Many folks on the Left, and in our labor movement, are afflicted with frequent bouts of anguish and outrage as we observe the action or inaction of some Democrat in office — or running for office. Those on the Left who claim to be recovered — or never afflicted — by this disease often seem quite calm and at peace as the rest of us go through our gag reflex. I have often wondered whether they secretly are experiencing this condition, but have just gained control of their facial expressions. It’s hard to tell sometimes. . . .
After spending almost three decades on the Left and in our labor movement, I think I have heard it all. Union members or lefties will be having a conversation and somebody lets loose with an earful like “Why don’t the Democrats support national health care?” or “Why don’t the Democrats stop the war?” This is frequently voiced in the context of a particular individual Democrat, such as “Why did Clinton support NAFTA?” or “Why did Al Gore pick Joe Lieberman for his running mate?” It’s the same frustration, just individualized to a particular candidate or lawmaker. This behavior will surely become more pronounced as the Democratic-controlled Congress grinds into the final year of the Bush-Cheney regime, and as the presidential primary sweepstakes heats up.
Sometimes we feel better after verbalizing this frustration, but just as frequently it doesn’t help at all. That’s the problem with trying to measure the Democratic Party against the behavior of a normal political party, and likewise with its leading personalities. I know it may come as a shock, but the facts are that the Democratic Party is not a coherent or unified political party and neither are the views and positions of those elected to hold office bearing its label.
A little context first. For the record, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are not the same, at least not yet. They are different in some ways organizationally, and in significant ways politically. The voters who regularly vote for these parties are also somewhat different from each other. Lawmakers from both groups frequently disagree, although the degree of dispute is sometimes tiny. There are ethnic, racial, religious, gender, and geographic differences between supporters of the two parties. The vast majority of the wealthy and the small business class in the United States support the Republican Party. The working class is split between the two, but unevenly. Both parties do coexist on a rather skinny bit of political geography, however, at least when measured by a world standard or a traditional right-left standard. In the realm of political thought and belief, the Democrats and Republicans operate on the same six inches of pro-business spectrum.
Over the past seventy years, many working people and most unions have tended to regularly support the Democratic Party. That sometimes brought tangible results for working people, such as enactment of the various New Deal programs of the later 1930s. In recent years, Democrats holding office have survived by promising just slightly more to working people than the Republicans and working a skillful “if-the-Republican-wins-the-sky-will-fall” strategy. Combine it with the fact that both parties will go to great lengths to legalistically bar any third party candidate from challenging their de facto monopoly, and there you have it. This is the political straightjacket that working people wear. They don’t call it the two-party trap for nothing.
So, the next time you are offended by some Democrat who makes an outrageous remark, or who knuckles under to Bush, or who fails to do the right thing for working people, stop and take a breath and first figure out which part of the Democratic Party it is that you want to complain about. A greater understanding of why the Democratic Party and individual Democrats act the way they do is possible, but only after you first figure this out. Then feel free to complain.
WHAT ARE THE COMPONENT PARTS OF THE DEMOCRATIC “PARTY”?
THE OFFICIAL PARTY
Start with the “official” Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The DNC stages the Democratic Party Convention, hashes out an enormous platform, and then does nothing to try to hold any Democrat to what is in it. While the web page of the DNC advertises itself as “The Democratic Party,” there is no way to join. You can give money, but you cannot join. You cannot be kicked out either. The DNC “Committee” itself has historically been comprised of several hundred Democrats selected from around the country in a variety of ways. Election to the DNC by a rank-and-file membership vote happens infrequently, if at all. I once researched these questions and placed calls to both the Republican and Democratic National Committees. The Republicans called me back. In response to my question about how one might become a member of their party, the staffer told me: “We don’t have members, we have donors.” The DNC blew me off completely and never returned my call. I think it’s about the same, however. The DNC has a staff in Washington, D.C. and out in the states, but I can’t recall ever meeting any of them during my 15 years here in Washington, D.C. That’s probably because I don’t go to very many fund-raising luncheons. I once met a Democratic Party “organizer” back in 1997, however. He was a slippery guy who was “organizing” for the Democratic Party in Serbia. It turns out he was really working for the “National Democratic Institute for International Affairs,” an arm of U.S. foreign policy paid for by taxpayers, not Democrats.
THE CAMPAIGN GROUPS
The second component of the Democratic Party consists of the fund-raising groups for elected Democratic members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. These groups primarily select candidates and raise campaign money, but they also issue their own position statements that may or may not overlap with the DNC platform. Best known among these are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). There is also the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) that helps drum up support for Democrats running for state office. Most of what these groups now claim to be for are things that they did little about during the now-forgotten Clinton years. A short memory helps. These groups also pick who they want to run for office out in the real world, regardless of whether this fits with what the locals may be thinking. Increasingly the DCCC and DSCC have looked for multimillionaires to run for office as Democrats, since they can pay for the whole operation themselves instead of having to rely on the organization to support them.
THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
This section is composed of those running for the Democratic Presidential nomination. These folks pretty much say, and do, anything they want. But, whatever they say has a habit of becoming the “official” Democratic Party line should they be the winner of the primary sweepstakes. Each of these candidates builds their own organization, staff, and network independent of the other Democratic Party parts.
THE CLINTON FACTION
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) is the best organized and funded faction within the Party, the corporate Democrats. The guiding light of the DLC is the so-called “third way.” This is a fancy way of saying that the trick is to keep working people voting for you while you consistently undermine or attack their real interests. It also means that just about whatever big business wants, it can have. This is one of the several groupings pulling hard for the Hillary Clinton ticket, since Bill Clinton was their darling. In this vein on the think-tank front, the Center for American Progress (CAP) is run by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, and employs a veritable army of staff working diligently to continue the Clinton saga — they hope. Look for lots of these folks to make the leap to appointed high-level political positions all around Washington if Senator Clinton wins the White House. Quite a few will probably make that jump if any Democrat wins. But even before we get that far, a decent number of CAPers will take flight into the campaign machines that various Democrats will soon construct. These folks come literate, freshly scrubbed, and with an intimate knowledge of the latest high-tech gizmos that are the lifeblood of political campaigns today. These are also the kinds of people who actually read the bazillions of pages of blogs produced every hour.
THE PAID PROFESSIONALS
The highly paid fund raisers, pollsters, consultants, strategists, and lawyers make up the real meat of the Democratic Party apparatus. These are the operators who chase the big money, write the questions and take the polls, spin the results, devise Party strategy and positions, set up and run campaigns, and then turn in a bill for big, big bucks. Our news media grabs these types and puts them on TV to purportedly speak on behalf of all Democrats. Without this section of the Democratic Party, literally nothing would happen. This is also the year-round section of the party, as most of the rest of the party components grow and decline based on the election cycle. This slice of the Party is run exclusively by very wealthy folks who all have good jobs, own homes, and have great health insurance. Well, some of the paid staff making the phone calls, cranking out the direct mail, or answering the phones for these companies and firms probably don’t have all these things, but the owners and senior staff of the firms who conduct this political business do. You can bet on that.
THE BIG MONEY
This section of the Democratic Party is the hardest to pin down, since so much of it operates in the shadows. These are the rich folks and Political Action Committee (PAC) staffers who send in the checks, attend the private dinners and functions, and buy seats or whole tables at fund-raising dinners disguised as testimonials, etc. The Democrats have cultivated entire networks of wealthy donors from various industries, professions, and regions, but these lists are jealously guarded by the staffers of the specific fund-raising consultant firms. Their data are rarely shared with the DNC or the other pseudo-official parts of the organization. Nobody gives away lists of rich people and their addresses and phone numbers. In recent years the growing swarm of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. have doubled as big money fixers and finders, since most have extensive contacts from their previous Congressional membership or Capitol Hill staff duties. Super rich guys like George Soros and his like also fall in this grouping, bringing enough money single-handedly to do whatever they want. With enough money you can be a Democratic Party somebody overnight.
Ongoing Democratic state and local structures that limp along in many parts of the country are what’s left of an actual grassroots structure. Some are doing better than others, and if there is a way to actually “join” the Democratic party you might find it here. Here is where an ordinary person might be able to get involved in some kind of activity or campaign to some degree. This part of the party is rapidly disappearing, however, as the membership ages and little new blood comes in. You will frequently find quite a rub between this group and the inside-the-beltway operators, since the Washington types like to ignore the locals or even ridicule them for their old-fashioned ways. Sometimes this is deserved, oftentimes not. This disconnect is one of the primary short-circuiting points that explains so many of the Democrats failings.
THE INTERNET FOLKS
The explosion of internet-based groups and networks over the past decade has created the newest part of the Democratic Party. These outfits come and go, but the one that comes to my mind first is MoveOn. If your primary source of information and your favorite tool for activism is the internet, these are right up your alley. Fund raisers have managed to tap the internet folks quite amazingly, since the instigation of outrage over the latest Bush crime seems to translate into big online donations for more of the same. Although it’s hard to judge overall, the development of this part of the Democratic Party has upset many apple carts since it is often independent and therefore not as easily controlled as was possible in the past by insiders. I would venture to say that many, many supporters of this section may not even think of themselves as “Democrats” per se. Blog mania is also to be found here, although I can’t for the life of me figure out how anyone has the time to keep up with more than a handful of these chatterboxes. The blog crowd claim to have lots of influence, but I remain unconvinced.
THE LABOR UNIONS
Organized labor holds a unique and tortured place in the Democratic Party structure, but many union members would not even know this. Unions provide Democrats with hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle along with hundreds of thousands of activist members. Were it not for this machinery the Democrats would not exist or be politically viable in an enormous number of places across the country. Labor receives as thanks a sporadic and inadequate return from Democrats on this gigantic investment. Frequently this is because unions don’t actually ask for anything from Democrats, although that has improved a bit lately. Overall, the relationship of Democrats and labor is one of the most historically lopsided, with Democrats by far getting the better end of this arrangement.
Last but not least is the Left. While you will find energized individual leftists involved in the campaigns of many, many Democrats running for office, and leftists abound in the various single issue groups, the Left as an organized entity exercises little tangible influence. The Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) takes up more or less where Michael Harrington’s “Democratic Agenda” conferences of the late 70s and early 80s left off. CAF stages an annual Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., which has become a widely attended trade show for the growing number of diverse groups on the left fringe of the Democratic Party structures. In order to survive, apparently, self-styled “progressives” within the Democratic Party have expanded the definition of “progressive” to include just about anyone who says nice things and is willing to show up and speak. Some might ask whether groups such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus should be added to a “left” listing. Perhaps. But while the Progressive Caucus may have more members in Congress than any other caucus — currently at 72 members — they have almost no structure or resources. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has no dedicated budget or office of its own and is forced to rely on a grand total of one over-worked staff guy who borrows office space from two different members of Congress. Many on the Left try to tell me about all the “influence” that we have, but based on what I see I remain a skeptic about that claim.
I realize that this is merely an improvised yardstick by which to size up the Democratic Party and the leading Democrats within it. I have likely missed a few things, but this is not meant to be exhaustive. I offer it as a means toward a better understanding of what the Democratic Party is, and what it is not. On the Left we are prone to characterize the Democratic Party incorrectly. The Democratic Party does not exist. At least not as an organized structure with members, solid principles, and discipline for those who violate its rules. Instead, it is a cauldron of constantly shifting groups, factions, and personalities often working at the same ends, sometimes working at contradictory ends. It possesses no central nervous or circulatory system. In short, it has evolved into a reform-proof, multi-celled creature that can no more be captured than it can be killed. The primary means to influence in the existing structure is cash money, and the more the merrier. The Democratic Party offers to supporters a degree of influence commensurate with the size of your financial contributions.
That said, nowhere here did I say that work within the Democratic Party world is futile, impossible, or taboo. It’s the only game in town, like it or not. But perhaps a more detailed understanding of the Democratic Party will provide all of us with a better sense of what we as a Left need to do in order to somehow, someday, build our own political action vehicle capable of defending working people and finally solving some of the acute problems we face. Possession of this knowledge may lower your blood pressure as well.
Chris Townsend is Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE). Website: www.ranknfile-ue.org.