Progressives Win on Election Day, Can they Win the Democratic Party?
Progressives scored big Election Day victories, but for Trump to be defeated, they need to win control of the Democratic Party, says Jeff Cohen, author, professor, and co-editor of “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis”
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Democrats scored big victories on election day in what was widely seen as a rebuke of President Donald Trump. But these wins also had significance for the ongoing internal debate over the party’s future. Democratic Socialist candidates were among the key winners and candidates backed by the Bernie Sanders offshoot, Our Revolution won 21 out of the 59 contests they took part in.
This election day comes as a new book from former DNC chair Donna Brazile has reignited the tensions between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Last week, Brazile revealed a financial arrangement that gave the Clinton campaign effective control of the DNC well before Clinton on the nomination. Speaking today on MSNBC, Brazille called the Clinton camp a cult.
DONNA BRAZILE: It was a cult. I felt like it was a cult. You could not penetrate them. I mean, I, Look you can, I am a grass root organizer. I know street politics better than I know sweet politics. I know how to touch people where they live, work, play and pray but I cannot help a candidate Joe, if I don’t have the resources, if I cannot spend the resources that the party is raising because there’s a blind agreement…
DONNA BRAZILE: Between a campaign.
SPEAKER: Unspoken even.
DONNA BRAZILE: Yeah. Again I want my party to come back from this stronger.
AARON MATÉ: Brazile’s open criticism of the Democratic Party coincides with a recent autopsy of the Democrats put together by a group of progressives. It’s called, Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis. I’m joined now by a member of the group that put it out. Jeff Cohen is an author and founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he’s also an associate professor of journalism and the co-founder of the group, rootsaction.org.
Welcome Jeff. Before we get to the autopsy, I’m curious, your reaction to the election day results. A lot of progressive victories. A transgender woman beat the state lawmaker in Virginia who introduced the bathroom bill. In Philadelphia, we have a civil rights attorney who is opposed to mass incarceration now becoming the new district attorney. Your sense of what happened on Tuesday across the country.
JEFF COHEN: New district attorney in Philadelphia. Yeah. It’s a good day for progressives. This was a big win. It showed that you could defeat Trumpism and one of the most delightful victories, you alluded to it, is this young socialist who’s now a member of the state house in Virginia named Lee Carter. There’s a wonderful article about him in the New Republic. He’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He’s 30 years old. His campaign manager was 22. They didn’t get much help from the state party in Virginia and they won.
There’s a lot of excitement but the caveat is that if you keep a corporate establishment with a stranglehold over the national Democratic Party, the neo-liberal hawkish wing of the Democratic Party and a lot of this energy that showed itself so well across the country on Tuesday, it will not be able to win big elections. It will not be able to win enough big elections. That’s the problem.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about that in terms of your autopsy. The report goes through a number of issues with the party. The first one at the very top is corporate power and the party. What did you find?
JEFF COHEN: Well, the party cannot appeal to working class voters as well as it should across racial lines if it’s seen as tied to corporate power. Just think, for 16 years, Democrats were in the White House, first Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama, and never once during a time of mass outsourcing of jobs, middle class union jobs, outsourced to cheap labor or slave labor countries and not once in that 16 years did a Democratic Party President polarize with one of those outsourcing corporations.
Indeed, Barack Obama made the head of his jobs council the CEO of General Electric which was a pioneer in outsourcing. If you are sort of tied to corporate power so you can’t identify villains, comes along Trump and he’s not the only one but phony populists, charlatans, seeming to stand up against the rich or against the big corporations that the Democratic leadership will not stand up against. That charlatan may get elected.
Trump got elected in 2016. I’m worried about future Trumps, if the Democratic Party leadership is controlled by Wall Street and a corporate elite that does not allow a progressive populist agenda to be heard, that could appeal to working class people across racial lines. You know, we pointed out in the autopsy that even the most reliable core in the base of the Democratic Party, core group, is African American women and even there they’re losing faith and surveys are showing a higher percentage, a stronger minority of African American women who say neither party represents me. Yes, corporate power is a key reason that the Democratic Party agenda does not appeal to working class people in the way that it could.
AARON MATÉ: Right. You know, if I remember the figure right from your report, overall, the African American vote declined 7% from 2012 to 2016. One of the things I found interesting was where you quote someone named Albert Morales who was the Democratic National Committee’s director of engagement for Latino voters. He asked for $3 million to battle voter suppression in a number of key states. $3 million was his request and the Clinton, in response to that, in response to his request he got just $300,000 which he says was a pitiful amount.
JEFF COHEN: Yeah. That happened, he made his request in 2014. In 2016, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus complained there’s not enough outreach. You had African American leaders, Amy Allison, Steve Phillips from Democracy in Color making the same complaint, that there wasn’t enough door knocking and mobilizing in the African American community in 2016. That’s part of the critique that anyone can find if they read our report at democraticautopsy.org, which is the agenda is wrong. The agenda is not progressive. The agenda is not anti-corporate. The agenda is not pro-working class and pro-jobs but also the outreach, the way the Democratic Party operates.
It’s run by a bunch of well off white people. They hire well off white consultants. They are out of touch with working class people. They’re out of touch with people of color and the best example of what went wrong in 2016 and we quote it in our report is the now infamous quote from the Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, who said in July of 2016, “For every blue collar Democrat we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
That says it all. It’s like, yeah we can have our agenda tied to Wall Street and corporate elite and support NAFTA and support Trans-Pacific Partnership, and sure, we will lose working class voters in Ohio and Wisconsin and Michigan, but we’re going to pick up the “persuadables.” The moderate Republicans. If you you pay a lot of money to multimillionaire consultants who get rich in every election cycle but they often cannot win because they are so out of touch with working class voters, then you’ll be looking for these few persuadable Republicans when the real job is appeal to young people. Appeal to Black people. Appeal to Latinos and mobilize them to get out to vote.
That’s the way to win elections behind a progressive change of our country, not relying on the formulation of Chuck Schumer and the best example of how the Clintonites who ran the DNC are out of touch is when Trump is giving his slogan “Make America Great Again,” hearkening to some distant past that never was, there was actually for a while, on the website of the Clinton campaign, “America is Already Great.” That’s how they were going to rebut Trump’s Make America Great Again.
Well in a change election, with massive income inequality, where people are hurting in all of these swing states, working people of all colors and your slogan is America is Already Great, I think it only lasted a few hours. These are highly paid consultants, totally divorced from middle class and working class and poor America.
AARON MATÉ: Right. You know, one of the gems to come out of the book “Shattered,” which came out a few months ago, it’s an inside story of the Clinton campaign based on interviews with dozens of campaign staffers. The authors reveal that the Clinton campaign approach to Michigan was to simply avoid it because they realized that Hillary Clinton’s message was turning off working class voters, because of her stance on trade.
Their novel approach was simply to stop campaigning in Michigan in the hopes that they would turn out the people who already were in favor of Clinton and just not spark any more opposition to her than already existed. We all know how that turned out. Let me ask you, Jeff, so essentially, your autopsy here is an endorsement of sorts for this civil war inside the party, of the Bernie Sanders wing advancing with its message and doing away with the corporate Democratic message.
But the problem with the civil war right now is that the Clinton wing and the Sanders wing are not the only two sides. We’re also dealing with the Trump presidency and the Republicans. I’m wondering your thoughts on dealing with the struggles of trying to reform the party while still needing coalition, still needing to make coalitions sometimes with corporate Democrats to stop the Trump agenda.
JEFF COHEN: Yeah. It’s a good question but let me take issue with one of its assumptions. The democraticautopsy.org, our report is not aimed at re-fighting 2016 or worsening a divide within the Democratic Party. The goal of the autopsy and I’m passionate, but the autopsy is very sober. I encourage everyone to read it. It’s about 33 pages. It’s very sober. It’s talking about the future.
Looking at the past for what was done wrong and what needs to be done in the future. Yes, the number one enemy is Trumpism and the racism and the xenophobia of it. Number one enemy, no doubt about it, but it’s our argument in the autopsy that unless you have a different agenda, a progressive agenda, public college free, universal healthcare, jobs programs, green jobs programs that can put people to work. Unless you have that agenda combined with a strategy of reaching out to your base.
You know people under 30 are the most progressive force in society. Reach out to young people. Reach out to people of color. Reach out to working class people with a message that will create enthusiasm. That’s the way to defeat Trumpism. You will not defeat Trump is you run people like Diane Feinstein. If you elect people who get elected on a neo-liberal corporate friendly hawkish politics. It will just lead to this see-saw where two years later the Republicans will win again.
We’ve been there before. We had Bill Clinton with a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate in 1993. They vacillated. They passed NAFTA. They alienated their base and the Republicans came flooding into power. Obama gets elected in 2009. We have a majority of the Democrats in the House, a majority of the Senate is Democrat and then because they helped out Wall Street but they wouldn’t put a foreclosure freeze to save millions of homes, they lost everything again.
Yes, Aaron you’re right. The number one goal is we have to turn back Trumpism but you cannot turn back Trumpism by just bringing back a new batch of neo-liberal corporate Democrats because trust me, they will lost two years later. You need a transformed Democratic Party in order to actually defeat Trumpism and build a progressive future that can hold onto power and deliver enough reforms for the working class of all races, so that you stay in power.
AARON MATÉ: Transforming the Democratic Party to me sounds not like necessarily re-litigating the 2016 primary but deciding on and debating the future of the party based on the split that primary brought out.
JEFF COHEN: I agree with that. We’re not going in the right direction. You know, a few weeks ago there was a Democratic Party meeting in Las Vegas and Tom Peres, the chair of the Democratic National Committee engaged in a purge where several of the pro-Bernie people including the wonderful, very loyal Democrat, Arab American leader James Zagbee. He was kicked off the two committees he’d been on for years.
No, I would say that Tom Peres and the national Democratic Party leadership is going in the wrong direction, but the exciting thing, on Tuesday, is that the base is what made this victory possible. These people that have won elections across the country, many of whom supported Bernie. Some of whom did not but many of them are running for the first time. A lot of people of color, a lot of women. We had queer candidates. We had trans candidates. We had open socialist candidates.
If the energy comes from the base, then we can push Tom Peres and the neo-liberals aside over time and I believe it’s the only way to defeat Trumpism. Neo-liberal corporatists, maybe they’ll win this election or that, but it’s not a prolonged permanent way of defeating the Trumps and building a progressive future. That has to come from transforming the Democratic Party from the ground up, and Tuesday was a good start on that.
AARON MATÉ: Jeff Cohen, co-founder of rootsaction.org and founding director of the Parks Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College where he’s also an associate professor of journalism. The Democratic autopsy is at democraticautopsy.org. Jeff thank you.
JEFF COHEN: Thanks Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.