On Saturday, the DNC will pick a new chair for the Trump era. The election comes in the wake of the disastrous tenure of Clinton acolyte Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a singular failure of a leader who hemorrhaged party representation on a state and national level, and resigned in disgrace after Wikileaks exposed what everyone with a brain knew all along—that she had presided over a rigged primary designed to stifle any opposition to her former boss.
On one side of the fight for DNC leadership is Tom Perez, an ineffectual, deer-in-the-headlights, overly bank friendly establishment type who is endorsed by the neoliberal Obama/Clinton/Biden faction of the party. On the other is Keith Ellison, one of the first congressmen to endorse Bernie Sanders, whose support comes from the progressive wing, including Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and is opposed by people who are scared of black people and Muslims and think that nuking Palestine should be in the party platform. Certain parties have recently tried to elide the differences between the two—Perez has been branded by his own kind as “progressive who gets things done,” which is Clintonite code for someone who is not a progressive and also doesn’t get things done—but their bases of support, and their respective political histories, speak volumes.
Because this is the Democrats we’re talking about, and the decision is in the hands of 447 DNC members who represent the party establishment, Perez will almost surely win. If you’re a progressive, like me, you will be pissed off, because even though some question the importance of the post, the symbolism alone says quite a lot. If there is no commitment from the centrists even here, and if there can be no party-wide concession to progressivism even after November’s disaster—if, in fact, they have to manufacture a candidate out of thin air to keep a progressive from winning—then the left can safely conclude that is clearly not our party. Never has been, and never will be. As Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, put it:
“Keith Ellison had incredible support from the quote-unquote establishment side of the party, the progressive side of the party, the grassroots and the elected officials. Nobody was clamoring for another entrance, and yet we got one foisted upon us. If Tom Perez were to win, the message that would send to the grassroots, to labor unions that endorsed Ellison before Tom Perez joined the race, [is] that their voices, their muscle, their enthusiasm and turnout doesn’t matter.
At that point, why should any progressive waste his or her time with the Democrats? Why keep traveling on a road that so obviously culminates in a dead end? Why give them your money, your time, or your hope? Hell, you wouldn’t even be making an empty threat—it’s just plain stupid to stick around when you’re clearly not wanted. The Dems have made their point, they’ve won, and to enact true change, it’s time for progressives to look elsewhere. What’s the problem?
Glad you asked! To answer that question, the centrists and neoliberals have a special trick up their sleeve. It’s not a bad one, either.
Because, they’ll tell you, this is not a time for disunity.
Because, they’ll tell you, America is in a time of crisis.
And then they jam the barrel of the rhetorical gun against your skull:
If you insist on re-litigating the primary, you’re only hurting the movement and making Trump stronger. Do you want eight years of this?
And finally, if you’re white, you’ll be accused of privilege, even though in this case you’re supporting a black Muslim. And if you’re not white, or even if you’re female, you’ll be totally ignored and erased from the narrative.
If you don’t look too closely, it’s a compelling argument. Trump is horrible, and it would be a nightmare if he won re-election. And yes, a Democratic party divided would certainly have a harder time opposing him on a national level, not to mention ousting a Republican Congress or taking back any of the Wasserman Schultz-era losses at the state and local level. And this will inevitably lead to pain for many people, Muslims and other minorities chiefly among them.
But then you might experience a moment’s pause as you consider the argument.
Wait a second, you might think, can’t progressives say the exact same thing?
By refusing to even acknowledge progressives, aren’t the centrists fostering disunity?
By fighting the left wing, and, yes, re-litigating the primary, aren’t they encouraging the kind of division that will empower Trump?
Doesn’t this shit work both ways?
Of course it does! Progressives can turn the “party unity” right back on its head. The situation on the ground is that you have two separate groups, both of whom need the other to truly form a powerful opposition to the Trump/Ryan Republican regime, and both of whom are currently locked in a game of political chicken. So why do the centrists get to make the ultimatums? Is it because they’ve shown a deeper commitment to really beating the “you’re with us or you’re with Trump” drum, since empty rhetoric is their best weapon? You have to hand it to them: They’re bad at organizing, and they’re bad at winning, but they do have a certain sick instinct for keeping power.
Clearly, we are at an impasse. And with both sides insisting on their own agendas, there’s just one critical question when deciding who should prevail: What are the real differences here? I can think of two.
1. If the progressives win, the Democratic party won’t really lose any voters. Are there that many liberals in America who insist on fealty to Wall Street, hate labor unions, love fracking, adore banks, and long for free trade? To the extent that they would ditch the main opposition to Trump? Please. On the other hand, a centrist victory will be quite costly—the Dems will lose progressives like me and millions of others who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary. I voted for Hillary Clinton because the “lesser of two evils” argument won me over in the end, but if the party shows that it has learned nothing from that debacle, I won’t vote for the next Hillary Clinton, whoever that is, and there are many, many more like me.
Oh, and the second difference?
2. They. Fucking. Lost.
Seriously. Do not forget that. They tried it their way, and they lost to Donald Trump.
So tell me again: On what planet do the centrists have a right to dictate terms to progressives? It’s quite audacious, actually—their power comes solely from entrenched parties within the institution, and not at all from the people, and yet they are trying to strong-arm everyone into repeating the same stupid mistake that gave us Trump in the first place.
In a sane world, one in which the centrists took some accountability for their massive electoral failure, progressives would be dictating all the terms. But, speaking of sanity and its opposite, have you heard that quote about doing the same thing over and over while expecting new results? Yeah.
That is the great kicker to the entire centrist argument. When boiled down to its most absurd form, it reads like this: “If you really want to defeat Trump, come with us, the people who lost to him last time and have no new ideas.”
If Perez wins, and Ellison gets shunted aside, everyone will have to make his or her own choice about where to go next. It may be that party unity does, in fact, win the day, and in 2020 the powers-that-be marshal their forces behind some corrupt ghoul like Cory Booker, and try to rally a reluctant left for another dispiriting race. But as for me, I’m done. The ascension of Perez will tell me everything I need to know about where the party is headed, and how much they care about even token displays of progressivism. We’ll be on the same depressing roller coaster to irrelevance and defeat, led by essentially the same people, and I want no part of it. I’ll support a breakaway progressive party, if one emerges, or I’ll give up national politics for dead and focus my attention on local races. But I won’t be strong-armed, and I know I’m not alone.
Why? Because it never ends. This is how powerful people keep their power, and this is why the progressive moment in America never arrives. They said we had to vote for Hillary, because Trump would be worse, and a lot of us bought it. Now, they’re reprising the same support-us-or-else argument, and they still have nothing better to offer than “Trump is bad.” This is the opposite of visionary politics—it’s codified negativity, and even if that negativity is true, its primacy in all messaging still represents the absence of forward thinking. The party has become a regressive embarrassment that believes in nothing but bolstering a rotten status quo, and the corruption is evident to everyone. If they won’t commit to the kind of change that galvanizes a growing progressive movement and produces lasting victory, they shouldn’t be coddled by a fearful base. They should be abandoned.