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The Case Against Unity

The Democratic Party hasn't earned the right to silence its critics.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Democratic Party has failed. The evidence of its failure—Donald Trumptook office last Friday, 19 months after launching a campaign soaked in ethno-nationalism and misogyny. Trump and his cabinet nominees are poised to decimate public education, the Affordable Care Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency. They threaten our diplomatic relations with world powers and our labor protections. They are racist, they are clueless, they are corrupt.

In response, Democrats have undergone some remedial soul-searching. But too often the response from party officials and certain liberal pundits has been to cast the blame elsewhere, and to claim that the party is basically in good health. Above all, they call for unity on the “left,” an entity that somehow always ends up excluding critics actually located on the left side of the spectrum. “The problem with circular firing squads is everyone gets hit. I don’t think there’s any room in the party right now for a circular firing squad,” Donna Brazile, the interim head of the Democratic National Committee, told Politico on Monday. The message is that the threat posed by Trump is too great to indulge in family squabbling. The marches in Washington, D.C., and around the world that took place this weekend show the tremendous power the left possesses—if we stick together.

The problem with this approach is that it papers over the Democratic Party’s very real weaknesses, both at broad and tactical levels. It essentially defines the party as the anti-Trump party, and nothing more. And it is a way of smuggling in an ideology that should be up for criticism and debate—an ideology that likely hurt the party in 2016. The best way for the party to prepare for the 2018 midterms and beyond is through a vigorous reexamination of its values and a rejection of blind calls for unity.

It is partially correct to blame FBI Director James Comey and Russian interference for this abysmal state of affairs. And yes, let’s blame the GOP, too: President Trump is a product of the white supremacy always festering in its heart. But today’s pleas for unity should not obscure a central, unshakeable fact: We are also here because of the Democratic Party’s incompetence.

The party coalesced early around a deeply flawed and unpopular candidate. Its experts made potentially fatal campaign errors in key swing states. The rhetoric and marketing they deployed didn’t motivate the Obama coalition—millennials, minorities, women—to come out to the polls in great enough numbers. And the party didn’t just lose the presidency; according to The Atlantic, Democrats only won eight of the 32 congressional seats it targeted in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin on November 8, 2016. They lost governor’s mansions they previously occupied. They do not control a single state legislature in the South.

This is party failure on a mass scale. It cannot be pinned entirely to James Comey’s letter or to Russian machinations. Democrats set this failure in motion years ago. A blue firewall in the Upper Midwest crumbled, as white blue-collar voters that should rightly be in the Democratic column threw their lot with a faux-populist reformer in Donald Trump. The shifting allegiances of these voters are also evident in Great Britain and France, whose mainstream liberal parties have also failed to distinguish themselves from their conservative counterparts. And yet the Democrats have taken few steps to reestablish themselves as the party of common men and women.

Consider the controversy that erupted over Senator Cory Booker earlier this month. Activists and columnists (including me) excoriated Booker for rejecting a bipartisan affordable drugs proposal during the Senate’s Vote-a-rama. Booker’s justification—that Canadian drugs present safety concerns—doesn’t survive scrutiny. And his vote was hardly an exception. He once sat on on the board of Trump education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’s education reform group. He’s been silent on the subject of single-payer health care and has supported raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour. (The Democratic Party platform supports a $15 minimum wage.) His school choice fetish when he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, left its public schools in upheaval. He voted for the 21st Century Cures Act, which reduces drug regulation and benefits pharmaceutical corporations.

His position on school choice alone places him to the right of his own party. But some of the Democratic Party’s most active enforcers vociferously defended him, claiming that activists were conducting “purity tests” and shrinking the party’s tent. It’s especially galling when you consider that Booker isn’t a red state Democrat who has to compromise on some liberal values to appeal to his constituents; he’s the senator from New Jersey, and his compromises seemingly only benefit corporations at the expense of workers.

This is part of a pattern for Democrats. The party tries to embrace school choice advocates and teachers’ unions; Wall Street lobbyists and the working class. It has muddied its identity. It has lost its moral clarity. There are Democrats who support right-to-work and oppose a $15 federal minimum wage. Democrats largely supported the invasion of Iraq and the expansion of the surveillance state they are now handing to Donald Trump. Fourteen Democrats just voted to confirm Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA, despite his equivocal position on the use of torture. Their response to the financial crisis was to cave to an austerity paradigm set by Republicans and to reinforce their faith in technocratic elites just when the country was baying for bankers’ blood. Democrats did almost nothing to abate the foreclosure crisis. Being a Democrat, in fact, often looks remarkably like being a Republican. This is not a new observation. The results of November 8 simply bestow it with greater weight and render the party’s incoherence particularly intolerable.

The party must choose a direction. There is a persuasive argument that it should move further left, particularly on economic issues: Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton among young voters. Even though Clinton ran on the party’s most progressive platform in decades, her reputation was hurt above all by the sense that she came from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party—that she was perpetuating what anti-establishment voters on both the left and right felt was a rigged system. This was not a baseless assumption, either. But the Democratic establishment disagrees with that assessment, and has pushed back hard since Trump’s election.

Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank with deep ties to Wall Street, just announced that it has received $20 million to “to conduct extensive research, reporting and polling in Rust Belt states that once formed a Blue Wall.” Its president, Jonathan Cowan, told Politico he doesn’t think populism will save his flailing party. “You can’t meet right-wing populism effectively as a matter of politics or governing with big government liberal populism, or 1990s centrism. You have to do something entirely new for a new era.” The implication here is that centrism is still more palatable to voters than the progressivism of politicians like Bernie Sanders or Rep. Keith Ellison or even Elizabeth Warren.

In The Guardian, Al From, the former head of the Democratic Leadership Council, urged Democrats to cling ever tighter to that sweet, sweet centrism. “Democrats should rededicate ourselves to the core New Democrat principles—opportunity, responsibility, community—the first principles of the Democratic Party,” he wrote. Redistribution? Don’t even think about it, he finger-wagged: “Economic growth can only be generated by a robust private sector.” Of course, we do have a robust private sector. As it recovered from the recession, the number of children living in poverty grew.

Another pro-Clinton centrist, David Brock, is already courting the donors he needs to sustain his organizations. Former Clinton aides are helming the party’s anti-Trump war room. Keith Ellison’s bid for party chair is reportedly unpopular with some moderate Democrats. His challenger, outgoing Labor Secretary Tom Perez, advertises himself as a “progressive who can get things done.” That’s a sharp dig at Ellison, who backed Sanders’s White House run.

This is a debate Democrats need to have. The problem is that the same camp that is championing establishment ideology is also claiming that any attacks on that ideology are a blow to Democratic unity. If the Democratic Party wants to flourish, it must adapt to its changing electorate and it cannot do this if it will not listen to new voices. It’s not enough for Democrats to call themselves The Resistance. They must also explain what it is they’re resisting. Is it simply Trump? Or is it the ideology that helped put Trump in power?

Here, Democrats should take a lesson from the left. “Movements can mobilize people to refuse, to disobey, in effect to strike,” Frances Fox Piven recently wrote in The Nation. “[P]eople in motion, in movements, can throw sand in the gears of the institutions that depend on their cooperation.” Fight for 15, Occupy, Black Lives Matter: They point the way forward. So, too, did last Saturday’s Women’s March. In each instance, people rallied around a cause, not a person or a party. They did not turn out for politicians, they were not attracted by celebrities. They turned out because they wished to identify themselves with a specific values statement. Their actions teach us what it means to do politics—and warn us against defining politics in electoral terms alone.

The Democratic Party will continue to fail unless it understands this. The victims of its failure won’t be Hillary Clinton or David Brock but vulnerable Americans whose survival depends on the party’s ability to oppose Trumpism. Its left-wing critics have no choice but to reject its calls for unity. The stakes are too high to do anything else.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Cory Booker supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10. He has co-sponsored legislation that would raise it to $12. We regret the error.