Can the "blue wave" save Democrats from themselves? Progressive activists see hard work ahead

A year after the post-2016 Democratic "autopsy," progressives say the party has made progress. But it's not enough

Published October 21, 2018 12:00PM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Nancy Pelosi (AP/Getty/Salon)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Nancy Pelosi (AP/Getty/Salon)

Last October, a team of progressive researchers did what the Democratic Party itself was unwilling and unable to do: they published “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis,” a critical dissection of what lead to the disastrous 2016 election defeat, which everyone, including Donald Trump, had assumed was going to be a solid Democratic win.

“Doing an autopsy is a way of epitomizing or bringing forth the idea that we can't wait for leadership that's recalcitrant to do the right thing,” co-author Norman Solomon told Salon at the time. Now the team is back with a followup report, “Democratic Autopsy: One Year Later,” a narrative report card on how well the aarty has done in making the sorts of change the original autopsy proposed. It comes just a weeks ahead of the midterm elections, which most pundits will try to evaluate as a report card on how Democrats are doing in responding to Trump. But the "Autopsy" creators maintain that the problem is much deeper than Trump, and it started long before the 2016 election cycle.

There's a lot wrong with the Democratic Party, most of which is pretty easy to understand: There's too much corporate influence, which can be seen in a multitude of ways. There's too little party democracy, too little thoughtful engagement with young people, racial minorities and social movements, too little done to encourage voter participation and too little thought given to the many different costs of war, and to finding alternatives.

The analysis in each of these areas is compelling, but there's so much here it can be overwhelming. Salon reached out to four members of the "Autopsy" team, asking for their sense of unifying thematic ideas, as well as specific aspects they find particularly compelling. They included Donna Smith, national advisory board chair of Progressive Democrats of America, Pia Gallegos, chair of the Adelante Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watch group FAIR and co-founder of, and Norman Solomon, coordinator of the Bernie Delegates Network in 2016 and also a co-founder of

Smith and Gallegos highlighted two contrasting thematic elements. “The most evident theme, in my view, is that pressure from the Democratic base is having an impact" on the Democratic National Committee, said Smith, “both from those potential voters organized in issue-specific grassroots movement work and those within various demographic groups whose members are more likely to support Democrats based on the perception of Democrats as their champions when compared to most Republicans.” 

She also noted the need to do more, especially regarding race, “The section about race and the DNC provides insights about the importance of African-American voters to recent electoral victories, and it may be the single most critical issue facing the DNC,” she argued. “I believe the DNC must continue to do more and be more for and with African-American and other nonwhite voters and even more specifically, African-American women voters.”  

On the other hand, Gallegos stressed the barriers. “One of the themes of the One Year Later report is how two factors – the perception of big money influencing Democratic Party leaders and the failure of bold policy proposals – discourage potential voters from turning out during elections,” she said. The tension between these two themes — mounting base pressure and continued leadership failure — is one reason the potency of a Democratic midterm wave remains such an open question with just two weeks to go.

Solomon offered another. “One of the overarching important themes of the report is a challenge to the conventional wisdom that the best way for Democrats to defeat Republicans is to give ground to them and be ‘moderate,’” Solomon said. “Overall, the results haven't been good when Democratic candidates have poured vast amounts of resources and messaging into trying to appeal to the relatively scant number of ‘persuadable’ Republicans rather than inspiring enthusiasm and mobilizing turnout. When avoiding or opposing progressive populism, Democratic Party leadership has allowed right-wing populism to be the only door open for anger against the establishment.”

Cohen made a similar point, citing “the resistance of the DCCC to progressive candidates” as one of two main bad-news examples cited in the report, supported by a January Intercept story, “Dead Enders” by Ryan Grimm and Lee Fang. “It showed what [the DCCC] were doing across the country, and always helping the corporate candidate, or the monied candidate,” Cohen said. “In the swing districts, you need the populist candidate. We should have learned in November 2016 that if you're wishy-washy on the class issues and the corporate issues and the money issues, you lose to the Republican who poses as being the real populist, which is what Trump did.”

When Bernie Sanders first announced his campaign in June 2015, my story here underscored how popular his brand of politics was, citing a list of 16 policies with 70 percent or more support in the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute. Some of those included allowing the government to negotiate drug prices, offering students the same low-interest loans that big banks get, universal pre-K education and fair trade policies that protect workers, the environment and jobs.

Drawing on more recent conventional polling, the report makes a similar point, as Gallegos highlighted. “According to polling, a majority of Americans support a progressive agenda, including higher taxes on the wealthy, Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, stronger environmental protection, improved public transportation and criminal justice reform."

Despite such public support, she continued, “Many Democratic leaders do not come forward with bold policies to address these basic issues. For example, instead of simply endorsing free public college education, in July this year, congressional Democrats proposed a law that would subsidize community colleges only and work to ‘make college more affordable by reducing debt and simplifying financial aid,’ according to the Washington Post. The Democratic Party needs to push for compelling simple policy measures.”

In fact, she noted, “Seventy percent of all Americans support the creation of a government-sponsored health care system. Yet Democratic leaders – many of whom receive money from private insurance and drug companies - are not supporting this on a national level.”

The report notes that this problem is evident on the state level as well, citing a David Sirota analysis in the Guardian last month which he summarized in a tweet:

Smith, however, cited growing support for Medicare for All as a promising sign — though with a twist. “The DNC had been openly dismissive and even hostile at times to previous efforts to advance the issue,” she said, “but seems poised to embrace efforts to advance it through leading candidates for 2020.”  Therein lies quite a tale: The big-name 2020 presidential hopefuls clearly understand the need to run on popular issues, even as the party apparatus seems mired in the past.

Solomon also cited the 2020 contenders' expressed support for Medicare for All as a striking example of how “social movements – grassroots and nationwide – can create major change inside the Democratic Party, which is necessary yet insufficient for being able to make transformative changes in the country.” He also pointed to the Democrats' recent superdelegate reform — in which party insiders and elected officials were stripped of first-ballot convention votes on the presidential nominee — as similarly significant.

Cohen pointed to another example of how 2020 contenders have been more responsive than most of the party establishment: congressional Democrats' wide support for Trump’s “massive increase in an already massive military budget.” The report quotes both Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi both touting that support. “These two leaders of the Democratic Party are crowing about the complicity in bloating the military budget while working-class people are suffering,” Cohen lamented.

It’s a fatal error, Gallegos believes. “Until Democrats start shifting money from the military budget to basic programs for working people, voters will not feel inclined to become involved in the election process,” she warned.

The military spending increase came in two stages, first with the omnibus budget, then with the National Defense Authorization Act. “Roughly 68 percent of House Democrats and 85 percent of Democratic senators voted for the record-breaking 2019 military budget,” the report notes, including “high-profile ‘resistance’ lawmakers, such as House members Nancy Pelosi, Ted Lieu and Adam Schiff.”

Solomon cited this vote, along with Democratic support for rolling back Dodd-Frank protections of investors and the financial markets, “as examples of how deeply entrenched the military-industrial complex and corporate power are in the national party leadership.”

The contrast with the biggest 2020 hopefuls is striking, Cohen noted. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Jeff Merkley of Oregon -- all viewed as potential presidential contenders -- "were all in the minority, voting ... against all this military spending,” Cohen said, along with expected progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey voted for one military spending bill and against another.) But the Democratic leadership remains blind, Cohen said, to how much this inflated military spending really costs and how it damages the party at all levels. “We’ve proven that the progressive domestic agenda is hugely popular, even with Republicans and swing voters, and how you pay for it if you keep bloating the military budget?” he asked.

Another negative development noted in the report reflects the regressive tendencies of Democratic leaders: “In September, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi preemptively boxed in any potential left-populist agenda on Capitol Hill by backing reinstatement of a ‘pay-go’ rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts.”

The report frames this as rooted in a profound double disconnect, both from average Americans and from 40 years of GOP budget hypocrisy: “Further evidence that Democratic Party priorities often align more with wealthy elites and corporate newspaper editorial boards than with average Americans is that the party’s top leaders still obsess over deficits -- something the tax-cut-happy Republican Party long ago stopped even pretending to care about.”

The key lessons here, Solomon said, are that "large gaps exist between the party’s entrenched national leadership and its base – and that only persistent grassroots organizing tied to nationwide movements can narrow and hopefully eliminate such gaps."

To summarize a few more highlights of the report, let’s consider each section in turn. With respect to corporate power, in addition to the negatives cited above — the rollback of Dodd-Frank, the reinstatement of "pay-go," and the record of blue-state Democrats — there was one strong positive development: Democrats have agreed to refuse donations from some toxic industries, including payday lenders, tobacco companies and gun manufacturers. A commitment to refuse donations from the fossil-fuel industries, however, was reversed after just two months.

When it comes to the party's record on race, the report cited problems with under-investment in minority base campaign spending in Virginia and Alabama; the perception that congressional Democrats had sold out DACA recipients, or might do so; the need to do more on reforming the police and the criminal justice system; and the lack of support for reform-minded or progressive candidates in winnable races.

On the effort to attract younger, the report cited the lack of a clear distinction between Democrats and Republicans on endless war and military spending, and the party leadership's reliance on a 1990s-era playbook of technocratic half-measures that don’t inspire young Americans or bring them out to the polls. Supporting partial, private-sector solutions on college affordability, rather than free public college, is one obvious example.

On the issue of voter participation, the party is doing better. Democrats have implemented the “IWillVote” program to register new voters and fight voter-suppression efforts; supporting the restoration of felons’ right to vote, particularly in New York and Florida; and supported automatic voter registration, now in place in a dozen states plus the District of Columbia. But this relatively strong record stands in stark contrast to the party’s aforementioned failure to embrace bold, popular programs that could speak to large numbers of nonvoters and occasional voters and draw them into the electoral process.

When it comes to social movements, the party has clearly done better in responding to Medicare for All activists and gun safety advocates. On the latter issue, the political landscape clearly shifted after the Parkland massacre. As mentioned above, the party delivered a slap in the face to climate justice activists by reversing a ban on fossil-fuel industry donations only weeks after imposing it.

This has been “a banner year for successful primary campaigns by progressive Democrats nationwide," the report notes, many of them allied with organizations such as Our RevolutionJustice Democrats, the Democratic Socialists of AmericaPeople’s Action, Democracy for AmericaCitizen Action, the Working Families Party and the Progressive Democrats of America, among others. The report concluded that “Progressive social movements have the ability to energize the Democratic Party, but not if blocked by party leaders.”

In addition to the continued support for military spending mentioned above, the report notes that few Democratic candidates talked openly about how military budget cuts could make an expansive domestic agenda possible. The most notable exceptions include four newcomers, all women of color and all expected to win House seats in November: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New YorkIlhan Omar in Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts.

Top Democrats have offered few coherent alternatives on issues of war and peace such as the endless conflict in Afghanistan or the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, the report concluded. With consistently moral foreign policies that reject costly militarism and continuous intervention, Democrats might well inspire the party base and gain support among swing voters and independents, but such advocacy comes mostly from a minority of party “backbenchers,” not leaders.

On issues of intra-party democracy, Democrats have equivocated. As mentioned above, the party reduced the clout of superdelegates and adopted other reforms to promote more openness and accessibility in presidential primaries and caucuses. It also took an apparent step backward with a new provision requiring presidential candidates to affirm their party membership -- an obvious swipe at Bernie Sanders, who has remained an independent. As the report notes, “Treating the party as a club that looks askance at non-club-members makes no sense when far more voters identify as independents than as Democrats.”

Three further points are worth noting. As the Intercept story mentioned above discusses, Democrats have taken their victory in the 2006 midterms, an earlier wave election, as a model. But much of the party's success that year came in spite of the DCCC’s corporate-friendly centrism, not because of it: At least three progressive Democrats won that year by running against the DCCC’s hand-picked candidates, in what now looks like an early precursor to 2018. 

But the 2006 model isn't merely misleading about the mechanics of how to win elections. It lead to the packing of key committees with centrist and conservative congressional newcomers, the report says, who “were there not because the nation demanded moderation, but because Democrats had recruited them.” This in turn prevented Democrats from passing bolder, more progressive legislation, which hypothetically might have prevented or at least minimized the impending bloodbath in the "Tea Party wave" of 2010, when most of those moderate or conservative Democrats were sent packing.

The report also links to an important op-ed on the issue of “moral foreign policies, which introduces a framework of five guiding principles: democracy, accountability (for past mistakes), anti-militarism, threat deflation and internationalism. Such sensible thinking is clearly superior on every level to the bumbling-through-the-fog approach that has dominated conventional American foreign policy thought at least since the end of the Cold War, if not since the end of World War II. Where foreign policy has long been a weakness for progressives -- who have more excluded from the halls of power in this area than any other -- this framework provides a powerful foundation for changing that.

Given how much effort went into analyzing the past year's developments, I concluded by asking the report’s creators for their thoughts about how best to move the party forward.

“The DNC must continue to move more intentionally to advance those positions supported by its base,” said Smith. “Just two years ago, the DNC refused to consider including Medicare for All in its platform. Whether it’s on health care, women’s reproductive rights or the climate emergency, the younger, more diverse voting block looking to Democrats to forcefully oppose the policies of Trumpublicans will not be willing to support corporate interests over those of real people.”  

Solomon cited the need for a "continuing influx of determined progressive energy and engagement, recognizing the necessity of strong social movements that include ongoing electoral work as a vital component of their efforts.”

"There needs to be a change in leadership," Cohen said, noting that he was speaking only for himself on this issue but strongly believed that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer "have to be replaced." He cited their support for military spending and their opposition or prevarication on broadly popular programs like free public college or Medicare for All. "Pelosi and Schumer are just tied to the old ways, they're tied to corporate donors," Cohen concluded. "I think we've seen from Bernie in 2016 and Beto [O'Rourke] in 2018 that you can raise big money without corporate donors."

When I asked what individuals can do to help change the party, the response was unanimous: Get involved. “People should organize where they live, showing that they mean business, to push methodically and effectively for progressive change at all levels of government,” Solomon advised.

“Become the chair of your local precinct, the chair of your local party, the chair of your state party,” Cohen said. “That's how the right wing took over the Republican Party: They did it by taking control first of local parties, then statewide parties and then ultimately the national party. And that's what progressives need to do.”

How does this report relate to the midterms, two weeks from now? “Turnout is crucial,” Solomon said. “Defeating Republicans will largely hinge on getting out the vote. To do that in a big way will require more than trying to tap into revulsion about Trump and the GOP. As the section on voter participation emphasizes and documents, the cornerstones of a progressive populist agenda are widely popular. If clearly advocated, as Bernie Sanders has shown, they can greatly boost turnout and votes.”

This year's midterm election should be seen as the first step in a long-term process, Cohen added. He just spoke about the "Autopsy" to a group of progressive activists in Detroit. “But they're doing all this Democratic Party work for candidates that are not exciting to them,” he said, because they felt it was necessary right now. “Step one is to beat the Republicans,” he said, regardless of who the Democrat is. “Beat the Republicans and then make demands on the Democrats. If the demands don't work, primary them.”

Assuming Democrats successfully recapture a House majority this year, the next big question is whether they can win the White House and the Senate in 2020, creating the potential conditions for real progressive change. Smith said the party still has work to do, and not much time to do it: “There will be no Democratic win in 2020 without continued improvement and clear policy advances by the DNC before the 2020 primaries are underway.”

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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