Donna Brazile’s book, “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House,” has drawn heated attention, beginning with excerpts in Politico on Nov 2. A more serious examination of what went wrong for the Democrats in 2016 came out three days earlier, in a report called “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis,” created by progressive grassroots Democratic activists.
“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. Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and was the national coordinator of the independent Bernie Delegates Network. “We must take the initiative at the grassroots to do what the top of the Democratic Party doesn’t want, and that is to be open, to be as candid as possible and to analyze the problem so we can implement actions.”
Political-party insiders like to think of themselves as “adults,” meaning the sober, responsible realists whose maturity elevates them far above more “childish,” passionate or fantasy-addled grassroots activists. So there’s a profound role-reversal at work here. But it’s not the first such example. Last summer, the Movement for Black Lives Platform displayed a depth, scope, seriousness and articulation of details unmatched by either major party platform. Though decidedly different in focus, the autopsy report has a similar combination of detailed, informed realism about the problems faced, and a clear vision of how things can be improved.
While Brazile told Time magazine that she requested such an autopsy after the defeat of Hillary Clinton, she said that decision was up to Clinton campaign chair Robby Mook, who controlled the necessary money and information. “It’s hard for me to do an autopsy because I don’t know what the polling or the data said,” she said.
But Brazile’s implicit premise — first, that only insiders with privileged information can provide the needed answers, and second, that the party’s problems are confined to a single campaign — are actually aspects of what’s wrong with the party in the first place. The issues Brazile raises are discussed in a section of the autopsy, “Democracy and the Party,” written by Pia Gallegos, a civil rights attorney from New Mexico. But as Solomon put it, “This isn’t about personalities. Our autopsy is about fundamental policies.”
It’s also about much more than one election. That election just brought things to a head. “Since Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic Party has lost control of both houses of Congress and more than 1,000 state legislative seats,” notes the autopsy report. “The GOP now controls the governorship as well as the entire legislature in 26 states, while Democrats exercise such control in only six states. … Despite this Democratic decline, bold proposals with the national party’s imprint are scarce.” Those problems can actually be traced back even farther — encompassing both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s economic policies and their impacts on the 1994 and 2010 midterms, as I’ve discussed before.
The autopsy report has sections devoted to corporate power, race, young people, voter participation, social movements, war, internal democracy and the future of the party. Throughout it is grounded in hard facts, starting with the most basic as noted by co-author Karen Bernal, chair of the California Democratic Party’s progressive caucus.
“During the 2016 general election, the party did experience a fall-off of turnout and support among people of color, the young and the working class,” Bernal said at a Nov. 2 press conference. “Much of our report concentrates on assessing the party’s approach to these demographic groups and, yes, this paper does aim to serve as a nationwide discussion paper, and a stimulus for transformational action.”
What their assessment finds, in brief, is a combination of fundamental policy abandonment (which created an opening exploited by Donald Trump), inadequate replacement policies, uninspired messaging and under-investment in communicating with voters and building relationships — meaning both with individual voters and with social movements. To cite one example, the report notes that “the party spent $514 million on contractors during the 2010 and 2012 elections, with just 1.7 percent of that going to minority contractors, by one estimate.” And that was with Barack Obama serving as nominal head of the party.
“Big picture, this is going to be a groundswell to transform the party,” Solomon told me on Nov. 8. The next day would see the first of the group’s email blasts to its list of close to a million people, urging them to contact their Democratic representatives in Congress and asking them to read the autopsy report.
That was just the first step, Solomon explained. “We’re going to send it next week to the state legislatures, the two Democratic leaders, Democratic clubs. We’re intent on changing the frame of discourse, and I think changing the frame is essential, because unless we can get out of the box, the usual box, we’ll be stuck.”
It’s an ambitious but straightforward organizing action plan: Empower activists from below to engage in a struggle over the party’s basic orientation. While much of the party’s internal energy is still being sapped by refighting the 2016 primary, the report notes that Hillary Clinton, at least, has learned something fundamental from Sanders’ surprising success that the party establishment in total has yet to grasp.
“The primary lesson of Sanders’ campaign – that presenting a clear moral vision rather than McKinsey & Co. policy papers could galvanize youth support — was missed entirely, and the Clinton campaign suffered for it,” the Autopsy notes. But then it quotes directly from Clinton’s election memoir, “What Happened”:
Bernie proved again that it’s important to set lofty goals that people can organize around and dream about, even if it takes generations to achieve them…. Democrats should reevaluate a lot of our assumptions about which policies are politically viable. … I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued. … The conclusion I reach from this is that Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas.
That’s one big lesson that the party should have learned long ago. If it had, Clinton would be president today — although the party’s down-ballot woes would remain. Since she’s not, there’s all the more reason for a broader consideration of how the party’s outlook should be reframed, not just to recapture the White House in 2020 but to regain the ability to govern long-term and to enact an enduring, transformational progressive agenda, as Democrats did in the 1930s and again in the 1960s.
Three long-term trends referred to in the autopsy report are particularly worth noting: the embrace of neoliberal economic policies and Wall Street finance capital since the 1990s, eroding support for and from the working class; the impact of endless war, especially since 9/11; and the largely dysfunctional relationship to surging social movements, especially since the financial crisis of 2008. I asked Solomon about each of these.
Neoliberalism, corporate influence and the abandonment of the working class
For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,” Sen. Chuck Schumer declared in July 2016. “And you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Schumer’s boast demands scrutiny not just because of the disastrous results in three of those four states, but because of the people it overlooked. It illustrated a fundamental assumption underpinning Democratic voter outreach: that to defeat Trump, the party could depend on white suburban voters and give short shrift to working-class voters — including the voters of color who form 46 percent of the party’s base.
—”Autopsy,” Section 2, “Race and the Party”
Although placed in the section on race, Schumer’s ludicrously flawed assumption had just as much to do with class politics and a quarter century of betraying what the Democratic Party once stood for.
“In 16 years of Democratic presidencies, under Clinton and Obama,” Solomon said, “the man in the Oval Office championed global corporatization through neoliberal policies. And during the 16 years, there was a hemorrhaging of Democratic Party seats on Capitol Hill, and in state legislatures across the country. That’s not coincidental. Clinton came in, he fought for NAFTA, he repealed Glass-Stegal, he got a lot of his favorite Wall Street people into his cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, and working-class people deserted the Democratic Party in droves.”
As I have noted in writing about the Clinton/Obama legacy, NAFTA was deeply unpopular with the Democratic base and their representatives at the time. In the House roll call vote, Democrats opposed the treaty, 156 to 102, while Republicans overwhelmingly supported it, 132 to 43. In Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, which years later became the key states in Trump’s election, it was even starker: Only two of 35 Democrats from those states supported the treaty, while only four of 28 Republicans opposed it. It could not possibly have been more clear whose interests each party represented in these key states.
Rather than learning from these mistakes, Democrats have doubled down. “Obama, passionate for the TPP, again put Wall Street CEOs and managers in his cabinet,” said Solomon. “In eight years of Obama, we lost, as the autopsy says, 1,000 Democratic seats in state legislatures across the country. Of course, under Republicans it’s worse and accelerated, but after eight years of Obama you can drive to cities across this country and see the decimation that he never really addressed.”
The party’s domination by large donors cripples its ability to speak honestly. Democrats “keep talking about victims and how they commiserate with victims, as though there are no victimizers,” Solomon said. “They want to commiserate with … Main Street, but won’t acknowledge that it’s Wall Street that is crushing Main Street,” Solomon said. It’s not working anymore:
The Democratic Party is now still coming across as the party for the status quo. A year ago, it was the status quo that was under the Obama administration. Now, it’s, “Let’s get back to the status quo.” As horrific as Trump is — and he surely is — simply saying to people, “Well, let’s go back to the way [it was] before this horrible president came in,” I don’t think the cuts it. People don’t have nostalgia for their economic distress from one or two years ago.
And I think it goes to the question of … issues of economic class that Bernie is excellent at articulating, that Elizabeth Warren is really good at articulating, and that are anathema to the … so-called leadership of the national Democratic Party.
Disconnect from social movements
The party’s troubled relationship with social movements is perhaps a cloudier issue. “It’s a key question of attitude,” as Solomon put it: “Are electoral politics a subset of social movements, or vice versa?” The choice has profound consequences:
The default position and mentality of politicians, including Democratic politicians, is that social movements are for helping Democrats to get elected, and I think that’s bass-ackwards. Electoral work should be a subset of social change; just for example it wasn’t Democratic Party or election work that got us gay marriage. It was social movements that raised hell and changed the framework of the discourse.
If we all can pull in the same direction, we got something going. In the Democratic Party, “leadership” simply comes knocking around Election Day or to raise money, but is more tuned to elite than social movements. Then we get this fracturing that takes place, and I think that is an effort by the people are still running the DNC to serve two masters in different ways. They’re serving their paymasters from Wall Street, the big banks, the big donors. And they serve … the base by getting them to vote for Democratic candidates. But it’s a roly-poly, dysfunctional relationship, and … young people, people of color and the working class become disaffected. They’re less and less inclined to show up and vote, because they sense the insincerity.
At the Nov. 2 press conference, Karen Bernal framed the issue this way:
The party has continued to operate in an approach that is not in keeping with the times we are in. We are in a period of social movements, and these social movements are part of what’s taking place in the larger political landscape. Unfortunately, the party still wants to practice what we call “silo politics,” where we have a neoliberal exploitation of identity groups, and chase after an ever-shrinking universe of white suburban voters, or what they call the white working class.
As Bernal also noted, the American working class will be majority people of color in the not-to-distant future — as soon as 2021 for those 25 to 34 years old. So two demographics that have “been pitted against each other are now coming together, and they are intersecting,” but the party still has no strategic plan to deal with that.
Things would be quite different if, for example, the party saw its electoral work as a subset of the living-wage struggle spearheaded by Fight for 15 and its allies. At least 25 state legislatures have passed “pre-emption laws” to set their own, higher minimum wages. The party could play an invaluable support role by championing the right of local self-determination as a broader principle, protecting progressive activism across a broad range of issues, from sanctuary cities to non-discrimination laws to climate action and beyond. A Democratic Party that saw itself as an active partner serving the needs of social movements would look radically different than the party we know today — and it would be much more in touch with the everyday lives of the constituencies whose votes it needs.
The true costs of endless war
“The reflex to keep supporting war is very corrosive,” Solomon said. The autopsy report notes multiple ways in which Democrats’ hawkishness cost them in 2016. Two, in particular, stand out for the clarity of the difference they made: The difference between President Trump and President Hillary Clinton. First, there’s the visceral impact of war on communities who directly suffer the losses:
“Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump,” concluded a study by Boston University’s Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen at the University of Minnesota. The professors wrote: “Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.”
Second is the ideological impact, on those who both reject militarism and prioritize that as an issue:
Clinton’s warlike record and campaign positions helped Trump to have it both ways, playing to jingoism while masquerading as an opponent of the protracted wars that had disillusioned so many Americans. The ongoing Clinton embrace of militarism abetted Trump’s efforts to gain media coverage that framed him as the relatively noninterventionist candidate.
“Six million votes went to either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein,” Solomon said. “That was 8 percent [of the total vote] among young people … and even higher some swing states. … Whatever you want to stay about Johnson and Stein, they were the only authentic antiwar candidates on the presidential ballot last November. There was a phony one, who had a dual discourse – Trump – and then there was the out-and-out hawk, Hillary Clinton. … If just a fraction of those 4.3 million votes … that went to Johnson or Stein had gone to the Democratic ticket last November, we would have President Clinton right now.”
As the report points out, the same logic applied on trade issues as well:
As with its allegiance to trade agreements that benefit large corporations at the expense of American workers, the top of the party remains woefully out of touch with voters who do not share elite enthusiasm for endless war. Much as the national Democratic Party has ceded economic “populism” to Donald Trump and certain right-wing elements, Democratic leadership has largely ceded the anti-interventionist terrain to some elements of the GOP — as well as to the Libertarian and Green parties.
The fact that these two distinct issues both find the party elites at odds with the base is far more injurious than if it were just a single issue. And the loss of younger voters to third parties should be seen as a 300-pound canary in a coal mine.
“That’s just at the tactical level,” Solomon points out. “At the level of effects on people’s lives, the ‘warfare state,’ as Martin Luther King talked about 50 years ago, decimates abroad and at home in so many ways, and that’s part of the corrosive devolution of our society here.”
What would Martin do?
As the autopsy report explains, it aims to be strategic rather than exhaustive:
Rather than addressing topics beyond the control of the Democratic Party (whether FBI Director Comey, Russia, misogyny of some voters, etc.), this Autopsy focuses on some key factors that have been significantly under the party’s control. While in no way attempting or claiming to be comprehensive, this report focuses on some of our party’s most crucial flaws, fissures and opportunities.
That strategic focus is vitally important if the overall orientation of the party is to change. And it desperately needs to change. Recent successes in Virginia and elsewhere should inspire us, but not mislead us. Democrats were similarly devastated and then revived during George W. Bush’s presidency, only to be crushed once again in 2010, 2014 and 2016.
At the press conference, Solomon made it clear that the autopsy report has two key goals: “the first being to defeat the right-wing Republican juggernaut,” which even the existing party leadership would like to do. The second goal, however, is fiercely contested: “To advance for the long term generally progressive policies in this country.”
This autopsy offers a well thought out blueprint for engaging in that contest. It is not the last word, nor is it intended to be. But healthy debates must be grounded in healthy communities, And that should be seen as the autopsy’s first, if unstated, goal: to recreate the Democratic Party in the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion of the “Beloved Community.” As described by the King Center:
Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.
Could a political party be like that? What could be better than to try and find out? There may be no other way for the Democratic Party — or the United States, or the human species — to survive.