The New Insiders: The Progressive Movement is Strangling Itself

Rainbow donkey

Tuesday was Election Day. Though you wouldn’t know it by watching cable news, who seem to be exclusively focused on the 2016 presidential race, municipalities across the country elected mayors, states voted on ballot measures and for governors. These are all things that, in most cases, will have a bigger effect on the average American’s life than the results of the presidential election in 2016. And my party, the Democrats, got absolutely obliterated.

If you follow, like me, media from the left of the aisle; Vox, The New Republic, MSNBC, or
(yes) NPR, you’ve heard a lot of stories over the last month discussing the supposed disorder within the Republican Party, stories packed with a poorly disguised glee. These stories tend to center on two things: the chaos within the parties establishment as the tea party battles the old boys club, and the sort of statistical modeling that shows how difficult it supposedly will be in the future for the Republicans to win a national (i.e. Presidential) election. What these stories reliably fail to mention is that with the exception of Obama’s reelection, Republicans are trouncing Democrats everywhere. Yes, the leadership of the Republican Party in congress may be divided, but they control congress by a large margin and will almost certainly maintain their control. States like Kentucky and my home state of Michigan that have been reliably blue for decades are now dominated by Republicans in the legislative and executive branches. Left leaning media loves to point out the incompetence of Republican Party leadership. I say ‘incompetent like a fox’.

I was drawn to the Democratic Party at a young age out of a sense of economic populism. To me, the Democrats were the party that stood up for working people, the party that wasn’t in bed with banks and corporations. Of course, as a good progressive, I’ve always been in favor of LGBT rights, fighting racism and sexism, and defending a woman’s right to choose. But to me, the central issue was economic equity. The social issues were icing on the cake. Eventually, this passion drew me to progressive activism outside of party politics. As a community organizer, I’ve spent thousands of hours talking with ordinary, apolitical people, about political issues.  It’s pretty obvious that the average citizen, no matter what party they tend to vote for, cares about a billion times more about economic issues than social issues. But there’s a disconnect I’ve seen  as I’ve been exposed to the new generation of “insiders” in the Democratic Party.

The people in the establishment, the people working the campaigns, at the state and local level, are mostly young (under 35) and lifelong Democrats. This new generation of progressive insiders is the exact opposite of the average citizen, or me. They identify as progressive and vote exclusively for Democrats solely based on social issues.  Economic justice, corporate accountability, in these circles, is mentioned in passing if at all, and identity politics is the new hotness. For the new insiders, issues like choice and LGBT rights are the core of their political identity, and, in most cases, the totality of it

Having these people with their hands on the controls is a dangerous position for a party or a movement to be in. The danger is that as they continue to establish themselves in positions of power in the movement and party, movement will lose a core piece of its identity. The identity of standing for the poor and the working class. Democrats and progressives continue to get hammered in local and state elections, where the winners have a great deal of influence over tax policy, energy policy, and infrastructure. But no mayor is going to be able to repeal Roe v. Wade. No city commissioner or State Rep can reverse the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. For the most part, social policies that the new insiders are most passionate about are created at the federal level, and in many cases, by the courts.  But these insiders are working state and local level elections and the results speak for themselves. The lack of a coherent, passionate message on economic justice is limits the progressive base and as a result, policy battles are being won by the right at every level.

Now, you may say, what about Bernie Sanders, the fire breathing economic populist and socialist? How to account for his surge in popularity? I would say his long shot candidacy proves my point exactly. Sanders is not of the establishment, and has embraced a message centered in economic policy. But the new insiders are overwhelmingly in support of Hilary Clinton, who is in lock step with them on social issues, but on economics and foreign policy is indistinguishable from a Republican. There’s a broad base of support for someone with a Sanders-like message, but not within the establishment. And the establishment tends to have the final say.

Sanders’ rise has illustrated the distance between the new insiders and the average citizen to me in stark relief. I’m part of a cohort of 25 or so young progressives being trained to work as campaign managers and staffers. All of them will be starting out at local level races, but their opinions of the presidential race are telling. A handful of them are mid-career people like myself, but most of them are right out of college, in their early to mid-twenties. And they are, probably by a margin of 3 to 1 Clinton, not Sanders, supporters. Outside of this group, when I talk to young people about the race, they overwhelmingly support Sanders. In fact, I have only met maybe 2 or 3 Clinton supporters, and even they didn’t seem excited about it. But in the back rooms, the generation of people being groomed to have control over the most grassroots races, and thus, I fear, the progressive movement as a whole, are in favor of the establishment candidate. Their reasons typically are rooted in identity politics, for the most part not extending much beyond either “because she’s electable” or “because she’s a woman”. When talking to them about their opinions, it becomes crystal clear that economic/financial policy are low on their lists of concerns, and the lack of a real difference between a Democrat and a Republican on these policies wouldn’t keep them up at night. In a few of my more disturbing conversations, I came away with the distinct feeling that such a difference was less important than simply being on a winning team.

The more troubling effect of the new insiders rise to power is a sort of smug complacency. Their movement, their identity as a group, though they would probably deny it, is based on public outrage, both legitimate and exaggerated. Their defining characteristic is their opposition to all things “problematic”, the newly in vogue term for anything not politically correct. This opposition to the “problematic” strains of society allows them to feel righteous and holy, even in defeat, and their blinders to anything other than presidential elections allow them to feel destined for victory, even as they fail. The new insiders are so defined by their opposition to so many things, that in order to maintain their sense of self they have to operate at a huge distance from the average voter. A distance that allows them to feel righteous, but that also leads to a condescension that is a recipe for losing elections.

On Tuesday, I spent the evening at a post-election “party” for city council candidate whose campaign I had helped out on. He had to be in the top four to be elected, and he finished sixth. Needless to say, the atmosphere was not festive. Soon, the talk turned to the electorate. “Well, what are you going to do in a place like [X city]?” someone said. “It probably would have been better if [candidate] had made some crazy Christian statement”. Everyone laughed. Over the weekend, at a phone bank, another staffer on the campaign had told me that she didn’t believe that taxes should be raised on the rich, and no one seemed to bat an eye. And in the end we all felt more comfortable blaming the electorate, the citizens, for our loss than ourselves.

Interactions like this took place all over the country on Tuesday night. The new insiders are so sure of their purity on the social issues, that they feel no need to question their privilege on the economic front, or even to develop a strong position. Easier to blame the voters.

If the new insiders aren’t forced to evaluate themselves and their positions, and if they aren’t held accountable, the Democratic Party, and the progressive movement as a whole, are doomed. The attitude of righteous outrage in defeat is simply not sustainable. That’s the thing about Martyrs: they die. Democrats and progressives risk the same fate. Our movement can both develop a strong and true populist message on economics and war, start emphasizing it, and watch our base grow and our movement win, or we can enjoy our ideological purity as we watch our movement die from the bottom up.

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