In the wake of the worst Democratic defeat in decades, most Democrats seem to have completely missed the point. Instead of a forum for serious analysis of the 2016 election, the race for chair of the Democratic National Committee, which will come to a long-awaited end today, has become merely another battlefield in the ongoing ideological civil war within the Democratic Party.
Supporters of establishment candidates like Tom Perez want to see the party move further right to appease white working-class voters and independents, while disgruntled Sanders supporters, determined to see the party move further left, have hitched their wagon to Keith Ellison. Right now, the DNC chair candidates are not leaders—they are pawns, who have either allowed themselves to be used by one of the two factions in this conflict of ideology, or have found themselves caught in the crossfire.
The situation was not so different at the Michigan Democratic Convention in Detroit earlier this month. At the age of 20, I was among the youngest of the 4,000 delegates in attendance, and the experience was less than encouraging for anyone invested in the future of the Democratic Party. A coalition of former Sanders supporters, calling themselves “Michigan for Revolution,” swarmed the convention. They protested and handed out flyers, successfully took control of the Michigan Progressive Caucus, and attempted to challenge the sitting Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon. Dillon had incited their resentment after supporting Hillary Clinton as a superdelegate, but Michigan for Revolution was not allowed to nominate a candidate to challenge him because they had not submitted a valid petition. Nonetheless, many frustrated progressives voted “Nay” during the roll call vote to re-elect Dillon as Chair.
But the progressive and establishment camps within the Democratic Party seem to agree on at least one thing. In the DNC Chair debates, all of the candidates seem to be competing to see how many times they can use cliché phrases like “grassroots organizing” and “50-state strategy,” and Brandon Dillon and the leaders of Michigan for Revolution both trotted out the same tired buzzwords in Detroit. “Grassroots organizing” became the refrain that echoed through the convention center, and Dillon even rolled out an “83-county strategy,” his own small version of the “50-state strategy” we’ve heard so much about from the DNC candidates.
Buzzwords won’t rescue the Democratic Party from the political wilderness. Most Democrats have yet to learn the central lesson of the 2016 election: grassroots organizing only works for candidates who have real grassroots support, and a successful 50-state strategy will require candidates with 50-state appeal.
The greatest Democratic failure of the past six years has not been the loss of Congress, or countless state and local offices, or even the presidency. Democrats’ greatest failure is that they have become so preoccupied with buzzwords and ideological squabbling that they have lost sight of what excited so many Americans about Obama and Sanders in the first place. What allowed leaders like Kennedy, Carter, and Obama to ride a groundswell of popular support to victory was their character and authenticity. They provided bold moral insight that had been sorely absent from American politics in the years preceding their candidacy.
The truth is, it won’t really matter who wins the DNC chair election today. The change the Democratic Party needs will have to come from outside the rigid dichotomy of the Democratic establishment and the Sanders camp. It will have to come from a new generation of leaders who will reject this division, and build in its place a Democratic Party that recognizes that good politics requires good candidates, that better government requires better leaders.
As a Democrat from the state that handed Trump the presidency, as a millennial who voted for Clinton but understood Sanders’ appeal, I have become convinced of one thing—the Democratic Party will not be saved from the inside but from the outside, not by better policies but by better people.
Image Credit: Flickr / Lorie Shaull