Demo-catastrophe: It was worse than we thought, and bigger than Bernie vs. Hillary

Donna Brazile's bombshell may be overstated, but it helps explain the fiasco of 2016 — and how we got there

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 4, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton; Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Barack Obama (Getty/AP)
Hillary Clinton; Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Barack Obama (Getty/AP)

More than a year and a half ago, I wrote a column suggesting that Democrats should resist the temptation to gloat at the apparent implosion of the Republican Party, because their own party was in far worse shape than it appeared to be. Honestly, though — I had no idea. There’s an object lesson there for pundits: Sometimes you can be so far wrong that you travel the whole way around the globe and end up being right again.

My governing assumptions in March 2016 were highly conventional ones: Republicans were likely to turn on Donald Trump, sooner rather than later, and wind up nominating someone marginally more normal. Hillary Clinton was exceptionally likely to be the next president. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign was essentially over, after a series of lopsided Clinton victories in large Southern states.

Those assumptions, let’s just say, turned out to be flawed to varying degrees. But my underlying premise that the Clinton-Sanders primary battle had revealed an unresolved ideological and political conflict at the heart of the Democratic coalition, which was not actually about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, was substantially correct. It was flawed in one important way: I failed to perceive that the Democratic Party’s real problems ran much deeper than that.

With the publication in Politico this week of an explosive excerpt from former interim Democratic chair Donna Brazile’s first-person tell-all, we have learned that the Democratic National Committee went into the 2016 election cycle essentially bankrupt and deeply in debt. By late summer of 2015, as Brazile tells it — several months before the first votes were cast in Iowa or New Hampshire and nearly a year before the party’s Philadelphia convention — the DNC had become a “fund-raising clearinghouse” or client state for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which was paying the party’s bills and had practical control over its finances, strategy and staffing.

At least on the surface, that's worse than the most dire accusations hurled at the party last year by internet BernieBros or Julian Assange. Some of Brazile's account has subsequently been called into question by Democratic insiders, most notably the timing and significance of the fund-raising agreement between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. It's fair to say that no individual element of that picture is especially damning on its own, and there was nothing illegal about this arrangement, as Brazile makes clear. But there’s also no way to make it look good, and the overall impression is one of an organization so rudderless, demoralized and destitute it had stopped caring about its integrity.

Brazile insists that during her stint as party chair, after the ouster of the much-derided Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she could find no other evidence of “internal corruption” to suggest that DNC insiders had intentionally rigged the Democratic primaries to boost Clinton and torpedo Sanders.

Well, OK. But I would say that's a moot point, wouldn’t you? Brazile's contention is that the party organization was being operated as a money-laundering front by its leading candidate, in roughly the same way Tony Soprano would run a bankrupt sporting-goods store. Perhaps even more important than those details, she portrays the Democratic Party as so financially and morally bankrupt, and so ideologically adrift, that it required a parasitic invasion by the Clinton campaign just to keep going. If any of that is accurate, then the intentions of the people involved are irrelevant. The entire enterprise was corrupt from top to bottom.

Brazile’s revelations have obviously provided new ammunition to Sanders supporters who perceived the 2016 Democratic contest as rigged, not to mention more fodder for tweets about “Crooked Hillary” by crazy old guys, including the one in the Oval Office. But to return to the principle mentioned above, I think that’s missing the point: Bernie vs. Hillary was never the central issue, and it definitely isn’t now. The extent to which virtually all discussion about left-liberal politics and the Democratic Party’s future devolves into vitriolic disputes about those two candidates, or into circular arguments about “social justice” and “economic inequality” (as if those things were opposed or categorically distinct), is itself an index of Democratic dysfunction.

In fact, I’m inclined to take Brazile at her word: There was no nefarious conspiracy to tip the Democratic nomination to Clinton, and none was necessary. The DNC’s pro-Hillary leanings were obvious to everyone, even if we didn’t know the gruesome details. But it’s also true that Clinton won more votes and more delegates, under a process understood by all parties in advance. Now, what might have happened if the Democratic Party had had a different process, a different ideology, a different approach to politics and a different constituency? That’s just too many ifs. (In fairness, there's also no way to know how Sanders would have fared against Trump in the general election; it's safe to assume the Republicans would have rolled out some ferocious "oppo.")

Point being, the Democratic Party’s corruption was, and is, systemic rather than specific. It wasn’t so much “OMG what do we do about the weird old socialist guy?”, although it’s clearly true that Sanders’ campaign caught party insiders by surprise and they weren't exactly thrilled about it. The moral implosion that Brazile describes was the tragic result of a bunch of more or less decent people with more or less honorable intentions struggling to deal with a long chain of unintended consequences stemming from decisions they hadn’t made.

Even Debbie Wasserman Schultz, America’s Most Kickable, wasn’t personally responsible for the way Barack Obama regally ignored the Democratic Party for eight years, leaving it, Brazile says, with $25 million in debt, not to mention wiped off the political map in virtually every state that doesn’t touch a large body of water. For that matter, it wasn’t Obama who decided that the working class and the welfare state were yesterday's news and turned the Democrats into the party of “The End of History,” embracing Silicon Valley venture capital and deep-pockets Hollywood donors (cough, cough, Weinstein) and deregulated Wall Street derivatives that nobody could understand but were sure to keep going up, up, up. That particular maneuver paid off big time for Bill Clinton in the '90s -- and has been poisonous ever since.

The net result of all this has been highly anomalous, if not unique in political history: On one hand we have a party that nominally stands for principles and policies supported by a majority of the population, whose nominee has won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. On the other we have a party that has lost close to 1,000 state legislature seats over the past decade and suffered historic wipeouts in the last two midterm elections, leaving it in a weaker position on Capitol Hill than at any time since the Great Depression. That party became so strapped for cash, not to mention so spiritually enervated, that it rented itself out to one of its presidential candidates while pretending to remain neutral with respect to that candidate’s campaign. Spoiler alert: Same party!

There’s no way to separate the Democratic Party’s ideological collapse from its institutional collapse, or from the way it has self-gerrymandered into a regional party whose voters are an awkward coalition of rich and poor in the coastal states and the top dozen or so metropolitan areas. (I know, I know: The "Big Sort," because everybody who used to vote Democratic in the heartland states died or moved to California.) All those things are aspects of the same phenomenon, which is that Democrats are constantly on the back foot, fighting yesterday’s battles and burdened by the PTSD of 2008 or the Cold War or the Reagan Revolution or Chicago 1968.

That’s admittedly preferable to the Time Machine Amnesia party on the other side, which used to long for an anodyne, theme-park fantasy of the 1950s but now seems to have embraced a level of delusional nihilism that suggests either a postmodern art movement or severe mental illness. But for the last two decades or so, Democrats have had no semblance of a collective identity other than not being Republicans. They’re not homophobic or misogynistic, they’re not overtly racist, they’re not hysterical about immigration, they’re OK with scientific evidence and they don’t embrace patently false conspiracy theories. Which are good things! But at this point, the argument that “we’re better at managing things than the crazy people” has repeatedly proven inadequate to win power, to hold onto it or to do anything useful with it.

Both sides in the Democratic Party’s current faction fight, as I see it, are in denial about the true nature and scope of the problem. Sanders-style progressives long to purge the old guard and build anew, rebranding the entire party as a social-democratic enterprise dedicated to single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and higher taxes on the rich. (Which sounds great in theory but would require years, if not decades, of difficult organizing work.) Clintonite moderates, meanwhile, maintain that the Trump presidency, Republican hegemony in Washington and widespread social discord are rogue events that perhaps didn’t really happen and in any case do not reflect on their strategy of policy-wonk triangulation or their record of repeated and humiliating defeat.

Both responses are essentially utopian: They rest on the premise that the Democratic Party is still a functioning political organization and that the United States is still a functioning democracy. We ought to know better by now. It does no good to pretend that the Democratic (and democratic) crisis — which is not just ideological and political but also moral, philosophical, financial, institutional and other adjectives besides — does not exist or isn’t important. Numerous social-media observers have already suggested that Donna Brazile should not have aired her party’s dirty secrets because we face a national emergency and need party unity at a time like this, etc.

Nonsense: What unity? And for that matter, what party? The Demo-catastrophe cannot be swept under the carpet in the name of winning a House majority in 2018 (which isn’t going to happen anyway), although that’s a fair description of the party’s official strategy. That way lies madness, or at least the form of liberal derangement represented by Jon Ossoff, the guy who spent 30 million bucks, more money than any congressional candidate in history, to get exactly the same number of votes as the previous Democrat to be defeated in his suburban Atlanta district. (I was angry about it at the time and am angrier now: The demoralizing effect of the Ossoff debacle will have a long tail.)

Now here we are, in the still-unbelievable conditions of 2017, with an erratic, vindictive and thoroughly incompetent president who finished second in the voting and is widely despised by the public. He sits atop a hollowed-out zombie version of the Republican Party, which has forged an especially noxious and nonsensical coalition of predatory capitalism and resurgent white nationalism. (I can hear my colleague Chauncey DeVega reminding me that that particular combination has a name.) That party’s base of support is nowhere close to a majority, yet somehow it controls all three branches of the federal government and 38 (or so) of the 50 states.

How in God’s name did that happen? Well, we’ve all spent too much time blathering on about that and coming up with halfway plausible explanations: It was sexism and Russian meddling and racial resentment and “economic anxiety” and the marginalization of the white working class. It was a flood-tide of right-wing fake news and Jim Comey’s October surprise (remember, we were supposed to hate him before we were supposed to love him). It was voter suppression and depressed turnout and bearded millennial snowflakes who voted for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. Given how flukish the 2016 election was, it’s fair to say that all those factors played a role, and that if any one of them could be adjusted just a little, the outcome might have been different.

Even at their most grandiose and Putin-enriched, those are granular explanations of what happened last November — a uniquely traumatic and damaging event, to be sure — which completely ignore the near-total meltdown of the two-party system that got us there in the first place. Hillary Clinton’s bizarre defeat-in-victory was an event so unlikely it seems like a metaphor. So does the fact that the Democratic Party was so broke and so cynical it literally sold its soul for rent money. But those things happened. Until we face them honestly there will be no Resistance, no victory, no political renewal and no democracy.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir