It’s Time for Democrats to Talk About Class
As Donna Brazile blows the whistle on the DNC, a new “autopsy” on the Democratic Party’s failures urges it to choose Main Street over Wall Street. We speak to Karen Bernal, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus
AARON MATÉ: Here with Karen Bernal. She is Chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus. Hi, Karen.
KAREN BERNAL: Hi. How are you? Good morning.
AARON MATÉ: Good morning. Why is the Democratic Party in crisis?
KAREN BERNAL: I think it’s fair to say that the election last November was definitely a wake-up call, beyond a wake-up call, astounding to lose to someone like Trump. What we found was that, most of the time, the party does an autopsy or post-mortem of an election once it’s occurred, this time there hadn’t been one. We decided to do one because if there was any election that screamed for one, it was this past election. More to the point, what should never happen again, particularly with 2018 and 2020 coming right up, we can’t afford that.
So in order to find out what not to do, we need to know what happened. And we need to be able to do it in a very clear-eyed fashion, so that’s what we did.
AARON MATÉ: What did you find? What are your key proposals for how the Democratic Party can revive itself?
KAREN BERNAL: There’s so many aspects to it. As you know, the report, there are eight, nine sections. For anyone that’s interested, they should read it. It’s at democraticautopsy.org. In it, we talk about the fact that, at its most basic, they continue down a road of eschewing its own base, working class, communities of color, young voters and so on, in favor of this ever-shrinking universe of suburban white voters or working-class voters which, by the way, that universe is soon to be no more, because now know from the Economic Policy Institute that the majority of the working class will be communities or people of color across the board, from 17 to 54, they will be people of color in 2032. If we only talk about the ages of 25 to 34, that will happen in 2021, just a year after the presidential elections coming up.
Because of that, this notion of kind of practicing a silo politics where we prioritize so-called identity or demographic over another, that needs to stop. The needs of these demographics are now intersecting. We see it coming up before our eyes that the working class, which has been, in the past, synonymous or code word for white voters, that is not happening anymore. In fact, the majority of voters will be people of color. The way that we approach our politics has to take into account this intersectionality.
AARON MATÉ: On that point about the Democrats chasing this elusive moderate Republican voter, you have quote in here from Chuck Schumer.
KAREN BERNAL: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: The Senate-
KAREN BERNAL: [inaudible 00:03:34] quote.
AARON MATÉ: Where he says, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” He said this in July, 2016, a few months before the election.
KAREN BERNAL: I think he added on other states, and you can add on, I believe, he said Ohio and Indiana, Wisconsin, something along those lines.
AARON MATÉ: That’s right, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin. We all know how the Democrats did in Ohio and Wisconsin.
KAREN BERNAL: Right, not to mention Michigan. This is a huge problem. We saw this in evidence with the election, with the campaign of Ossoff in Georgia, and we see it also somewhat repeated here in Virginia with the upcoming governor’s race. Also, just very recently, there was an article in The Nation about the fact that the DNC has dedicated zero dollars, that they dedicated zero dollars to African-American outreach in the 2016 elections. Whatever money that they had earmarked for Latino outreach was, I think, a paltry $300,000, which basically evaporated in radio ads after the very high cut that went to the consultants for that.
In other words, the very base of the party, that would be their base, that has traditionally been their base, has been the most neglected in pursuit of a demographic that really is shrinking. To be sure, their level of comfort in our society, in the United States, really isn’t as pressing. They do not have to worry so much about the outcome, what it means for them, the impact that has on their communities. The communities who are surely impacted by someone like a Trump, it seemed that the party did not think that they were important enough to prioritize for the election, and it continues in this way.
AARON MATÉ: Speaking of comfort, in the report, you point out that a big priority for the Democratic elite has been paying high-priced consultants, people who profit off of the insular Democratic Party system, and also working in cahoots with Wall Street instead of actually standing up to Wall Street. Can you talk about, A, this sort of growth industry of Democratic consultants and the culture that that engenders, and also your thoughts on whether Democrats do have to make a choice between Main Street or Wall Street?
KAREN BERNAL: Yes, they absolutely have to make a choice. They can’t serve two masters at once. During the primary, actually this goes back to, if I could say, Occupy. We began to see a definite change in the culture, at least in public display, of the collective sentiment of those that would be considered the Democratic base when the Occupy Movement came about. We saw that when Bernie Sanders entered the primaries, he carried with him the populist lexicon that we had come to be familiar with at that time, “We are the 99 percent.” The talk of the one percent versus the 99 percent was replete throughout that campaign.
The party, when it decides to go down the route of the consultancy class, we have to also remember that along with that, in serving Wall Street, the other part of it is the wealthy donor class. Now that we’ve seen, with this great populist wave bringing in progressive candidates across the country in various state races, as well as for congressional races coming up, we see more progressive grassroots candidates than we ever have. The answer to that by the party has been, in many cases, the putting up of these corporate candidates, many who have been themselves previously wealthy donors or bundlers for wealthy donors.
While we see the great need for the party to embrace the populism that is out there that has swept the nation, it’s very worrying that we see kind of a doubling down by the party leadership on an approach that has obviously failed. What we saw in Las Vegas, for instance, with a purging of many of the supporters of Bernie and/or Keith Ellison, who ran against Tom Perez for chair, was troubling because some of the nominees that were-
AARON MATÉ: You’re talking about the recent DNC meeting where they were electing members of a DNC committee and they took out people who were loyal to Ellison and Sanders?
KAREN BERNAL: Yes, and also the at-large delegates, which are super delegates. Many of those that were nominated and approved of were corporate lobbyists. That’s what I’m talking about. Now the other side of it has been for them to put up wealthy donors, corporate lobbyists. It’s kind of almost a doubling down of the approach, as opposed to showing signs of accommodation.
AARON MATÉ: On the state level, I’ve heard the argument that if you’re the Republicans, there are enough right-leaning districts around the country to run on a right-wing platform to win control of Congress, but there aren’t enough progressive pockets around the country for a consensus, wide-spread progressive platform in every state, to win Democrats enough seats to control Congress. Your response to that?
KAREN BERNAL: I disagree with it. That’s too simplistic of a break-down. A lot of it is about class. It’s about socioeconomic choices that the party has made to eschew class consciousness. When we talk about class consciousness, that then begins to break down this whole left-right thing. It also begins to break down the silo, kind of the insular politics that comes with just these identity politics. It’s really, let’s be real, also that there is, identity politics, that really is real for people of color. We have struggles that are very real with certain identities and, within that construct, we need to be aware of that. That is very different than neo-liberal identity politics. The problem that we’re facing is that the party continues to, again, chase down this universe that is really shrinking and, for all practical purposes, non-existent.
What I found shocking in doing this report is some of the information, such as the under-30 vote, which is the future of our party. The under-30 vote that, nationally, they went at eight percent for third party candidates in this general election when we had a Trump on the line. At eight percent, they went for third party candidates and, more troubling, tellingly about their rejection of things, was the fact that in the battleground states, that number was much, much higher.
In addition, we saw a depressed turnout of the African American vote, which should not have happened in light of a Trump. During Obama’s last term, the African American turnout and vote went down seven percent. This is at a time when Obama is in office. What that says to us is that they are not seeing the relevance of the Democratic Party in their daily lives and it’s come to a point where it doesn’t matter if they show up or not. We need to be very real about this, not voting, not showing up is also a choice. It’s not simply not doing anything, it’s doing something and that’s a choice. It’s saying that we don’t approve of either of the two candidates.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a great point, because on this point about class, not everybody is necessarily a voter, but everybody is, by definition, a member of a class.
KAREN BERNAL: Right.
AARON MATÉ: It’s possible that Democrats have lost a lot of potential voters-
KAREN BERNAL: Yes.
AARON MATÉ: By ignoring those who stay out of the race.
KAREN BERNAL: Yes, and in fact, recent surveys have shown that their most reliable voting bloc, African American women, that has gone down, and that a fairly high percentage surveyed has said that they do not feel that either one of the parties reflects their, or has attended to or reflects or understands their needs. In a nutshell, voters are not going to respond to a party they feel that are out of touch with their lives and is not addressing the needs, the material needs, of what they need to be content and happy.
When we talk about winning, for instance, we can’t just be thinking about winning the next election by the skin of our teeth. It’s really about energizing and expanding a base for the future. I’m afraid that the party doesn’t seem to be thinking along those lines.
AARON MATÉ: There was just a poll today mentioned by Dave Weigel of the Washington Post, saying that, of Democratic voters saying that if Democrats continue to focus on impeaching Trump, and Trump scandals, and Russia, that they have no chance if they continue to neglect core economic issues that the party right now is not addressing in favor of all this Trump scandal stuff.
KAREN BERNAL: No, that’s true. In fact, that is also what contributed to Clinton’s loss. During the campaign, it was very obvious that the base, and even people that identify as Independents, were very much against a lot of, for instance, the multinational corporate trade policies, TPP, and a lot of things that left an opening for Trump to portray himself as this populist candidate. Unfortunately, a lot of votes were lost to Trump because he came out, early going of his campaign, and said that he was against the TPP, he was against these multinational trade agreements. For a lot of people that aren’t politicized, this sounded very good to them.
Of course, we know that he’s hardly a champion of grassroots progressive populism, but the fact that the party could not speak to those issues, because Clinton at that time, having been married to Bill Clinton, who brought so many of these neo-liberal policies into fruition, was now seen as a standard bearer for many of those policies. I don’t think that she could really convincingly speak to doing away with them. She was brought, dragging, kicking and screaming to the Fight for 15, and even still now, she’s not necessarily for free higher education, but for debt-free education. All of these things had qualifiers and what the base of the party was clamoring for was clarity and vision and not any of these qualifiers. People aren’t dumb, they suspect what’s going on and Trump capitalized on that.
AARON MATÉ: Karen Bernal, Chair of the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus. The report is at democraticautopsy.org. Thanks very much.
KAREN BERNAL: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.