7 things the Democratic Party must do to regain power

The Democrats need to democratise the party – but what might that mean?

Scott Remer
10 March 2017


Press Association/Bastiaan Slabbers. All rights reserved.

The Democrats are in disarray. Beyond the shock of Trump’s arrival in the White House, the Republicans control all three branches of the federal government, and Congress is thoroughly gerrymandered. They hold a 47-seat majority in the House. The Democratic party is extremely weak on state and local levels: there are 32 Republican-controlled legislatures and 6 split legislatures; only 12 states have Democratic-controlled legislatures. The Democrats have only 804 out of 1,972 state upper house seats, and control only 2,339 of 5,411 state lower house seats. The Republicans control 33 governorships. Despite this historic shellacking, the Democratic establishment appears to have learnt absolutely nothing. After having presided over numerous major electoral defeats, Nancy Pelosi is still in charge of the House Democrats. And on 25 February, party apparatchiks voted down an amendment to ban corporate contributions to the DNC and elected Tom Perez, the bank-friendly candidate anointed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, to the DNC chairmanship.

The most effective way for the Democratic Party to regain power would be for it to democratise itself. What might that mean? The party would need to be structurally reformed so that the rank-and-file can elect party leadership, and the grassroots can dictate party policy and composition. The party would need to be purged of corporate influence, through a ban on corporate money and lobbyists, and elite power would need to be minimised. The party would also need to be ideologically revamped: it would need to become a party run by and for the working class and poor, united behind a platform dedicated to democratic socialism, ending the tyranny of capital, and defending the environmental integrity of the planet.

To think that accomplishing all of this will be easy or inevitable is to ignore the long, depressing history of efforts by the American left to create a genuinely left-wing party. Perpetual hostages to the American political system’s constraints, many generations of radicals have faced the third-party dilemma: try (and probably fail) to reform the Democratic Party from within, or defy the heap of obstacles arrayed against third-party organising and try building a mass left-wing party from scratch? Cooptation has been a favoured strategy, simply because it’s more convenient strategically to not have to reinvent the wheel. But corporate forces are strong, and building a party from the ground up is like pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. During the 2008 presidential election, there was a brief moment when it appeared that the upsurge in activism catalysed by Barack Obama’s candidacy might translate into an institutionalised progressive grassroots movement. But as Micah Sifry chronicles in a New Republic article, plans for a Movement 2.0 quickly fizzled, nixed by Democratic Party insiders leery of empowering the grassroots. Obama’s email lists and Internet operation were folded into Organising for America, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s glorified fundraising outfit, and their potential for upending conventional politics died unceremoniously shortly thereafter.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign was a more promising episode and offers a path forward. By consistently decrying political corruption, unambiguously repudiating corporate influence by refusing corporate donations, and laying out a concrete set of policies for economic, racial, and environmental justice, Sanders rallied 13 million Americans, politicising many for the first time. He won working-class support from people of all races and galvanised independent and disaffected voters to become politically active. If things had been slightly different – had Sanders begun with more national name recognition, or had the corporate media covered him more, or had the DNC not favoured Clinton from the outset - the Democratic Party might already be well on its way to internal democratisation.

At the moment, Clintonite neoliberals cling desperately to the party’s machinery of power; it will be an uphill battle to dislodge them, and one that won’t be accomplished within a year or two.

We desperately need a genuinely left-wing party. At the moment, Clintonite neoliberals cling desperately to the party’s machinery of power; it will be an uphill battle to dislodge them, and one that won’t be accomplished within a year or two. So assuming that the Democratic Party isn’t going to be fully democratised any time soon, what can Democrats do to resist Trump and the Republicans in the short-term, and nudge the party in the direction of genuine democratisation?

1: Address the public regularly and directly connect Trump, the current crop of crazed Republicans, and their agenda with the last 50 years of history


Press Association/Kevin Dietsch. All rights reserved.

That includes Reagan, the Bushes, and the neoliberal Democrats who sold out their principles in the name of “triangulation” and “Third Way” compromises with the Republicans. We must demonstrate how the Republican agenda has remained constant in its solicitude for capitalists and corporations and its contempt for anyone with a net worth less than multi-millions. We must show how the politics of death that the Republicans have adopted – shredding the social safety net, condemning refugees to injury and death, repealing Obamacare – is a clear manifestation of their values (or lack thereof). Take out TV commercials, newspaper and magazine ads, and Internet ads; this should be a full-court press.

2: Boil issues down to their most basic when addressing the public


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The scholar George Lakoff has repeatedly noted that Democrats have a penchant for speaking in rhetorically ineffective ways, ways that appeal to the intellect and lack visceral oomph. Democrats also tend not to translate the complexities of policy into practical consequences. Talk to people in ways that resonate emotionally, and show how policy affects them personally. Be clear and straightforward about a given policy’s upshot. Don’t waffle. Nuance works for academic articles and policy memos, but it’s not good for persuading and mobilising people.

3: Hold mass rallies against Trump’s attacks on democracy 


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These rallies will make the “silent majority” that opposes Trump visible and loud. Rallies must be organised by broad coalitions of community groups and political organisations. The rallies should be carefully structured so that they aren’t one-off expressions of emotion. Rally organisers should circulate lists for people to sign up for future protests and flyers on what to do next; speakers should be as clear as possible about what the next steps are for people who want to become more involved. Rallies should explicitly connect national issues to local issues and serve as opportunities for registering new voters. Rallies are valuable as signals of resistance and defiance and as a way of creating solidarity amongst rally participants. But especially in an age of empowered police and emboldened neo-Nazis and far-right vigilantes, rallies entail some amount of danger and must be strategically planned for maximum impact. Rallies create energy which must be harnessed and institutionalised instead of having it dissipate after the rally due to poor organisation. Most people have a limited amount of time for activism; if they have to expend too much energy figuring out what to do next, they may just not bother. We cannot afford this.

4: Regain the moral high ground by breaking decisively with corporate cash and lobbyists 


Press Association/Anthony Behar. All rights reserved.

The Democrats should announce a ban on corporate donations and rely instead on individual contributions. Bernie Sanders’ campaign showed that relying on small donors can work if enough people believe in a cause. By unilaterally removing themselves from the corporate cash arms race with the Republicans, the Democrats would signal to the American people at large whose side they’re on.

5: Help organised labour resist corporate assaults; promote unionisation campaigns


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Structurally, the Democratic Party has traditionally relied upon labour unions, environmental groups, and civil rights and civil liberties organisations. Labour unions have given the Democrats a great deal of money. But as the Democrats became more corporate-friendly, the labour unions’ perceived importance within the party dropped, and Democrats became more hesitant to defend them. This was a huge mistake. In addition to money, labour unions provide foot soldiers for electoral campaigns and educate workers about political issues. Under the Trump administration, organised capital is likely to try to destroy organised labour, once and for all. The Democrats must help organised labour resist and rebuild its strength.

6: Determine what voters actually want; create a clear, simple set of policies based on voters’ needs; and use rhetoric that reflects people’s current emotions


Press Association/Ronen Tivony. All rights reserved.

There’s been a lot of handwringing about Trump voters as if they are some sort of alien species, and there’s been a lot of speculation as to what they want, but there’s been very little by way of rigorous, statistically sound data collection and in-depth interviews to determine the composition of Trump voters. There are many questions it would be fantastic to have concrete answers to: How many Trump voters voted for him because of antipathy towards Clinton’s neoliberal policies and worldview? How many Trump voters voted for him because of sexism, racism, or xenophobia? How many Trump voters voted for him because of his opposition to the TPP and his stances on trade and infrastructure? How many Trump voters voted for him as a middle finger to the establishment, out of rage, despair, or hopelessness? How many Trump voters took him seriously but not literally? What percentage of Trump voters are persuadable and held their noses when they voted? What percentage of Trump voters already regret their votes?

The answers to these questions matter quite a lot in determining what the Democrats’ strategy should be moving forward. The Democrats should go door to door right now, conducting systematic surveys of all Americans, but especially Trump voters and regular voters. They should assess the mood of the country, ask what issues people are most worried about, and find out what the most common complaints and negative perceptions about the Democratic Party are.

7: Begin voter registration campaigns immediately 


Press Association/Richard B. Levine . All rights reserved.

The 2018 Congressional midterms are less than twenty-one months away. We know that the Republicans will try to make voting as hard as possible for members of groups that traditionally vote for Democrats by gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, and passing ever more restrictive voter ID laws in the many states where they control the government. The Democrats should waste no time in getting as many people registered to vote as possible. They should also have records of these people so they can encourage them to vote at regular intervals. They should focus most on categories that are heavily sympathetic to the left or could be peeled away from Trump.

But above all, we should waste no more time; handwringing is a luxury the nation cannot afford. The Democratic Party should democratise itself and embrace democratic socialism, but even before that, there is still much it can do to strengthen its position and resist the threats to our country’s values.

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