The meetings of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) were a study in contrasts. Both told stories to unite their faithful. At CPAC, activists fell in line, while at the DNC, the fight for leadership revealed battling narratives and deep divisions within the party.
DNC: What Happened?
Tom Perez, the DNC’s new chair, and his former rival, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, both cast the outcome of their battle in terms of unity. “We don’t have the luxury to walk out of this room divided," Ellison said after his loss to Perez in the second round of voting. He immediately threw his support to the former Labor Secretary and urged his supporters to do the same. Perez, in turn, swiftly named Ellison his second in command.
But the race was ugly, and got that way fast. Shortly after declaring his candidacy in December, Ellison faced unfounded accusations by deep-pocketed DNC backers that he was anti-Semitic, a former member of the Nation of Islam, and a supporter of Louis Farrakhan. These charges were proven untrue, but they did manage to subtly remind party delegates that Ellison is black and Muslim.
It’s ironic: Some of the same Democrats who fought Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid by claiming that progressive economics devalue identity politics were all too willing to use Ellison’s identity against him.
The Democratic Party establishment clearly wanted to stop him. According to the New York Times, Obama loyalists “uneasy with the progressive Mr. Ellison” began to press Perez to enter the race only after Ellison became the leading candidate, and Obama himself offered a thinly-veiled endorsement of Perez in the final days of his administration.
Perez got another boost when South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison dropped out of the race and endorsed him. Harrison, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, is a former lobbyist with the high-powered Podesta Group, whose clients include everyone from Wal-Mart to Lockheed Martin and the government of Egypt.
In contrast to Ellison, Harrison has been an outspoken supporter of the DNC’s decision to keep accepting lobbyist money, which was banned by President Obama but reinstated last year by former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
“We in the Democratic Party have to stop the castigation of various people for the jobs they have,” he told Vox’s Jeff Stein.
While Perez has a decent progressive record, especially in the mainstream Democratic context, his politics differ from Ellison’s in other important ways. He supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pro-corporate trade deal that wounded Democrats in industrial swing states, and he could have been tougher on big banks for their role in the 2008 financial crisis, both as Labor Secretary and in his previous role as Assistant Attorney General.
In His Image
Over at CPAC, President Trump was going about the task of reshaping the conservative movement in his own image. If the response of the crowd was any indication, he may succeed.
“The core conviction of our movement that we are a nation that... will put its own citizens first,” Trump told the enthusiastic CPAC crowd. "The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker."
I’m not representing the globe,” Trump said. “I’m representing your country.”
Trump’s words rang with nativist undertones. So did the words of presidential advisor Steve Bannon, who also came before CPAC to condemn “the globalist, corporatist media” and promote what he calls “economic nationalism.”
“We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” said Bannon, who also promised “the destruction of the administrative state.”
Political science professor Daniel Kreiss told the New York Times that Bannon’s words reflect “a very defined cultural and ideological movement” and tell “a very coherent story about what America is, and what it should be.”
The Rising Tide
Trump and Bannon are trying to meld a movement, a party, and the apparatus of state into one entity under their control. They want to complete the Tea Party's unfinished business by telling a story their voters can understand. It is a story with a protagonist – the voters themselves – and an antagonist, the “administrative state.”
It's a false story, but it gives meaning to the lives of those who believe it – “a reason for being,” in Bannon’s words. And it appears to be working, at least among the faithful.
When Republicans took Congress, the furious edge of the Tea Party became the new center of the GOP. Then came Trump and Bannon. Their mix of Tea Party extremism, hatred for outsiders, and economic populism was just powerful enough to eke out an Electoral College victory.
And while conservative ideas are largely unpopular with voters, this angry energy has reinvigorated the GOP. The Republican establishment first tried to resist, but their failure – and ultimate surrender to the forces of Trump’s right-wing populism – has contributed enormously to the party’s current success.
Democrats Without a Story
Too many Democrats, meanwhile, are reluctant to tell the story of the wealthy and powerful interests – “the millionaires and billionaires,” as Bernie Sanders would say – who are hijacking the economy and undermining democracy. They’re reluctant to declare that our “reason for being” lies not in xenophobia or fear, but in serving others and doing good.
This absence of a compelling counter-narrative has emboldened conservatives to make government itself the enemy. There's a reason why CPAC had an event dedicated to countering Bernie Sanders; they know his story is better than theirs.
Obama tried to offer his own optimistic narrative in a statement on Perez’s victory:
“What unites our party is a belief in opportunity, the idea that however you started out, whatever you look like, whoever you love, America is the place you can make it if you try.”
But this ideology of “opportunity” isn't likely to turn the growing movement of independent progressives and anti-Trump activists into Democratic voters. It rings hollow for the millions who struggle with stagnant wages, poor job opportunities, and unaffordable college.
How will all of this play with voters? A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that, as NBC’s Carrie Dann put it, “One sentiment that unites the fractured nation is fury at the establishment in Washington.”
Perhaps that’s why 86 percent of voters, including 88 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of Democrats, agreed that “for too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the reward of government while the people have borne the cost.”
Despite its corporate ties, CPAC managed to seem anti-establishment, and hence closer to its grassroots. The DNC left a very different impression.
The Party and the Movement
In one sense, the race between Perez and Ellison was a battle over stories. And as they now bid for unity, Democrats are clearly trying to make peace with their activist base. But the base may not be satisfied with a secondary role in this story any more.
Let’s not mince words: the Democratic establishment has failed. It has lost the presidency, both houses of Congress, most governorships, and most state legislatures. And while Barack Obama is beloved by most Democrats, he led the party during this decline, so bears considerable responsibility for these failures.
Democrats must not abandon their commitment to equality for all races, religions, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. But they should not write off all white workers – especially now, as the middle class dies and opioid deaths continue to rise. And they must make it clear that 99 percent of Americans – a class that includes most people of all identities – are being cheated and shortchanged by the moneyed interests Trump and the Republicans represent.
Democrats should follow Rep. Sander Levin’s lead by demanding a renegotiation of bad trade deals like NAFTA to emphasize workers’ rights. They should call for a higher minimum wage, increased Social Security benefits, and a broad expansion of Medicare (which includes Medicare for All and an end to drug pricing rip-offs).
This agenda will be hard to finance with corporate money, so they should follow Ellison’s suggestion for a small-donation strategy. That will disempower lobbyists and corporations and help shake the party's pro-elite image.
A party is not a movement, but the two can work together.
Perez isn't the problem; power is. The Democratic party won't change until it's confronted with a strong movement determined to change it. That’s why it’s encouraging to see progressives move to take control of the party at the state and local level. That, along with a concerted program of independent activism, could revolutionize politics.
The Democratic Party can’t be saved by one leader. But there’s a chance it can be saved by millions of them.