perez protected them. It’s curious that (in an interview with Nomiki Konst), Perez did not describe the Democratic Party as liberal or progressive, but rather as a “big tent.” And finally, it’s curious that no notable Sanders surrogates endorsed Perez during the chair race. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Perez helped perpetuate the false and divisive “Bernie bro” narrative.
In the end, DNC insiders chose not to go the progressive route. This continuation of the status quo is disappointing, but not surprising. Indeed, it is hardly newsworthy that DNC members, many of whom are lobbyists and consultants (as journalist Lee Fang has pointed out), voted in favor of someone who is friendly with lobbyists and consultants. In a further rejection of Sanders-style progressive restructuring, DNC members voted against a measure that would have prohibited corporate PAC donations.
Alan Dershowitz threatened to leave the Democratic Party if Keith Ellison won. Well, Ellison lost (albeit by a small margin, a fact that is somewhat reassuring for liberal Democrats). Now, a new question arises: should progressives threaten to reevaluate their commitment to the Party?