Editorial: The Soul of the Democratic Party

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announces her endorsement of Zephyr Teachout for New York attorney general on July 12, 2018, at the Charging Bull statue in lower Manhattan, New York. (Erik McGregor/Sipa USA/TNS) Erik McGregor

Published: 7/28/2018 10:10:09 PM
Modified: 7/28/2018 10:10:11 PM

National leaders of the Democratic Party are hearing peals of thunder on the left and cringing at the occasional lightning strike, as when U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, a 20-year incumbent considered by some as a potential future speaker of the House, was upset in a primary race in June by a 28-year-old Latina activist and political newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These establishment Democrats fear that the current activist rebellion on the left will scare off the voters they need to win back control of the House this fall.

Progressives, though, want to confront Trumpism loudly and head-on. Advocates of fighting fire with fire, they argue that timid incrementalism is what gave the country a Trump presidency in the first place, and doing more of the same is a strategy sure to result in more of the same.

To resolve this battle for the soul of the party, we suggest that Democrats turn for guidance to the late Tip O’Neill, the onetime speaker of the House and stalwart Democrat who observed that “all politics is local,” and to the late Al Davis, longtime owner of the Oakland Raiders professional football team, whose philosophy was neatly summed up in the motto, “Just win, baby.”

The outcome of midterm elections is not generally decided on the basis of a party’s national platform (although they increasingly are taking on that character). More often they are decided by the appeal of a particular candidate to a particular constituency. Confrontational progressive activism will play well in some districts, while a more moderate approach will succeed better in others. The important thing is to just win and loosen the grip of terribly destructive Republican rule in Washington before the country is irretrievably damaged, if it has not already been. The ideological differences can be worked out, or papered over, later.

But one thing that needs to happen soon, win or lose this fall, is for old-guard Democrats to make way for a new generation of young leaders who can provide energy and fresh ideas and are more in tune with the views and sensibilities of younger voters. The party’s current leadership in the House consists of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, age 78; Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, 79; Assistant Leader James Clyburn, 78; and Crowley, the caucus chairman, a veritable youngster at age 56. Crowley is departing as the result of his primary loss. The others should strongly consider following the excellent example set by Harry Reid, the party’s former leader in the Senate, who retired in 2017 and hasn’t looked back.

And the Democrats also need to wean themselves off the corporate money and influence that has in recent years rendered too many of them almost indistinguishable from their Republican counterparts in important respects. The party needs to get back to basics: the pocketbook issues on which Democrats traditionally took the lead. Their failure to focus on those issues left a large pool of disaffected working- and middle-class voters susceptible to Donald Trump’s snake oil. There are both progressive solutions and more middle-of-the-road solutions to the problems of wealth inequality, college debt and lack of affordable housing, health care and child care, but the voters have to be convinced that, if elected, candidates will actually act on the everyday problems that matter the most to ordinary people.

The Progressive Era in American political life began in the late 1890s in reaction to the excesses of the Gilded Age, times that parallel our own in terms of a concentration of wealth and economic power that left millions of Americans struggling. As noted by Walter Nugent, emeritus professor of history at Notre Dame, in his excellent introduction to the subject, reformers fought for workers’ compensation, the minimum wage and child labor laws. Before the era ended in the 1920s, the graduated income tax, antitrust laws and women’s suffrage had been enacted.

Whether the country is at the dawn of a new Progressive Era or continues to falter as political norms and institutions break down, Democrats need to take to heart what Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, Republican congressman, governor and senator from Wisconsin and one of the heroes of the earlier Progressive Era, once wrote: “We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.”

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