The Democratic Party's big political question right now is how best to harness the incredible anti-Trump energy among left-leaning Americans. Roughly speaking, the base wants a ferocious fight against President Trump, coupled to a strong program of social justice and left populism. The establishment, by contrast, wants a meager sprinkling of that program, but only insofar as it does not alienate the donor class.
That brings me to the upcoming election for leader of the Democratic National Committee. The two leading candidates are Tom Perez, secretary of labor under Obama and establishment team player; and Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota and leading representative of the party's Bernie Sanders wing.
Superficially, the two have quite similar politics. But in practice, it's quite obvious that Perez is basically a sock puppet for the establishment and the donor class. This makes him unsuited to conduct the political overhaul necessary to get the party back in fighting shape.
It was clear from the start that Perez was pushed into the race by Obama/Clinton forces, to keep the party machinery in their own hands. But more telling evidence came this week, when Perez slipped up and admitted the obvious, that the 2016 Democratic primary election was heavily slanted towards Hillary Clinton. "We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you've got to be honest about it. That's why we need a chair who is transparent," he said.
Perez was unquestionably right about this. The admitted, overt purpose of superdelegates, for example, is to allow party elites to partially overturn the will of primary voters if they see fit. Now, Bernie Sanders did benefit from other dubiously democratic aspects of the primary system, like the bizarre caucus system in some states, and it's probably true that in a scrupulously fair open primary he still would have lost. But it's also obvious that party elites have a hugely outsize sway over the primary process, and they connived from the start to clear the decks for Clinton. Whole books are written about this process.
So was this a signal that Perez might not be so deeply in the establishment's pocket after all? No. When his backers in the establishment got mad at him, Perez quickly backtracked:
Hillary became our nominee fair and square, and she won more votes in the primary—and general—than her opponents.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) February 9, 2017
Hillary Clinton supporters often point out that she won the popular vote, thus demonstrating the party's general popularity. That is true, though in a hypothetical popular vote election both candidates would have run a different election campaign. But more importantly, the party downballot is a smoking crater, in the worst shape since 1928. The Obama presidency has been a slow-motion collapse of the party at all levels.
To rebuild, Democrats obviously need to start winning some elections, particularly the 2018 midterms, which could set the stage for a 2020 victory at the state level when redistricting happens again. The most reliably left-wing (and the most anti-Trump) demographic in the country at the moment is young people. But young people often don't vote in midterms, so the party must try to convince them to turn out. Sanders inspired tremendous enthusiasm among this group with his calls for universal Medicare, tuition-free college, repealing Citizens United, fighting police brutality, and so on.
But that sort of agenda would require huge increases in taxation on entrenched power and the rich. It is thus squarely at odds with the class interest of the donors Clinton spent half her campaign huddled with (not to mention the business titan Barack Obama has been kitesurfing with since Trump took power). What's more, it would represent a sharp diminution of their own power within the party as an institution, which elites virtually always resist even at the cost of hurting the institution itself. As John Kenneth Galbraith has said, "People of privilege almost always prefer to risk...total destruction, rather than surrender any part of their privileges."
But if the Democrats are to mount an angry populist assault on President Trump and the Republican Party, they can't have a leader whose leash is attached to the hands of the people who got them into this mess in the first place.