In a recent appearance on MSNBC’s For the Record with Greta, Debbie Wasserman Schultz made a curious remark.
Responding to Bernie Sanders’ argument that, instead of “being dependent on big money interests for campaign contributions,” the Democratic Party “has got to become a grassroots party,” Wasserman Schultz said, “Respectfully to Senator Sanders, we are already a grassroots party.”
The remark is curious because, well, it collides head-on, at full speed, with reality.
And it is even more bizarre coming from someone like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who embodies the corporate centrism that has for decades helped prevent the Democratic Party from living up to its “party of the people” rhetoric.
Wasserman Schultz was, from 2011 to 2016, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Last July, after emails released by WikiLeaks revealed that the DNC under her watch was profoundly—though not surprisingly—biased against Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, she stepped down from her post.
But after successfully thwarting primary challenger Tim Canova in the race for her Florida congressional seat, Wasserman Schultz remains in a position of power, and she is, as was the case recently, still invited on by major television networks as an authoritative voice on all things Democratic.
It’s hard to understand why.
For years, Wasserman Schultz has held down the right flank of a party that desperately needs to move left. She has defended the predatory payday loan industry, propagandized against marijuana (while being supported by alcohol PACs), and used the DNC not as a progressive force, but as a “personal promotion vehicle.”
But however widely disliked she was among Democrats who argued that she, during her tenure as DNC chair, was harming the party, President Obama ultimately decided against making any moves to replace her.
“It came down to the fact that the president didn’t want the hassle of getting rid of Debbie,” said one former Obama advisor. Jamal Simmons, a Democratic consultant, put it more bluntly: “The president doesn’t give a shit about the DNC, and he’s the only one with the leverage to do something about it.”
The former president has indicated that he regrets this lack of concern—and he should. Today, the Democratic Party is in shambles, virtually powerless and lacking leadership and an inspiring message. According to some polling data, the Democratic Party is, if you can believe it, even more unpopular than the Republican Party, which surely ranks as one of the most ghoulish collections of creeps humankind has ever produced.
The problem for Democrats, in short, goes far beyond Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
And it goes far beyond the disastrous 2016 election. For decades, the Democratic Party has moved right to make itself more palatable to burgeoning sectors of business—most notably, tech and finance—and the rapidly growing professional class. Bill Clinton represented the peak of the party’s neoliberal drift and, during his presidency, he helped advance several elements of the Republican agenda, from welfare reform to the deregulation of finance.
This dramatic shift away from the New Deal liberalism that had remained dominant in the party for many decades coincided with changing party demographics.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, has argued that the Democratic Party has become the “cosmopolitan elite party”—a party ostensibly dedicated to progressive social causes but unwilling to challenge the fundamental inequities that lie at the heart of the American economy.
As such, Democrats have in recent elections attracted a growing share of wealthy voters. In 1992, Bill Clinton earned a significant share of votes from the top 4 percent of the income distribution, though the Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush earned slightly more.
The 2012 election signaled an even more pronounced shift, “as the share of top 4 percenters voting for a Democrat rose from 24 percent in 2008 to 44 percent in 2012.”
Hillary Clinton didn’t break the trend—she accelerated it. Matt Karp, in an analysis for Jacobin shortly after the election, documented the extent to which Clinton succeeded in winning over the wealthy.
“Clinton ran nine points ahead of Obama’s 2012 tally among voters earning more than $100,000,” he wrote. “Further up the income ladder, among voters making more than $250,000 annually, she bested Obama’s margin by a full eleven points.”
The result is a party that must now manage what the journalist Thomas Edsall has termed an “unruly coalition,” a party that contains both Wall Street financiers and working class minorities, the wealthy and the poor, whose economic interests do not align, to put it mildly.
“Insofar as the Democratic Party is no longer a class-based alliance with common economic goals,” Edsall wonders, “how can it resolve the conflicts between its more privileged and less privileged wings?”
The politician to whom Debbie Wasserman Schultz has remained loyal, Hillary Clinton, frequently resolved this conflict by siding decisively with the more privileged over the less privileged. While she neglected union halls in crucial states during her presidential campaign, despite desperate pleas from staffers on the ground, Clinton found time to make her way to lavish fundraisers. She also refused to back a $15 minimum wage—a central issue at the grassroots—and declared that single-payer health care is something that will “never, ever come to pass.”
President Obama, for his part, failed repeatedly to take action against Wall Street banks that were found to have been on a remarkable crime spree, one that contributed significantly to the 2008 financial crisis. And, following the crash, Obama failed to take the steps that would have been necessary to stop the foreclosure crisis that resulted, which continues in the present. He did, however, successfully rescue collapsing financial institutions.
And when members of the Democratic National Committee convened in Atlanta to elect a new chair, they voted down a resolution that would have both banned corporate PAC donations and prevented corporate lobbyists from serving as at-large DNC members.
These are not the actions of a “grassroots party.” They are the actions of an elite managerial party, content to fiddle on the edges but unwilling to challenge ingrained interests and assumptions.
Bernie Sanders was perceived as a threat by the party establishment precisely because he was willing to venture beyond party decorum and acceptable opinion.
He then presented a choice: The Democratic Party can either continue to be a party that grants substantial influence to Wall Street and the donor class, or it can be a genuinely progressive party, one that builds from the ground up and backs enthusiastically the struggles of Americans fighting systemic injustices. It can’t do both.
“Over the last 30 or 40 years the Democratic party has transformed itself from a party of the working class—of white workers, black workers, immigrant workers—to a party significantly controlled by a liberal elite which has moved very far away from the needs of…working families in this country,” Sanders said recently in an interview with The Guardian.
For too long, Democrats have attempted to thread the needle, arguing that the “unruly coalition” can be tamed, that a happy medium can be found. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton insisted that she would be everyone’s representative: “For the struggling, the striving and the successful.”
Daniel Denvir rightly called this line “the class equivalent of ‘All Lives Matter.’” It is, at bottom, an attempt to avoid taking sides.
If Democrats are to regain their footing, they must stop pretending that the party of Warren Buffett and Lloyd Blankfein can also be the party of Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15. Eventually, they will have to ask themselves the question: Which side are we on?
Debbie Wasserman Schultz can say her party is “already a grassroots party” all she wants—simply repeating a claim doesn’t make it true.
For the Democratic Party to become a truly grassroots party, a party driven by the concerns of the poor and the vulnerable, it can’t merely repeat a slogan. Its representatives can’t be content to say, “Hillary won the popular vote,” and Donald Trump is extraordinarily unpopular, so everything’s fine.
It must change its act.
Jake Johnson is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep.