Fighting the Oligarchy Inside the Democratic Party

Paul Jay hosts a panel of activists organizing to challenge corporate Democrats in primaries leading up to the 2018 elections; with Justice Democrats’ Alexandra Rojas, Moumita Ahmed of Millennials for Revolution and Eugene Puryear of Stop Police Terror Project-DC

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. Across the country, progressive activists are waging a fight on two fronts, against Trump and the far right and the policies of this administration, but also inside the Democratic Party against what Bernie Sanders calls the oligarchs, the section at least that controls the Democratic Party. Some people call them corporate Democrats. How do they balance this fight. Some people say that fighting against Democrats of any shape or size or color at this point in the campaign weakens the fight against Trump. On the other hand, some of the leading activists say the fight does need to be waged. In fact, they suggest that if the fight against corporate Democrats isn’t successful the fight against Trump won’t be successful. Here’s Nina Turner at a recent event at the Real News Network.

NINA TURNER: Sisters and brothers, again, this is not just , see, folks want us to fixate so much, overly so, on the man in the White House. He makes it hard for us not to pay attention to what he’s doing. I’m not saying ignore what he’s doing. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bump up or get some resistance, fight what he’s doing. But what are we going to do once we’re done resisting? What are we going to replace him with in 2020? Because I say that any old blue just won’t do.

PAUL JAY: Any old blue just won’t do. That’s one of the slogans people are adopting. But as I said before, there are people suggesting any old blue is better than Trump. So don’t split the resistance, as it’s called.

Now joining us to talk about all of this are three people who are involved in this fight on both fronts. First of all, from Wallingford, Connecticut, Alexandra Rojas is the Campaigns Director for the Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee founded in January of 2017. Joining us from New York is Moumita Ahmed. Moumita is a grassroots organizer with People for Bernie Sanders, and co-founder of the group Millennials for Revolution, previously known as Millennials for Bernie Sanders. And joining us from Washington D.C. is Eugene Puryear. Eugene is a journalist, author, and activist. He’s co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project D.C., and a member of D.C.’s Movement for Black Lives steering committee. Thank you all for joining us.

Alexandra, why don’t you kick us off. How do you balance this issue of fighting against corporate Democrats? It’s a major fight in the party as we head towards 2020. First, obviously, 2018 with the primaries. But assuming Bernie Sanders runs again in 2020 this could be a major split in the party. There was one last time, but it could be even more this time. How do you deal with this, as I call it, the fight on both fronts?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS: Absolutely, yeah. I think there’s enough evidence out there, and just anyone, you know, like the folks on this call who have worked with grassroots leaders before, knows that the way to win is going to be fighting for a more progressive vision. We’ve seen what happens, I think, in the past with things like Obamacare, where it doesn’t matter if you have a Democratic majority if Democrats aren’t united on a vision of what universal health care looks like.

So we actually at Justice Democrats just commissioned a report. It’s called “The Future of the Party.” You can go to FutureOfTheParty.com. And a lot of the data right now shows that there is this base out there that is totally untapped into, this marginal, these marginal voters that are more progressive, that vote more consistently, that can achieve these electoral victories and really mobilize people. So there’s plenty of evidence out there, I think, that shows that fighting for a more progressive vision and being united on those policies like Medicare for All, a living wage, and ending mass incarceration are vastly popular with the American people. And so all we’re asking for, I think, is, is to, you know, give what the base wants. And I think that’s how we’re going to achieve electoral victory.

So primaries, and Justice Democrats, mind, is the best way to do that. It’s how we push policies forward. It’s like, you know, what we saw, like you said, during 2016. Even though there’s tension, this is good, right. We need to be having this national conversation, to continue to push forward. Especially in times like Trump, where we don’t have time to wait to just elect any old Democrat. We have to elect people that are actually going to fight for working people.

PAUL JAY: Moumita, this fight is not just a difference of policy in terms of these sections of the Democratic Party. Some people call the Sanders wing, some people call it Sanders wing versus the corporate Democrat wing. It’s often talked about as just disagreement about policy. In fact, Hillary Clinton said this, the only real difference between Sanders and me, she said, is how to get to the same objectives. But this difference is quite more profound than just the same objectives. This essentially as a section of the party that’s based on Wall Street, and sections of Silicon Valley and other sections of the oligarchy who really have their hooks and couldn’t have for, for probably actually really forever more or less controlled the Democratic Party. Perhaps Roosevelt pushed back on that to some extent. That kind of fight is a fight against enormous sections of capital. But it gets framed as if it’s just a policy difference, that somehow the Democratic Party can be won over to this more progressive vision. What do you make of that?

MOUMITA AHMED: You’re absolutely correct. It’s not just policies that divide the, you know, Sanders wing or the Hillary Clinton wing. The Sanders campaign was just the outcome after years and years of working class people, women of color, people of color, the LGBT community just absolutely tired of the policies of the 1 percent and their influence in our politics. At this point our elected officials do not care about helping working class people, or policies to help working class people or address this income inequality. Income inequality is a choice made by our elected officials that we have right now who take money from Wall Street, from the NRA, from all these lobby special interest groups. And so it’s not just mere policy differences. It’s literally a structural difference. The way the Democratic party is structured currently, the consultant class, the big donors, the, you know, the Wall Street funders are, are literally buying offices or positions that influence legislation. And so when you have, so that’s a structural issue. That’s not merely a policy issue.

And I think more people, more and more people are waking up to that fact, and are realizing that this is, this is the structural issue that we all need to go after. And, and in order to fix the structural issue, as Alex said, as you were saying, we need to run people, progressives, in the primaries who are not going to take money from super PACs, and they’re going to challenge the establishment candidates who are being bought, who are being, you know, who are being influenced by consultants. Yeah.

PAUL JAY: Eugene, I talked once to a political consultant for one of the big unions, and he said that the progressive forces, which he, speaking on behalf of the unions, they understand that the right, and this is even pre-Trump. So what he would say is even more the case from his point of view. That you need sections of Wall Street, you need sections of what they would call the liberal oligarchy if they want to use the oligarchy word. You need them to fight the far right. And that they’re simply, as he would say, being naive to think that when it comes down to real national presidential elections you can beat these guys without the kind of financial resources Wall Street brings to bear in these campaigns. And so if you want to stop, you know, I don’t know if he would have used this word, but a real fascist, or a further fascisization of America, you gotta play this game where you allow room for Wall Street and that section of the oligarchy in the Democratic Party. How do you answer that?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I would just answer that by looking at the facts. I mean, I think that it’s demonstrably true, and the labor movement has had this policy consistently of the lesser of two evils. Really going back to the second half of the first Carter administration, politics in the United States has marched inexorably to the right, regardless of the [ethics] of the two major political parties in both houses of Congress, and in the White House, and at the statehouse. And I think that when you look at that it shows that the lesser of two evils politics, which is consistently given ground on the important, and I think that as my copanelists spoke to, the extremely important differences, and given up in some ways trying to win them in favor of some form of triangulation has been completely unable, even when Democrats have gained the majority, of arresting this steady march to the right in terms of where the political center sits.

And I think that a lot of it is based on a policy of, really a fear. I think that electoral change and votings and things like that come after major cultural shifts, major progressive moments in terms of Congress and the like really come because there are mass independent, uncompromising social movements that are fighting these fights on their real true basis on the ground, and winning people over both intellectually and in terms of their own interests. And I think that that’s why, this issue of the fight within the Democratic Party, I would not look at two things as, as antipodes at all. I think that ultimately the only way to start to push back against the right, and for progressive people move the political center of the country back to the left, towards pro-people policies, can only happen if we’re willing to build up a majority of people who, you know, A) I think already agree with what a lot of you were saying but are politically demoralized and demobilized because the political lesser of two evils politics has delivered so little. But I think also to try to win over some people who are in the right wing camp whose interests I think are not being served. I don’t think that’s going to happen via these same type of triangulation politics that have not proven successful.

PAUL JAY: So Eugene, does that mean, though, that you actually think this fight within, within the Democratic Party is worthwhile, or not?

EUGENE PURYEAR: I think it’s one of the healthiest things happening right now in America that we see really millions of people, especially young people, engaged in a conversation about what the future of this country should look like in a real way, whether it should be just a slightly diluted version of the pro-corporate dominance of all facets of our society, or whether or not we should start thinking about how do we really serve the public good? How do we start to put people before profit? I think it’s happening in an embryonic way in some places, and in a broader way in other places. But I think ultimately it’s very healthy for the country, and to the extent that it bleeds out into building a real strong progressive political agenda irrespective of party, really a progressive political movement culture, I think that it can shift the ground, the country.

PAUL JAY: Alexandra, at the time of the Sanders, at the height of the Sanders campaign during the Democratic primary, there were hundreds of thousands of people excited about the Sanders campaign. Millions of people voted for him. There were rallies, enormous momentum. When Sanders endorsed Clinton, some of the steam went out of that. But heading into 2018, what, do you feel that this momentum has picked up again or not, in terms of the flights that are taking place at the level of primaries and going into the actual elections?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS: I think the momentum is still there. And I think we’ve seen it in the past two primary seasons that we just had. In terms of what people are voting for at the booth, in places like Texas you’re seeing candidates like Mary Wilson that are spending, you know, probably like four times less than their opponents that are spending close to a million dollars. And the way that they’re winning is by having people going out knocking doors and talking to voters.

So the energy is still there. We just need to continue to keep up that momentum and give people opportunity to tap in. It’s definitely a challenge. There’s a lot of work that goes into, just in general, congressional races and making sure that you turn out your base. But people are hurting. And people really, really want to see change, especially in the wake of Trump. And that’s what we’ve been seeing, you know, across the board, at least in our elections. And so we’re making historic victories in places like Texas and Illinois, and we’re hoping to continue to, continue to plug people into that.

PAUL JAY: Some people are arguing that Sanders never really had to face a full-scale onslaught of Wall Street. That Wall Street certainly backed Clinton over Sanders, but Wall Street didn’t come in full force, and Sanders wound up raising almost as much money as Clinton did. But in a presidential race, if it was a Sanders versus, I don’t know whether it’s Trump and Wall Street, and so is the tech sector warmed up to Trump quite a bit, that if the tech sector and Wall Street really throw their resources, and of course fossil fuel, at a presidential race, that Sanders’ model can’t compete. What do you make of that?

MOUMITA AHMED: I 100 percent disagree with that. During the primaries there were multiple polls that showed that if there were, if there were to be a race between Trump and Bernie Sanders, he would’ve won by 10 points or more. And I think his primary campaign, considering that he was not a well-known senator or well-known politician, but his ideas spread so widely, and have continued to spread even farther with a lot of the resistance movement people, who are a majority of millennials and young people getting involved for the first time in politics, we are seeing that he is extremely popular in Washington D.C. when he went to the March for our Lives first walk out. Hundreds of kids just swarmed him, and just went, you know, crazy, like as if he were the Beatles.

And so these kids are going to be able to vote pretty soon, especially in 2020. So we are going to see a huge voting bloc of people, young people organizing, and majority of young people are progressive. They are against the oil companies. They’re for Fight for $15. They’re for Medicare for All. They’re for progressive policies. So yes, they have the money. But as we’ve seen with John Ossoff’s race, there was so much money spent on that race. It didn’t, yet it didn’t yield the result that they wanted, the Democratic Party wanted, in Georgia. And as we saw in the governor’s race in Chicago, that race itself, I think more money was spent on that race than in the presidential election. So and, and again, as we saw that Democrats did not win. [Pritzker], however you say his name, did not make it.

So I don’t, I think the influence of money is waning because more people, as Eugene said, more people are organizing. The grassroots is becoming more , more of a well-oiled machine. And you know, I think we’re going to, I think the polls that came out during 2016 about Trump versus Bernie are going to, you know, that’s going to stay in terms of like, what was predicted in 2020.

PAUL JAY: Just finally, Eugene, I got a call the other day, I was talking to Ralph Nader, and he was sort of berating the left across the country from the, the point of view of he didn’t feel there was enough sense of urgency about the moment we’re in, in terms of the fascisization, of course the climate crisis, geopolitically, the, the level of tension and potential war. I mean, there already is wars going on. But getting broader and even more dangerous. I don’t know if you, if you agree with this idea, that, that too much of the left seems to, quoting him, doing kind of left business as usual. What do you make of that?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I think there is a sense of urgency. I think there is a sense of urgency, but I think the problems that you outlined, that he was outlining are so big, can we ever have enough of a sense of urgency? But I would just say I would agree in the sense that I do think that, and speaking of the issue of big money, about politics, that we aren’t having enough of a conversation on the left about these big questions of our time. I think there’s too much wrapped up in Trump, in all the drama in the White House, that we need to be focused, more laser focused on a lot of these points that at least broadly Bernie Sanders was raising.

I mean, these are the questions of our time. I mean, are we going to take things that are strictly for private health care, housing, and the like, and turn them into public goods? Are we going to truly invest in infrastructure? How are we going to invest in mass incarceration re-entry and transforming so many of our communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs? I mean, win, lose, or draw, these are the fights that we just absolutely have to have if we’re going to have a world that’s really worth anything at all. And I think, you know, that’s something that Ralph Nader has been consistently trying to point out throughout his career, which is that if we don’t challenge this type of corporate power head on and directly and counter[inaudible] without people power and public goods can give us a much better form of life and standard of living, we’re going to keep moving to the right and it’s going to keep being unsuccessful.

PAUL JAY: OK this panel is just the beginning of a conversation. We hope to do this every week, or once every other week, talking to the panelists that are with us now, inviting some others who are involved in this fight in different parts of the country. So all three guests, thank you very much for joining us.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Thank you so much for having me.

PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.