Democratic Autopsy: One Year Later
Progressive momentum could lead to historic breakthroughs in the midterms and beyond. Realizing such potential will require transforming and energizing the Democratic Party.
In October 2017, a team of progressive researchers published “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis,” which probed the causes of the disastrous 2016 election defeat. The report came in the wake of the party leadership’s failure to do its own autopsy. In a cover story for The Nation, William Greider wrote that the “Autopsy” is “an unemotional dissection of why the Democrats failed so miserably, and it warns that the party must change profoundly or else remain a loser.”
Now, “Democratic Autopsy: One Year Later” evaluates how well the Democratic Party has done in charting a new course since the autumn of 2017. This report rates developments in each of the seven categories that the original report assessed.
The upsurge of progressive activism and electoral victories during the last year has created momentum that could lead to historic breakthroughs in the midterm elections and far beyond. Realizing such potential will require transforming and energizing the Democratic Party.
Corporate Power and the Party
The Democratic Party has implemented modest reforms, but corporate power continues to dominate the party. In 2017 and early summer 2018, the Democratic National Committee voted to refuse donations from a handful of toxic industries that contradict the party’s platform—though the ban on fossil-fuel money was effectively repealed in August 2018. Meanwhile, the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committeecontinue to freely take big corporate donations.
A test for Democrats on Capitol Hill came this year when the GOP successfully worked with powerful bank lobbyists to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act (under the guise of helping small community banks). More than one-third of Senate Democrats joined the effort; many were recipients of significant banking donations. In the House, 33 Democrats joined most Republicans to pass the measure; journalist David Dayen reported that nearly all of the 33 identify as corporate “New Democrats.”
In September, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi preemptively boxed in any potential left-populist agenda on Capitol Hill by backing reinstatement of a “pay-go” rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts. A former legislative director for three Democrats in Congress, Justin Talbot-Zorn, responded with an article for The Nation pointing out that “bold progressivism and ‘pay-go’ fiscal conservatism are mutually exclusive.” He added: “The existential challenge of climate change demands that we fully overhaul our energy and transportation infrastructure in a short period of time. The issues of America’s rising inequality and frayed social contract—including stagnant wages, unaffordable college, and exorbitant health care can only be fixed with major new investments.”
After writing a recent analysis for The Guardian that looked at how Democratic leaders act on economic issues in states (from California to Connecticut) that they politically control, David Sirota put his conclusions in a tweet: Democrats in blue states “have used their power to block single payer & a public option, enrich Wall St, subsidize corporations, slash pensions, lay off teachers, promote fracking & engage in pay to play corruption.”
For the Democratic Party, a crucial disconnect remains between rhetoric about corporate influence and subservience to it.
Race and the Party
In the summer of 2018, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told a predominantly black audience: “We lost elections not only in November 2016, but we lost elections in the run-up because we stopped organizing.… We took too many people for granted, and African Americans—our most loyal constituency—we all too frequently took for granted. That is a shame on us, folks, and for that I apologize. And for that I say, it will never happen again!”
During the last 12 months, voters of color have been key to notable electoral wins. But the party has a long way to go to fulfill Perez’s promise.
In the November 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam “won three-quarters of the votes overall” in racial-minority neighborhoods, The Washington Postreported. “Margins grew by 10 percent in Hispanic neighborhoods.” Black voters turned out in higher numbers than they had before. Unfortunately, Northam’s campaign spending priorities were distressingly similar to the party’s 2016 behavior. Groups like BlackPAC and New Virginia Majority handled essential local black organizing, but had a difficult time securing adequate resources.
Alabama’s special election for a Senate seat tells a similar, slightly more encouraging story. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, a man accused of pedophilia and with a history of racist remarks. Jones won 96 percent of the black vote, accounting for 29 percent of total votes cast—more than the state’s 27 percent black population. BlackPAC and other groups, including local NAACP chapters, organized and knocked on more than 500,000 doors with a tailored message addressing criminal-justice reform, education, and health care. The DNC also contributed to operations, spending around $1 million on engaging black and millennial voters. Jones, like Northam, spent big on advertising aimed at white voters.
Donald Trump’s assault on immigrants has mobilized some in the party to be stronger on immigrants’ rights. Yet congressional Democrats were seen as having sold out Dreamers in their budget negotiations with Republicans. An April 2018 poll found that, while 40 percent of Hispanics believe Democrats care about Dreamers, 54 percent believe they’re “using this issue for political gain.”
Likewise, the Democratic Party must do much more to reform the police and justice systems. Eighty percent of Democrats want reform and 87 percent want to decrease the prison population. Running for Philadelphia district attorney as a comprehensive reformer, Larry Krasner showed that these desires for change could be mobilized into a winning campaign; turnout for his November 2017 election was much higher than in previous DA elections. Krasner went on to implement policies such as dropping marijuana charges and dismissing problematic prosecutors in the DA’s office.
Such policy approaches, coupled with grassroots organizing, enabled police accountability advocate Randall Woodfin to win the Birmingham, Alabama, mayoral race in 2017 and enabled progressive Democrat Earnell Lucas to win the race for Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, sheriff in August 2018. These campaigns suggest a path forward for Democratic candidates—where the priority is to inspire voters and maximize turnout rather than to woo “persuadable” Republicans.
Young People and the Party
The Democratic Party still isn’t offering a bold vision that can excite young adults, a demographic known for not voting much. Looking to the 2018 midterms, the party put out its “Better Deal for Our Democracy” platform. This is a modest step forward—especially the “Crack Down on Corporate Monopolies” provisions—but missing is a focus on the bread-and-butter issues that can materially affect young people’s lives, such as redirecting resources from our bloated military toward popular programs for free college education and Medicare for All.
Young people, more than their older counterparts, are increasingly against obscene military budgets and US wars. But citizens with those views are without powerful representation in Washington. Sixty-eight percent of House Democrats and 85 percent of Democratic senators voted for the record-breaking 2019 military budget of over $700 billion, including expansion of the US nuclear arsenal.