Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez was elected as Democratic National Committee chair over the weekend after remnants of the Obama coalition, frightened by Keith Ellison’s strident progressivism, mounted a campaign to stop his ascendancy. This has led leftists already burned by the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton wars to renew cries that the Democratic Party is rigged for the establishment and its continued love affair with special interests. (The fact that the DNC voted down a ban on accepting corporate money moments before electing Perez doesn’t mollify these sentiments.)
I know Perez to be a progressive yet loyal soldier of the Obama years who did a lot of great work at the Labor Department within an acceptable range that didn’t include radical challenges to financial power. And the willingness of Perez’s backers — led by President Obama — to threaten party unity to keep Ellison out of the chair is a sad commentary. The obviously pre-arranged olive branch, with Perez appointing Ellison as deputy chair, could paper over these divisions, and the very presence of President Donald Trump certainly will, in the near term.
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If we want to talk about rigging elections, though, we shouldn’t look at the DNC. Its role is mostly irrelevant in that regard; it’s a party-building and fundraising organization. Other groups within the Democratic Party do dominate elections, bringing a rigid, stale sensibility to the issue of who can represent the leftward pole in our politics. And those organizations more credibly steer the debate Sanders fans are waging over how to change the country.
I’m talking mainly about the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the campaign arm for Democrats within the House of Representatives now chaired by Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico. For decades now, no matter who has led it, the DCCC has been run on the principle that only a certain type of Democrat can win a House race. It anoints candidates well in advance of any election, gets involved in primaries, favors candidates with money and endorsements and discourages donors from giving to candidates they don’t like. Unlike in a high-profile presidential campaign, this preferential treatment can absolutely make the difference in who represents the party in House races.
This is all done largely out in the open. It’s called “candidate recruitment” and “electoral strategy.” Read the archives of Howie Klein’s indispensable Down With Tyranny blog and you’ll see this play out in election cycle after cycle. His chronicle of how Democrats have misfired consistently in Republican Darrell Issa’s California House district, which has been winnable for years, is a good primer.
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The strategy comes with fairly clear and open biases. To be seen as an attractive candidate by the campaign committees, one major attribute — maybe the biggest — is whether you are rich enough to self-fund the campaign, or have enough rich friends who can bankroll it for you. While not necessarily an ideological tactic, the life experience and worldview of a self-funding politician necessarily differs from a teacher or ironworker or community activist. There’s a comfort with power that goes along with wealth, a mindshare that is hard to overcome.
Next, it’s seen as critical that you “fit” the district, based on a largely arbitrary left-right continuum. Fitting the district does not necessarily equal speaking to a district’s concerns, like a farm community dominated by agribusiness or a small business sector that cannot compete with big box stores. The local issues of local people are not part of the equation. It’s more about the candidate choosing from a grab-bag menu of “moderate” positions at odds with the Democratic platform, to prove some manner of independence.
Other facts are less central to the DCCC’s thinking: backing core Democratic values, for example, or pre-existing support within the district or having lived in the district a long time (or ever). The DCCC consistently airlifts in its own candidates, big-footing the ones locals have endorsed but whom the Party has determined cannot win for whatever reason.
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These strategies play to the biases of consultants with their own set ideas about elections, which not coincidentally involve lots of advertising placement on which they make commissions. If they had a track record of success, maybe you could grudgingly overlook the inherent lean in their worldview. But this is the crew that oversaw the 2010 and 2014 electoral disasters, without using the more favorable 2012 and 2016 political environments to pick up many seats at all.
Last November, Hillary Clinton won 23 House districts that Republicans still hold; in Pete Sessions’ 32nd district of Texas, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate. Stories of the DCCC ignoring seats where a candidate might have been successful are legion. The DCCC has even been slow to organize in the special election in Georgia to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a district Trump barely won, though they’ve now paid for a handful of staffers there.
There’s an argument to make that the technical competence of the DCCC and its Senate counterpart, the DSCC, matters less than the national political environment come election time. Democratic dominance in a special election this weekend that decided control of the Delaware State Senate testifies to that. Newly energized activists wanting to stick it to Donald Trump can overcome the DCCC’s foibles.
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But that means the work of the party committees matters even more. If a wave of anti-Trump sentiment can lift Democrats to victory, having candidates who are actually willing to tackle the nation’s biggest challenges is paramount. If, as in the Great Recession election of 2008, for example, anyone with a D in front of their name is poised to win, progressives must make sure that D doesn’t go to just anyone, but those who will do something meaningful with the privilege.
We have an uneasy concentration of wealth and power that has threatened liberty and democracy. The economy works for a narrow band of elites, not the broad class of citizens. A party of the left must represent those who want to counteract that, or else the governing debates when elections end will be nothing more than a sideshow, patches on a fraying system where Big Money wins regardless of the outcome.
There are small signs that the DCCC is becoming more responsive to the grassroots. Activists have grown restless with an ossified House leadership that isn’t making room for younger and more ideological members. State and local Democratic parties are being overrun with new energy and recruits. There is actual hope that a movement of engaged citizens can turn the Party around.
But it requires paying attention to the real choke points in Democratic politics, of which the DCCC is among the worst. Who sits in Congress when the next Democratic president speaks before a joint session will determine the success of their agenda. The time to build a coalition that will really address what’s held back our democracy begins today.