Autopsy: An Analysis of What Went Wrong with the Democratic Party in 2016

Norman Solomon, one of the co-authors of the “Autopsy” report, discusses where the Democratic Party went wrong and what it needs to do to win a progressive majority

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PAUL JAY: We’re continuing our discussion with Norman Solomon. Norman is the co-founder of RootsAction.org. He’s the co-author of the new report, Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis. Thanks for joining us for sticking at it, Norman.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Glad to, thanks Paul.

PAUL JAY: Okay. We’re gonna start going through this report, Autopsy In Crisis. It begins with an executive summary. Norman, mention again where people can go to see the whole report.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. The whole report with all the segments broken out is democraticautopsy.org.

PAUL JAY: Okay, so we’re gonna go through some of the points of this executive summary and kinda flesh it out. And then after a while, we’ll go back and take viewer questions again, about what we’ve discussed. The first part begins, “Aggregated data and analysis shows the policies, operations, and campaign priorities of the National Democratic Party undermine support and turnout from its base in the 2016 General Election. Since then, the Democratic Party leadership has done little to indicate that it’s heading key lessons from the 2016 disaster.”

I guess that partly goes back to something we discussed in the first part, which is to head lessons, you have to actually have intent to do something different. But if your policies, which include the Obama economic policies and Hillary was there promising to continue that legacy, if those policies lead to great inequality because, as you said in Part One, your fidelity is to the donor class and who are benefiting from that growth in inequality, then it’s not like you made mistakes you’re gonna learn from. Your interest takes you there.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. If you want to satisfy your big donors and you want them to be essentially steering the ship with you and you think, down shoveling coal so to speak, is the working class that will provide the votes, then that’s a pretty good system. If you can win, well, great. But that means that your attention and your priorities go to satisfying those wealthy donors, the Wall Streets and the big bank interests that they’re intertwined with. There’s a notable fact, for instance, that came out of these sorts of priorities. When you think about it, it’s stunning that between the Obama race in 2012 and the Clinton race in 2016, the demographic ticket actually lost 5% among Latino voters. Obama, in 2012, got 71%. Hillary Clinton, in November a year ago, only got 66%.

Well, how could that be when Hillary Clinton was running against, really, a valid xenophobe, hostile to Mexicans, calling them racists, extremely negative and dangerous towards Latino immigrants and Latinos generally. Yet, there was a slippage of 5%, which clearly would’ve made the difference in swing states. The answer has to do with the messaging priorities and the spending priorities. We quote in the autopsy report a Latino, pretty high-ranking organizer in the Democratic Party nationally who was, he said, literally begging for $3 million to begin messaging to Latino voters. He got $300,000 instead and ultimately quit in anger and frustration, justified in anger and frustration. This was replicated again and again.

We quote in the autopsy this now infamous statement by the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, in July of 2016 at the time of the Democratic National Convention. Here Senator Schumer, this wise, supposed leader of the Democratic Party says point-blank that, “For every blue-collar vote we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate, white, suburban Republican votes in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And, Schumer added, “you can duplicate that in Wisconsin and Ohio.” Of course, it turned out to be a horrific strategy, but I think it comes down to priorities. The priorities of the people in charge of the Democratic Party unfortunately are, first, to keep the donor class in place and to keep themselves personally re-elected.

PAUL JAY: The second point in the autopsy summary, which kind of takes off from what you were just saying, which I personally think is the story of the 2016 elections. There’s many things going on but if you have to isolate one factor of why Clinton lost, I think it’s this one. It reads, “The Democratic National Committee and the Party’s Congressional leadership remain bent on prioritizing the chase for elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base, especially people of color, young people, and working-class voters overall.”

I mean, I think the great irony of the 2016 election is while Hillary Clinton was chasing Republican voters, traditional Republican voters, with all kind of censorious language, Trump and the Republican Party were focused on chasing lower paid and medium paid working-class votes in the swing states. Clinton thought they had these votes just wrapped up. There’s no point even campaigning or spending any money in these places and spent all their effort, as the report says, on chasing Republicans who, in the end, vote the way they always vote, which is they vote in the great majority for anyone that says they’re gonna cut taxes and don’t much care about what else the Republican candidate is saying, given how George Bush won a second term after the disaster in Iraq. Again, “Lower taxes, we don’t really much care about anything else.” That vote stayed where it always goes. Trump figured out, or Steve Bannon figured out, that actually they can go and steal Democrat votes amongst sections of the working class, especially when they targeted the swing states.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. I think that’s right. The Democratic strategy, such as it was that prevailed, was essentially to say, “Well, there’s low-hanging fruit from people of color and working class overall. We don’t need to bother to put much energy picking that low-hanging fruit. We’ve got some high-hanging fruit that we think maybe we can reach,” which is those so-called moderate Republican white voters. Of course, there wasn’t much harvested from that vote.

One way to look at it as well, I think one aspect is that ultimately the druthers of the people who have the dominant control of the DNC and the party nationally, is they don’t want a party that is dominated by people of color, by the young, by the working-class energy. They don’t want those folks crashing the gates too much. We say later on in the autopsy, in the section on social movements, that the National Democratic Party, the DNC, cannot bond with the base if they’re afraid of the base. I think it’s accurate to say that the people in control of the DNC, they’re afraid of the Democratic Party base. They need to keep it at bay because if the base of the Party isn’t kept at bay and actually can keep moving into the Party and gaining strength, then it will upset the apple cart and frankly, those people will be out of the job at the top.

PAUL JAY: Another part of the report, next point in the executive summary, 11% drop in support from black women for the Democratic Party in a survey. Overall in 2016, you say in your report that the vote of people of color went down for the Democratic Party.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes, and that survey was co-sponsored by Essence Magazine. It compared the vote enthusiasm and support for the Democratic Party from its most reliable voting demographic, which is African American women. That shift from simply 2016 to the next year is stunning. It’s a marker for the lack of confidence that the Democratic Party has earned. You gotta fight like hell with and for people. You can’t just throw along some platitudes and assume that that’s going to galvanize the base.

I think, Paul, there’s a tremendous irony that I saw from the floor of the Democratic National Convention, you did as well, covering it, and that millions of people saw on television, which is there were many African Americans and Latinos and Asian Americans, people of color, at the podium during the National Democratic Convention. It was the effort of the Party to symbolically show its affinity with those who are suffering from inequities in society. But then when it came to actually outreach, when it came to pouring money into door-to-door, which is the best kind of outreach, messaging, advertising, targeting, and also content of policies, it was just shifting and setting aside those sorts of priorities and instead, as we’ve been saying, aiming for those who are in other, and frankly more privileged, demographic groups.

PAUL JAY: The report makes recommendations for reform. I mean, we can go through some of the specific points but the general objective is democratize the Party. This is partly why this fight for who’s running the DNC now, Tom Perez, and recently purging people like Zogby and other Sanders supporters, there’s supposed to be this Unity Commission. But as they talk about a Unity Committee, they’re getting rid of Sanders people. The fight, if anything, is getting more bitter. We’re trying to report on more of this but there’s fights going on at every level of the party right now, from precinct captains to who’s running state Democratic Parties. At every level of these fights, the corporate Democratic leadership, which includes President Obama who my understanding’s still very actively involved in all this, is tooth-and-nail fighting against this Sanders/more progressive section of the Party.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes. It belies the sort of claim that, “Oh, let’s just pipe down and unite against the Trump Republicans.” I have heard from people who talk with former middle-level Obama administration folks, DNC people, who are just astonished at the amount of time and energy and resources going into trashing and denouncing Bernie Sanders’ supporters. I think it underscores that this is not ultimately about personalities. It’s about economic class, it’s about power, and it’s about what is the intention as to whose interests will be most represented by the Democratic Party?

I underscore that this is the tool that we have to fight the right and advance and implement progressive policies. Yes, it’s a long shot. That’s the best shot we have though. We have to organize. A lot of things that seemed long shots have become reality. Same-sex marriage equality, five, six, seven years ago, would’ve seemed way out of grasp. People organized and raised hell around the country and made it possible. When we look ahead, for instance, December 8th and 9th is the final meeting of what the DNC calls its Unity Reform Commission. That’s going to be another knock-down drag-out, it should be. I wanna acknowledge that this independent report, Autopsy: the Democratic Party in Crisis, is intended as a tool to fight back against the corporate oligarchic forces that now dominate the DNC and the National Party as a whole.

PAUL JAY: We tried to book someone to debate with you on these issues. We had a great deal of trouble, as we quite often do, getting a sort of DNC defender, Obama/Clinton defender, to come on the Real News Network. If there is one out there who has some sophistication, we want you to know it will be fair. We will give you plenty of time to speak, and we’ll keep trying. But given that we don’t, I’ll try to play that role. Here’s an argument that perhaps the sort of Democratic Party elites would make, and maybe not quite in this language unless they were really on their own and there was no media around.

But they might say something like this, “The liberal elites, the neo-liberal elites, the Democratic Obama-esque, Clinton-esque elites, is the best and only hope people have to ward off the far right, that even if you can show,” I think they might argue, “that Sanders, in polling, does better than Clinton or some of the others, although a recent poll showed Biden doing almost as well as Sanders against Trump, but when it comes to a real election, don’t underestimate how savage the forces of the elites can be.”

As we have said, the donor class that supports the Democratic Party would rather see a Trump … I think they’d rather see a completely destroyed Democratic Party than a Sanders presidency or anyone like a Sander-esque kinda politics. They’re saying given that, that reality that you’re living in the heart of the empire and that these elites have enormous resources including control of the mass media, that, “You’re naïve if you think that kind of social democracy, left liberalism, that it really can win in a country like the United States. You need us to … Whether you consider us center-right or whatever you wanna call us,” they will argue, “we’re better than the alternative. And so you should not divide the forces when it comes to holding the barbarians at the gate.” Of course, they’re through the gate now.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, we heard that array of arguments a year ago and two years ago and earlier to try to fend off the Bernie Sanders campaign challenge in the first place. There were many permutations of that argument from 2015 on through the California primary to try to rationalize that support should go to Hillary Clinton, that that Bernie campaign was sort of quixotic and not productive. I think of something that C. Wright Mills referred to as crackpot realism, that in its own universe, flying in that constellation, it all is in formation. If you see or assume the world to be that way, then it sort of makes sense within a cockamamie pattern.

But we don’t live in times that comport with or actually synced up with that version of reality. We were and are in a crisis and would be no matter who is president. Whether it’s climate, whether it’s the rising and increasing inequality, whether it’s the social dislocation represented by the tremendous drug overdoses happening around this country, the destruction of K through 12 public education, prioritization, whatever grid you look at, we cannot simply proceed as though things are more or less required to return to the status quo. It’s a status quo argument. It was made more than a year ago by the Clinton campaign, which classically … When the demagogic slogan came from Trump, “Make America great again,” the response from Obama and Hillary Clinton was, “America’s already great,” which is a quintessential status quo argument.

Now Democrats are saying, “We have to go back to the status quo of two years ago.” Well, so many people don’t think fondly of their economic and social predicaments two years ago. What progressive forces are saying is, “You need to sweep the board in a different way.” That’s why the kind of progressive populism that Bernie has represented has the power to move forward in a way that’s the same old, time-worn crackpot realism just is not going to be successful at any real level that we should care about.

PAUL JAY: Yeah. I think we’re at a very interesting moment in history, that in many countries, the politics that have been known for many decades is kind of in upheaval all over the world. But-

NORMAN SOLOMON: [inaudible 00:18:14]-

PAUL JAY: Go ahead.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Obviously, I come from the left, identify with the left. But at the same time, this traditional view of left-right spectrum, it doesn’t really pan out comprehensively. Part of the mythology that springs from that left-right linear spectrum idea is that when you’re fighting the right, somehow you need to keep giving grab and moving more and more towards the right. We’ve seen the failure of that. That’s how Democrats lost to Republicans more than a thousand legislative seats around the country in the eight years under Obama. What the Bernie campaign and, most importantly, the progressive forces that congealed and propelled around that Bernie campaign, what those forces are all about is to say that we can build a progressive populace movement, social movements, that call for inequality to end, that call for social equality. We can do that in a way that has the real potential to gain a majority in this country.

PAUL JAY: In terms of learning lessons, does the victory in the governor’s race in Virginia and the race in New Jersey, where your really censorious Democrats win, is the lesson that the corporate Democrats take from that is Trump is so bad, they don’t need any more of the Sanders populism to beat Trump candidates?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. I think that’s a very dangerous assumption. Actually, we heard it throughout the spring and summer and fall of 2016, that Trump was largely gonna defeat himself, that one outrageous statement or action after another was just other fuel for the engine that was gonna destroy him. We saw how well that worked. He still has a solid base according to polling. The idea that the progressives of the Democratic Party just need to sort of tip him over ’cause he’s about to fall is totally wrong. You don’t mobilize the base by telling them that somebody bad has to be defeated. That’s part of it, but you have to give the base a reason to turn out and vote.

As we say in the autopsy, young people don’t just want a chore to show up, they want something to believe in, something to fight for. The fall off, for instance in young people’s votes, which was overwhelmingly lopsided for Bernie in the primaries, to the stay-at-home or in some cases vote third-party young people vote, November 2016, that made the difference in the campaign. It will again for people of color, for working class, young people in general. We need to energize the base.

PAUL JAY: Okay. We’re gonna keep this discussion going over the next weeks and months. We’ll have Norman come back, and hopefully we’ll get someone who will defend DNC and defend the sort of current practices of the people who are still in control of the Democratic Party and we’ll have more debate about this. If there’s people you would like to see as part of a regular political panel discussing these kinds of issues, please write us at [email protected]

Don’t forget, I guess I haven’t said it so how do you forget, but we’re about to begin our winter fundraising campaign. We have a $200,000 matching grant. Every buck you give will be matched another dollar. If you donate monthly, which is really a big deal for us so we have some idea how much money we have, for every monthly donation, that will be matched with 12 months of value, you can say. Please write in, what are some of the questions you would like discussed and debated in terms of what should people do about American politics but American politics not as you’re seeing on CNN and certainly not all about the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming, but about what people can do to really fight for their basic interests and how should people fight at the political level. Thanks very much for joining us, Norman.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Hey, thank you Paul.

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