It’s Corruption, Stupid

How the Democratic Party Failed, and How We Come Back

I. Ground Zero

In the months after Donald Trump’s stunning victory to become the President of the United States, the Democratic Party establishment seemed to take a variety of self assured positions as to why she lost. For the Clintons’ loyalist megadonor David Brock, it was just about everything. In a long winded effort to cope with the trauma, he lists the Comey letter, the media, Russia hackers, and “the millions of disaffected millennials who sat on their hands in the most consequential election of our lives and didn’t even bother to vote”. As marginally true as each of those might be, what’s missing in his analysis is any self reflection on the campaign and why a vulgar, transparently bigoted, and unhinged individual like Trump could win at all.

And while the DNC chair race has lacked the barbs of last year’s primary, it’s roughly unfolded into two similar factions. There are those behind Keith Ellison, who understands the need to make monumental changes in order to become competitive again, and hardline party loyalists who refuse to look inward, choosing instead to scapegoat any low hanging fruit that spares them the burden of making serious structural reforms in the way we operate and conduct campaigns.

Those are still quick to denounce any criticisms as treasonous efforts to undermine the party and stick one last knife into the corpse of the Clinton campaign. Aptly put by The Intercept, “demanding that one refrain from critiquing the Democratic Party in order to exclusively denounce Trump over and over is akin to demanding that one single-mindedly denounce cancer without worrying about who the treating doctor is or what type of research is being conducted to cure it”. To show how removed from reality its loyalists are, there even members of the Clinton circle who now blame Obama for not having been more forceful on Russian hacking allegations as a method of explaining her loss.

We could shuffle blame between Bernie Sanders, Green voters, James Comey, and the Russians, but the reality is that both Hillary and the Party at large were up against an enthusiasm gap being filled by Donald Trump. As noted by the New York Times’ data-crunching pollster Nate Cohn:

The electoral trends that put Donald J. Trump within striking distance of victory were clear long before Mr. Comey sent his letter. They were clear before WikiLeaks published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. They were even clear back in early July, before Mr. Comey excoriated Mrs. Clinton for using a private email server. At every point of the race, Mr. Trump was doing better among white voters without a college degree than Mitt Romney did in 2012 — by a wide margin. Mrs. Clinton was also not matching Mr. Obama’s support among black voters.

To be clear, it’s no more productive for Bernie supporters to spend their time red in the face insisting he was the stronger candidate and assured to win. Early polls reveal little, as Republicans deliberately withheld any attacks on him in an effort to undermine the front runner. Should he have pulled off an upset in the primary, we would’ve witnessed the same red-baiting, smear campaigns, and outright lies she was subject to going into the general. Hillary’s victory in the primary was real and substantial, especially among black and Latino voters, but also in states like Pennsylvania and Missouri with a high proportion of working class whites. Ultimately, we will never know what the outcome of a Sanders candidacy would’ve been, and it does us no use theorizing a campaign that never was.

While I had serious disagreements with the Clintonite philosophy, I left 2016 with a tremendous amount of respect for Secretary Clinton. She has undoubtedly put her entire being into every job she’s ever had, overcoming sexism both explicit and implicit, and has an unparalleled grasp on policy across virtually every field. And I can only imagine what it was like for millions of women to cast a vote for a female candidate of a major party for the first time, not to mention an entire generation of young girls who have been inspired to break the glass ceiling for themselves. Our party should be proud of that, no matter who you voted for in the primary.

But against the wishes of Party hardliners, what is a valuable use of time is an understanding of the recurring, glaring problems that plagued her campaign throughout the year — not to tarnish her character, but to extrapolate a discontent that extends far beyond Clinton, or even the Democratic Party. Without that analysis, and a continuation of the status quo, we are destined to repeat our failures. There is a need, as Keith Ellison recently said, “to come to grips with the reality that the Democratic Party doesn’t exist for Democrats, [but] for the American people.”

Rather than an isolated misstep, this election was the continuation of trends Democrats chose to ignore; since 2010, the House has been out of play, we’ve lost key Senate races, and most tellingly, we’ve lost nearly 1,000 seats at the state level. The remarkable campaign charisma of President Obama staved off defeat in 2012 and rescued many down ballot candidates, but it also concealed very deep wounds that only temporarily postponed the 2016 calamity. Yet Democratic policies continue to poll well and succeed in unexpected places when put on the ballot for voters — even in years not favorable for Democrats. We can always be flexible with policy, and purity tests should be rejected, but the relative popularity of left-leaning positions reveal an image crisis in which voters no longer trust Democratic candidates to follow through with the promises they make. And when it comes to repairing that trust, we can no longer afford to be timid. Those who are hedging their bets that the public will tire of President Trump’s antics and eagerly swing back to Democrats are dangerously underestimating the possibility that our democracy can deteriorate entirely, looking to Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine as examples of what an insurgent right wing and a jaded, disengaged public can do. Our muckraking must begin now.

II. Trust Deficit

Conversely, much of Trump’s victory has been attributed to the economic anxiety of a white working class that hasn’t felt the growth portrayed by the outgoing administration. This is absolutely true, but stops short of the root issue. As Nate Silver pointed out, Clinton actually improved Obama’s margins in most counties with household incomes below the national average, and it was education rather than income that better predicted support. The economy did remain the top issue for voters, highlighting an underlying anxiety… but Clinton also won those voters by 10 points. And while Trump’s team did follow through on their promise to receive record support among white voters, this certainly was no impenetrable surge promising to realign the electorate for a generation. Only 10% were new voters, and Clinton won them by 16 points as well.

But there are a few numbers that better illustrate the broader public psyche. Against hopes that Democrats’ edge that Trump’s inflammatory remarks would propel a surge of black and Latino voters, turnout instead dropped among these demographics, and she underperformed when compared to Obama in 2012. National turnout dropped too, including in the key Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. A full 2.4 million people cast their vote but skipped the presidential line entirely. Trump’s popularity remains underwater, with only a third of voters saying he’s trustworthy. And when a voter’s top issue was the need for change — a powerful attribute anyone alive in 2008 can understand — Trump won them by a massive 83%.

It’s true that economic anxiety remains a driving force of politics in the US, and that comes with a variety of policies we’re bound to spend years arguing over. But this all misses the more poignant takeaway: that voters embraced the paradox of an untrustworthy billionaire with a history of deceptive practices as a possible solution for their ills, simply because he’s guaranteed to shake up a system fraught with perceived corruption.

In a benchmark 2015 study, the Pew Research Center found an American public deeply cynical about our institutions. Among the findings: 19% say they can trust their government, the lowest in the past half-century; 56% say large corporations have a negative impact on the country; 65% say the national news media has a negative effect on the country; 29% would call elected officials “honest”, compared to 69% who would call the average American the same. Yet whether Republican or Democrat, “majorities say the federal government should have a major role in dealing with 12 of 13 issues included in the survey, all except advancing space exploration.” In other words, the public wants the government to do something, explaining the rise of both right- and left- leaning populism, as opposed to the policies that have largely benefited the well-off.

We have a deeply entrenched trust deficit, and fixing it cannot be characterized as a partisan issue. Our institutions have been resting on soft ground for a long time, and in retrospect should be no surprise that an outsider would both exacerbate those problems and exploit it for his own ends. The insurgent popularity of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are no coincidence. Both characterized the establishment as corrupt and perpetuating the interests of a privileged elite while offering nothing but lip service to working people. And tellingly, they made their unique methods of campaign financing central to their message. Sanders built an army of small dollar donors that allowed him to fund a legitimate ground game. Trump funded his own campaign and rejected the traditional gloss and glamour that we’ve come to expect. And both attacked Hillary for giving speeches to Wall Street billionaires, proudly touting their lack of a Super PAC to highlight one key point: I am beholden to the voters, and only the voters.

All of the above contradictions suggest an American public less ideological than this election has been characterized, and that it’s authenticity voters are looking for. Ideology doesn’t explain why so many counties could swing dramatically from Bush to Obama and back to Trump, but they do both radiate authenticity in their own ways. Obama’s through his charisma, Trump through his independence from a corrupt and dishonest establishment. Our unique relationship with campaign financing and special interests gives our public a cynical filter through which they see and hear politicians; a filter that tells them this person has been corrupted by a system I have little impact on and is not to be trusted. Trump spoke to an anger felt by many that they have been left behind, yes by the economy, but by the political system as well. That not only do their leaders not represent them, but that voting itself is a fool’s errand because the entire system is corrupt.

A party that tries to court both the working class and Wall Street is of course going to be perceived as schizophrenic without a rare charismatic leader like President Obama. Nonetheless, waiting for the next Obama to uphold a delicate coalition through smoke and mirrors is a risky gamble and a morally hollow crusade. Convincing the public that our Party, and eventually our government, sincerely works for them should not be dismissed as a “far-left” project, because failing to do so opens the door for an unhinged outsider with sinister motives like Trump to co-opt the message, albeit without serious intent to actually drain the swamp.

The DNC race is a valuable opportunity to begin that difficult work. Keith Ellison has been a steadfast progressive who understands grassroots organizing, the concerns of working people, and has been a vocal advocate for reform. He was also met with laughter by media pundits when he suggested, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, that we should not underestimate him. Young voters are distrustful of establishment politics after the tenure of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and Ellison shows an understanding that the primary is not a time to coronate a front runner, but a necessary accountability mechanism born out of the disastrous 1968 Convention that disregarded the will of the party’s voters. Perez, on the other hand, refuses to support an end to corporate and lobbying donations to the DNC, was a vocal supporter of the TPP, and received an unnecessary endorsement from the outgoing Obama administration — not necessarily the best authority on party-building considering the Democratic Party has all but collapsed at the state level under his watch. The inherent weakness of our “Fortress White House” mentality was painfully ripped open in November, and we’ll need a leader who understands how to connect with and organize everyday Americans from the ground up.

Regardless of who becomes the next DNC chair, there is no doubt that the Party needs to wean itself off of corporate donations to rebuild trust and foster an image of a true working class party. The uneasy marriage between Wall Street donors and the Obama Coalition has fallen apart without its namesake leader, and it would be a mistake to chase after its reconciliation. Of course this runs the risk of being outspent, and the anxiety that would be felt by data crunching party officials is understandable. But Trump was outspent too — massively. The Party’s prioritization of fundraising has been turned on its head, and the value of an effective message has been revealed to be worth more than those lost margins. If Party hardliners choose to characterize this as a vindictive effort led by disenchanted Bernie supporters, we’re almost certain to sprint down the same path of overconfidence, condescension, and ignorance.

III: A War on Corruption

If we succeed in rebuilding a newly invigorated Democratic Party, drawing the clearest possible contrast to the Mar-A-Lago plutocracy, we’ll then need candidates who put a bold, unwavering reform platform front and center. It’s true that the issues faced by the laid off coal miner in Appalachia or the struggling single mother working at the minimum wage cannot wait. But it’s also true that if we don’t make structural reforms, the cycle of corruption, gridlock, and distrust will continue to make their relief impossible, all while our democracy continues to corrode and authoritarian voices become an attractive alternative. A full 45% of the eligible voting public chose not to cast a ballot on Election Day, highlighting the gravity of the problem. Most regrettable that “Drain the Swamp” has been taken by a demagogue who has no plans to carry out its mandate, because its pithy salience fits just the platform we need.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson unveiled his own sweeping platform. He declared a War on Poverty, envisioning a Great Society that leaves no person behind. But before that, he took his now famous poverty tour across rural Appalachia and the inner city ghettos and did what we need to do now: listen to what those who are disgruntled and disenfranchised have to say. Their sentiments are repeated often, to the frustration of those of us who desperately try to pull them to the ballot, but they are no less legitimate. In fact, they are key to understanding the work we must do. Just as LBJ did, we should take their words and set out to build a Great Democracy that leaves no voter behind.

“All politicians are the same. They tell you one thing and their donors another.”

We need to continue to support any means necessary to overturn the campaign finance decisions from Buckley to Citizens United to McCutcheon and democratize the flow of money into campaigns — both by ending high dollar donations, and replacing them with a public funding system. The psychological effect of a voter being given a voucher, to donate to any candidate of their choosing, should not be understated when brainstorming strategies to repair voters’ trust in government. Knowing that they literally hold the purse strings, and that the elites’ have been cut off, would be a political revolution in itself. We can go further and restore reasonable caps on campaign spending to slow the never ending fundraising arms race. Candidates spend anywhere from 30% to 70% of their time fundraising, and doing so would force campaigns to shift their focus to constituent work. But we can only turn out the lights on this era of Super PACs and dark money if we’re fully committed to that vision within our own party.

“All they really care about are special interests.”

We need to listen when Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike bemoan the influence of K-Street and organizations they see as distorting public policy. We should end lobbyists’ involvement in fundraising to peddle influence, and impose strong bans on officials and senior staffers from becoming lobbyists for at least 5 years to lock the revolving door. Loopholes in lobbyist registration should be closed, donation bundling laws tightened, and lobbying while Congress is in session prohibited entirely.

“My vote doesn’t count and it won’t change anything.”

Should pro-reform Democrats sweep back legislatures and the presidency in 2020, we cannot let a decennial opportunity slip by to finally mend the issue of gerrymandering. We need truly independent redistricting commissions that remove legislators from the process of drawing district boundaries, and a solution either state-by-state or at the national level to make the House of Representatives competitive again. While we’re at it, we should continue to push to end the Electoral College, an outdated, anti-democratic mechanism that gives voters in all but a few states any reason to go out and vote for a president, which could have a down-ballot ripple effect.

“I couldn’t vote.”

With shameful turnout rates compared to other western democracies, we need a modern equivalent of the Voting Rights Act to guarantee free and fair elections to every citizen, and to make voting as easy and secure as possible. At its center should be universal voter registration, Election Day as a national holiday, and federal minimum standards for early voting. We should end laws that discriminate against minorities with a ban on voter ID laws, a restored pre-clearance requirement for states with a history of voter discrimination, and allowing those who have served their time in prison to vote. And with distrust in the integrity of our elections being sewn by Trump and Russia, we need federal oversight of electronic voting machines with random, paper-verified audits to stifle any shadow of doubt that the final results are accurate.

“Both parties are the same.”

Finally, rather than scapegoating third party voters every four years for spoiling an election, we should follow Maine’s lead by transitioning to ranked choice voting and ending a system that penalizes people for voting for candidates they feel best represent them. The potential benefits are numerous; breaking the two-party stranglehold (especially at the local level), discouraging negative campaigning, and fostering compromise between candidates are all healthy outcomes for a political system currently brimming with dysfunction and cynicism.

IV. Onward

The specifics of any platform can and should be debated, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list. It remains an injustice, for example, that residents of Washington, D.C. are denied full voting representation in Congress despite a population greater than either Vermont or Wyoming. But such a platform — delivered and communicated through values just as Trump delivered his — is vital. Not just for the resurgence of the Democratic Party, but stopping an eight-year Donald Trump presidency that would almost certainly ensure the permanent decline of our flawed but unrivaled democratic republic.

Exhausted from the pressures of reality in the White House, President Trump headed to Florida this past Saturday in what was called his first reelection rally. He’s opened the door for the 2020 campaign to begin and he’s eager for a battle.

Let’s give him that fight.