On Saturday, February 25th 2017, the Democratic National Committee held their election for chair of the National Party. But this election is more important than those that have been held in recent years.
First, the new chair will lead the party through the beginning of the Trump era. Democrats are the opposition party in both houses in Congress. They must play an active role in protecting the future of the Republic, and all of us who live in it, against the seemingly continual press of Conservatives to return it to the oppression of the 19th century.
Second, the new chair will be leading the party towards the 2018 mid-term elections. Perhaps the most important election in a generation, the Democrats will need to make significant gains in Congressional elections, as well as, all of the down ballot (governors, state legislatures, and local bodies) elections.
Third, this chair election would send a message about the direction of the party for the future after the disastrous 2016 November elections.
But, once again, almost predictably, the Democrats have botched it.
As the morning meetings began, there were four major candidates for DNC chair:
Tom Perez — former Labor Department secretary (under Pres. Obama). He was in the forefront of the administration’s domestic agenda on issues like the minimum wage and voting rights protection. Before that, he was an official at the Justice Department. Perez was the favorite of the party establishment, having support from Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and most of the party’s rank and file.
Keith Ellison — Congressman from Minnesota. The first Muslim elected to Congress, Ellison helps lead the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He rose to prominence in the parties’ upheaval during the primary election season in 2016. Ellison represents, and is supported by, the interparty left-wing movement created by Bernie Sanders. Ellison had heavy popular support, as well as, endorsements from Senators Sanders and Warren.
Sally Boynton Brown — Idaho’s state party executive director. Brown touted her non-Washington background and she played up her red-state experience, which would be important following the 2016 election. She called for a more collaborative party organization.
Pete Buttigieg — The mayor of South Bend, Ind. Buttigieg was billed as a potential compromise candidate for the Ellison and Perez factions. He represents the future of the DNC, at 35 years old, but also has red-state and military experience.
On the first ballot, Perez fell only one vote shy of the necessary 214.5 votes to win. Ellison took 200 votes on that ballot. After everyone withdrew, other than Perez and Ellison, the second ballot gave Perez 235 votes to Ellison’s 200. Tom Perez is the new DNC chair.
Before discussing why this is a problem, let’s start with the advantages:
First, in response to President Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-woman (basically pro-white male and anti-everything else) message and policies; Democrats rallied behind a slate of candidates which represented the true make-up of America. Their slate of candidates included women, people of color, and multiple religions. In the end, Democrats elected a Hispanic man as chairman and the first Muslim Congressman as deputy chair.
Second, President Trump has promised to drain the swamp, and did remove anyone with substantial experience from the administration. The Democrats responded by electing a chair with substantial government experience, particularly in the domestic agenda; and a deputy who is a sitting member of Congress.
Third, the Democrats are not running from the weaknesses that brought about the failure in 2016. They have embraced the fact that blue state driven ideas will not fix their problems. They are bringing red-state Democrats to the table and will hopefully use their ideas in the run up to the 2018 mid-term elections.
Unfortunately, the Democratic establishment has not adjusted to the flaws that presented during the 2016 primary season. Once again, those in authority have chosen a ‘company man’ over the most popular choice. They have pushed aside the will of the members in how to address the 2016 failures and move the party into the future. Tom Perez is a good man, and will make a good leader, but the party will fail to make the substantial changes necessary to make an impact in 2018.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that to point out a problem, without offering a solution, is merely whining. So let’s theorize what the party should be doing to address the failure of 2018 and the future of the party.
The Democratic Party needs to readdress the very structure of the party. For more than a generation now, the Democrats have tried to create a power structure where authority rests at the top and the will of the leadership is passed down to the lower levels. This is, on its own merits, a successful model, and one which the Republicans have thrashed Democrats with since the parties’ switch in the late 1960s. But this is not a model that works for Democrats.
If you were to ask a Republican what makes them Republican, you may get a few different responses but for the most part, it is easy to define conservativism: small government, lower taxes, and a return to an America of the past that was somehow better than it is now. But Democrats are not the same.
Democrats have been, for a long time now, the Big Tent party. Democrats are a party that has room for everyone. If you were to poll Democrats about why they align or vote Democratic, you’ll receive a plethora of reasons. More importantly, the reasons seem to always be evolving and changing. The Democrats are a party that moves with social morays. Grassroots movements are often incorporated into the party platform. Democrats are a party of the people. For this reason, the typical party structure will not work.
Unlike the top-down model outlined above, the Democrats need an entirely polar switch to become bottom-up. Democrats need to realize their strength is in the diversity of opinion. A chair on top of the structure sending orders down to the troops will never work. They can’t have the chair making a platform and expect the rank and file to follow.
How about an alternative? What would a bottom-up structure look like?
Before breaking down the problems, a discussion about the average voters. The Democratic Party has been the party of the left. Their policies are on the liberal side of the political spectrum. With the rise of the New Democrats in the 90s, the party moved further to the right. While this may have garnered support for the party from the center, it alienated traditionally Democratic voters on the left. Why would this shift occur?
The fact is that any individual voter is likely to be more conservative than the Democratic Party realizes. While these voters may support progressive causes, they have a Not In My Back Yard mentality. They may not make the same choices as others, but they don’t want to remove the right of choice for other people either. The Democrats must take this into account when planning the next phase of the life of the party. A bottom-up party structure would take into account the above about the Democratic voters. How?
First, voters on a local level meet. They decide what issues are important to them and elect leaders who support those issues. Those leaders then take the opinions of local voters up to the county level. A consensus is reached about the issues that are important to the county as a whole. Then, they elect leaders at the county level that represent those issues. From here, it continues upwards to the State and then the Federal level. When the DNC elects its leadership, after this upwards movement of ideas, its far more likely that the policies and leaders reflect the issues important to voters on a local level. That way, Democratic voters have motivation to turn out for not only national races, but down-ballot races as well.
More importantly, because Democrats are diverse on the local level, when policies are set nationally based on local ideals, Democrats will be likely to find support from undecided voters and even left leaning Republicans. By finding support amongst these two groups, success is likely to follow in election campaigns. Moreover, because the grassroots of the party is setting policy, it is likely to create a diverse platform which will maintain Democrat ideals but address the desires of the public at large.
With this plan, the Big Tent party can use their diversity as strength, rather than allowing it to be used, as the Republicans have, as weakness.