The Democratic Party’s official symbol is a jackass — and that’s exactly how the party is perceived by the American electorate right now. Only 18 states have Democratic governors, and Democrats hold a majority in both legislative houses in just 11 states. As the New York Times noted, the party hasn’t had this little power since Herbert Hoover was president. And Democrats will continue to get their asses kicked in every election until grass-roots movements organize to oust the party’s corporate-backed incumbents, make a mockery of state party bosses and take the helm once they’ve all been driven out.
Of America’s two major political parties, the Republicans have become the party of extremists determined to privatize the commons, neuter the government’s ability to police polluters and corporate tax avoiders and redistribute wealth to the rich. The Democrats, on the other hand, have simply failed to stand for anything other than a watered-down version of what Republicans are proposing. State Democratic Party chairpeople, committee members, top-level elected officials and check writers have made it clear they have no interest in changing course in their embrace of policies that disenfranchise the middle class, nor are they listening to the grass-roots movements demanding economic, environmental and racial justice. Even as the country moves further to the left, Democrats continue to lose. The 2014 midterm election cycle was a perfect example.
Last November, voters in Illinois passed a nonbinding ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, and Massachusetts voters approved a measure guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers. Voters in Republican-controlled Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota moderately increased the minimum wage. Alaskan voters even legalized marijuana. Despite this outburst of populism, all these voters simultaneously elected Republicans — who are notoriously against all those things. This is partially due to record-low voter turnout. The last time such a small percentage Americans bothered to vote was more than 70 years ago, when a huge chunk of the country was an ocean away, immersed in war. But blame can also be laid at the Democrats’ feet for failing to provide a noticeable alternative to GOP extremism.
If Democratic leaders were smart, they would take their embarrassing 2014 losses to heart and truly embrace the economic populism voters are demanding. Yet at the federal level, Senate Democrats caved in near-record time last week to grant the president trade promotion authority, paving the way for fast-track congressional approval of trade deals — permitting only up or down votes, without amendments or filibusters — including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest, most secretive global free trade deal in modern history. The backtracking of top Senate Democrats such as Ron Wyden and Patty Murray was especially disappointing, considering how Democrats held the line just 24 hours earlier in their refusal to allow debate on the bill because of the trade deal’s lack of even the most basic of protections for workers and the environment. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid lent assistance to Republican leader Mitch McConnell to whip the last few senators in line who had been intent on blocking the legislation. Bipartisanship seems to be possible only when it’s for the benefit of global corporations. The House is poised to vote on the agreement in June, where it is expected to face much stronger opposition from progressive-leaning Democrats and Republicans staunchly opposed to anything President Barack Obama proposes.
Even state Democratic committees in the midst of changing leadership are repeating the same mistakes. In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker won elections three times in the last four years, state party leaders and big-name party bosses have consistently anointed conservative-leaning, uninspiring candidates such as Tom Barrett and Mary Burke while working hard to keep more progressive gubernatorial candidates from being competitive.
What the blue party needs right now is a swift kick in the ass. And as much as independent parties like Socialist Alternative or the Green Party try to draw enough disaffected leftists from the Democratic Party in the next few election cycles, their ascent will remain a fantasy as long as America has winner-take-all elections. But the American left can have a voice in politics if it takes an example from the tea party and channels organized grass-roots energy into electoral mutiny, just as Indiana Republicans did in 2012. Dick Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana, voted with Republicans almost every time during his long career, other than one instance in spring of 2006, when he worked with Obama on helping central Eurasian countries with nuclear disarmament. The tea party faction of the GOP vowed to defeat Lugar in the Republican primary, even though establishment Republicans warned that ousting Lugar would open the seat up to a Democrat. Sure enough, tea party favorite Richard Mourdock won the primary, then ended up losing to a Democrat after a gaffe referring to pregnancy from rape as “something God intended.”
Because primaries are almost always low-turnout elections, grass-roots movements such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street can make powerful statements by running their own candidates and mobilizing their members to vote in Democratic primary elections against entrenched incumbents. If the incumbent is ousted in the primary, one of two things will happen: Either a candidate with an unabashedly progressive platform will be your new state representative, governor or member of Congress or a Republican against all those things will win the seat. Either way, the grass roots will have pulled the state party organization significantly to the left, making it known that all future candidates had better adopt the populist values demanded by the people or be defeated.
And when the grass roots have successfully shifted the conversation to be about the issues affecting their communities and livelihoods rather than the false issues trotted out by party bosses, conservative Democrats and Republicans won’t hold their seats for long.