The Democrats Will Never Change—Kansas' Special Election Proves It

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The Democrats Will Never Change—Kansas' Special Election Proves It

On Tuesday night, anyone who hoped the Democratic Party had evolved since Nov. 8, 2016, had those delicate hopes dashed as Republican Ron Estes beat back an unexpectedly strong challenge from Democrat James Thompson to hold onto the Congressional seat vacated by newly minted CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Estes won 53 percent of the vote to Thompson’s 46 percent, though polls showed the race even closer in the last few weeks. The margin of seven percentage points is a drastic change from only six months ago, when Republican candidate Donald Trump beat his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for the presidency by a 27 percentage point margin. Tuesday’s tight margin could have been closer—in fact Thompson may have been able to win. Luckily for Estes, the Democratic Party refused to invest any resources into the race.

Progressives that want to participate in American electoral politics and effect change have two options. One, primary every single Democrat from the left. Follow the lead of the Tea Party and take down a big prize like Elizabeth Warren; let the Democrats know you mean business. Two, form or join a third party. Either—or even both—of these options will work. What won't work is doing the same thing over and over again with an organization that refuses to learn basic political lessons. It's time for a change.

When Thomas Frank asked “What's The Matter With Kansas?” in 2005, he already knew the answer: Kansans don't vote for Republicans on the basis of that party's appeal but because the Democrats have left them behind. It's not a coincidence that the two biggest electoral successes for the Democratic Party came in 2006 and 2008. They listened.

Howard Dean became the Chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2005 and pushed a 50 state strategy. The party hung its chances on a charismatic politician from Illinois with a message of hope. These tactics won.

But it was too much to hope the Democrats would look at the lessons from those two successful elections and see the future of the party lay in messaging to all Americans and addressing their grievances. Once in power, Democrats immediately reversed course and pledged to “forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues,” as Frank put it, while bending over backwards to accommodate corporate interests and donors. This has been a complete disaster.

With the exception of 2012, when the party won on the back of the personality of Obama in a high-turnout general election, Democrats have been getting absolutely stomped at the ballot box. 2010, 2014, and 2016 have all been banner years for the GOP, both on the federal level and at the state level. Republicans now control Congress and the White House. They have full control of 32 state legislatures and seat 33 governors.

It's clear that those Republican successes have not led to any introspection or tactical planning from the Democrats. Instead, the Democrats have spent the last six months embroiled in a civil war between those who want the party to move in a new direction and those who believe Mother was cheated by a rogue's gallery of Cold War villains. Unfortunately, the latter group are winning and their victory is coming at the expense of any actual action to stop the Trump agenda and gain any power at the state or federal level.

There may have been a chance to reverse this trend if someone who knows how to win elections from actual experience had won the election for DNC Chair in February. But even this was too much for the establishment wing of the party who used Keith Ellison as their proxy for nominally Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (one of their caucus' most slavishly loyal members). Sanders' sin, of course, was running against Clinton in the 2016 primary.

Tom Perez, the former president's Secretary of Labor, won the position in late February. Perez had a 50-state strategy message, just like Dean. In February, then-candidate Perez told voters in a city named Topeka in a state named Kansas that the party had failed them by not being present and ignoring them. In April, Perez told The Washington Post that, essentially, the race for Pompeo's seat in the fourth Congressional District in a state named Kansas was a waste of money. The leadership of the Democratic Party is incapable of evolution or honest discussion.

Compounding the trouble is that the party apparatus is being run by technocratic number-nerds who think the only way to succeed in electoral politics can be determined purely by algorithmic predictions. It's not that the numbers, polling, and data aren't important—at least when there's a modicum of security around the technology. It's the fact that the reliance on this type of dataset driven politicking is coming at the cost of anecdotal, on the ground campaigning and traditional, proven “get out the vote” techniques.

That's the kind of thinking that costs you Wisconsin and Michigan in the general election because a software program and a perfectly-named campaign manager operated in a feedback loop to devote resources to pumping up the base in Los Angeles while telling union members headed to the Rust Belt to stand down so the campaign can play—and lose—four-dimensional chess in Iowa.

You might think a disastrous plan like that might result in some consequences for Democratic leadership, especially as it cost the party the election. You'd be very, very wrong. Members are rewarded on the basis of loyalty and participation, not merit. For example, the man who said the following is now the leader of Senate Democrats.

For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

With a promotion like that for giving voice to the absolute worst element of the last election cycle's “strategy,” it's no surprise that within minutes of Estes' victory being a sure thing, the scolding voices of the centrist Democrats came out in full force to lecture anyone who suggested that the national party should have helped in the race before this week. It's better to maintain the illusion of the narrative than think about what could have been done differently.

Reactions online were swift and, given the recent track record of the party's electoral masterminds, frankly restrained.

Despite the righteous anger, it doesn’t appear there’s much to be done from within the confines of the Democratic Party. They have nothing to offer, neither ideologically nor in the advancement of their members electorally or otherwise. They refuse to learn from their mistakes and to do anything differently. They are old, entrenched, and their style of politics is broken and corrupt.

They’re the past. It’s time to build the future.

You can follow Eoin Higgins on Twitter and find him at Patreon.