As the Democratic Party re-elects the establishment to leadership positions, many progressives are balking, and justifiably angry. “They aren’t going to wake up, ever. Addicted to big money. Might as well put corrupt @DWStweets back at #DNC,” one of my Twitter followers tweeted at the announcement of Nancy Pelosi’s victory over Tim Ryan for House Minority Leader, in reference to former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “Time is now for a NEW PROGRESSIVE PARTY!,” another chimed in.
The idea that the Democratic Party is beyond reform, and thus a new party is necessary, is popular among disenchanted progressives, angry over the skewed primary that handed Hillary Clinton the nomination, and Donald Trump the presidency. Embodied by the hashtag #DemExit, these sentiments are understandable, but they are also misguided.
The 2016 election was an ideal proving ground for the viability of third parties: a contest between the two most despised major party candidates in generations. And yet, none made a substantial showing. All told, the two most prominent third parties in the country, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, did not even win 10 percent of the popular vote collectively. Moreover, neither was successful in achieving representation in either house of Congress or at the state level. To date, there are but 13 third party state legislators in the country, and they’re either independent or from obscure state-specific parties.
It is worth pointing out that the 1 percent of the popular vote that the Green Party did receive is a substantial increase from the 0.36 percent it received in 2012, but that growth trajectory is still incredibly slow..At this rate—increasing by multiple of 2.78 (2.777778 rounded up) every four years—it would take over a decade and a half to achieve electoral dominance. Here’s how that might look:
And that is ignoring the fact that the left is notoriously decentralized, and slow to organize.
Some #DemExit advocates disregard these realities, and insist that independents, who make up more of the voting population than registered Democrats or Republicans, are an “untapped” majority. However, most of these voters are what are known as “disguised partisans,” meaning they have a strong affiliation with one of the major parties which is reflected in their voting patterns. People have a natural aversion to losing, so most simply cast their ballot for the party that represents the closest approximation of their values because the two parties have reputations and legitimacy that take years to build.
The way around this hangup would be ranked choice voting, but even by way of ballot initiatives, this idea is not going to happen any time soon on a scale large enough to make a difference. Thus far only Maine has adopted such a system.
Still, some point out that it is entirely possible that Sanders, had he been able to run, could have won as a third party candidate after his defeat, but that was only thanks to the legitimacy and momentum he gained running as a Democrat.
Progressives do not have the time to entertain what the numbers show to be fantasies about starting over from scratch. As I wrote in a piece on Medium, the 2020 Census is looming, meaning the districts for the House of Representatives will soon be redrawn by the party in control of the majority of state legislatures. Thanks to the Republican Party, which recognized demographic shifts that were not in its favor, gerrymandering has become a means of establishing prolonged one party dominance for the decade following the Census. This graphic from the Washington Post gives the best visual illustration of the problem.
To fully explain why 2020 is so pressing for the left, a little basic civics is in order: A bill becomes law only after it goes through the House and the Senate, and is signed by the President. Without control of the entire legislature or the presidency, the left can forget about passing any serious reforms for the next decade.
What is perhaps most confounding are those who disregard the Census argument. They claim that there is no alternative to the #DemExit. They would get involved in the Democratic Party, they say, but for the “fact” that it will never change, evidenced by Pelosi and Schumer.
The naysayers not only conveniently overlook history—entrenched establishments do change radically over time—they miss is the fact that party leadership is chosen by the elected members of the party. As of yet, there has not been an influx of elected progressives. That can change, but it won’t without ousting the establishment by way of primaries.
However, the truly orthodox have an answer for that too. Based on 2016, they do not believe such contests will be fair enough for progressives to win. This argument is easy to knock down.
Not every race will be the 2016 primary because there is no more Clinton machine.
Clinton’s biggest asset this election was the fact that she and her husband were at the head of the largest political machine in Washington. They had spent years using their public charity, the Clinton Foundation, and their connections from their time in public office to build a donor network unlike any before it. This donor network gave them influence over the party, which also meant influence over the media in the age of “access journalism.”
This created a news cycle that made Clinton seem bulletproof. The party backed her, and the media gave her the lion’s share of the coverage on the Democratic side. Meanwhile, her allies in the media were also “elevating” Trump. In response to what seemed the most lopsided election in history, Wall Street and major industries, typically associated with the Republican Party, signed on with her. Hell, even members of the GOP establishment backed her. All of this, in turn, fed the media narrative that she would be the next President of the United States.
Despite some initial speculation to the contrary, the Clintons are finished politically, and nobody else even comes close to wielding the amount of influence they did in Democratic politics. The fundraising network is falling apart, with many donors changing sides given their shattered confidence in the Democratic establishment’s ability to win elections.
And that’s only the beginning. The #DemExit advocates are mistaken to think that the party is anything other than vulnerable to a takeover. In reality, #DemExit is exactly what the establishment wants. Clinton’s defeat sent shock waves throughout Washington, and her allies have been scrambling to pick up the pieces and send a message that will dishearten the left. More progressive voters in the base means a serious threat to their control.
For those who wish to see progressive change, the only viable path right now is to take back control of the Democratic Party from the establishment. And the only way to do that by unifying.
Establishment Democrats in Congress must either be ousted by progressives through primaries when possible, or voted against—the Green Party still has a role to play in general elections. At the state level, however, it does not matter as much if the candidate is a progressive or centrist Democrat given the Census. Either will redistrict more fairly than the GOP because demographics do favor the left.
In purely pragmatic terms, this is the easier path to accomplish progressive goals—capturing the Democrats’ existing infrastructure and built-in voter base—than it is to start a new party from scratch. After all, the left will need a broad coalition to actually win national elections.
Though it is not inconceivable that a third party will one day supplants one of the two major parties, and while that as a long term goal may become appropriate in the future, that revolution is not happening soon. While it may provide comfort to progressives, who found themselves unjustly caricatured as sexists, “bros”, retreat back into the ideologically pure camps many of Sanders’ voters originated from, it is counterproductive.
This is a wake up.
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