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.


Dead Friends and Survivors Guilt

It was 10:54 AM and I was circling a block in Kaleva MI, a tiny town 10 minutes from my parents’ house that I hadn’t even driven through in 6 or 7 years. There used to be a great rope swing out there but some bureaucrats came out with a chainsaw and cut down the tree it was tied to. Now there’s just a tavern and a diner and a gas station. And a funeral home.  I was still driving because I was too scared to go in. Danny K. was in there in a casket. I hadn’t talked to him since high school, and even in high school we ran in different crowds. But in elementary school we were best friends.

Danny lived on a farm. We used to shoot things with BB guns and sling shots and sprint into electric fences and generally harm ourselves for amusement. Danny was a little crazy, in the way of a country kid with too much time on his hands. Sometimes we turned those bb guns and sling shots on each other. He pushed me to be a little more extreme than I was comfortable with and I loved it.

I parked the car and watched a stream of men walk in. Men in union jackets and jeans and sport coats that didn’t fit right. Men that, unlike me, still had calluses on their hands and functional strength. Men trying to hold it all in. I took my tie off and threw it in the back seat, sucked it up and got out of the car.

The place was full. I signed the guest book and walked back into an overflow room with a black and white feed of the service. Simon was there, the cousin of a best friend, and someone I’ve known pretty well since 8th grade. His eyes were red. There were various other old acquaintances there. One or two of them nodded at me as I walked in. Most just stared straight ahead. There were old folks too, and little kids, family and family friends. And there was a contingent from his union. Pipefitters wearing pipefitters jackets. They were taking it pretty hard.

The service was tough.  The preacher had one of those rural northern Michigan accents that sounded both southern and Canadian at the same time. He read some passages and stepped back, admitted he didn’t really know Danny, and asked others to share. People got up and struggled through a story. Some cried, some just stood silently while moments stretched on, trying to keep themselves from crying. Someone told a story about Danny coming to help them weld something at their house on his only day off from being a welder all week. People didn’t really know what to say. Hell, they probably couldn’t believe it was real.

Danny’s not the first kid from my hometown to die way too young (27), hopefully he’ll be the last, but you never know; I think there’s still one or two in Afghanistan. All across America, young men from small towns (and inner cities) are dying too young. They’re dying because of pointless wars and drug addiction and needless street violence and drunk driving and general hopelessness and no one that I’ve heard from has a good reason and no one is really even talking about it.  I had been debating whether to come to this service for a while, and I didn’t decide until the last minute. I had plenty of great reasons not to. It was on a Monday morning and I had a ton of work to do. I hadn’t spoken to Danny in years; we didn’t run in the same crowds. I didn’t know his family that well. I felt weird parachuting in from out of town and leaving right afterward.

When I told my wife about all these reasons she told me I had survivor’s guilt. It felt silly, or extreme; it’s not like Danny and I had been in a war together. But maybe she was right, at least about the guilt part. I do feel guilty. I feel guilty about leaving my small hometown to get a degree, and then take a job in a big city where I sat at a desk, talk to folks, and had health insurance for free. I even got dental. I feel guilty about the fact that my fingernails haven’t been dirty in years and the only callus I have is caused by my wedding ring and that my muscles have atrophied and I’ve added a layer of fat from sitting on my ass all day instead of actually building something or fixing something. I feel guilty about the fact that I’ve gone soft and got disconnected from my people while they are still in Bear Lake and Onekama and Kaleva and thousands of other small towns across Michigan and America struggling to make it work and hold their communities together. And mostly I feel guilty about the fact that the only thing that allowed me to move away and get a decent job and my own apartment and a wife from the suburbs was pure luck. I was lucky enough to have parents with good jobs and a little money, and I was lucky enough to be a fast runner. I don’t know if that’s survivor’s guilt, or what you call it. God knows I’m not the only one who left, most of us moved to major metro areas. But I know that’s the real reason I almost didn’t go to the funeral. I was being a coward about facing my own guilt, whatever kind of guilt it was.

I stuck around after the service to talk to Danny’s mom, and God bless her she was holding it together. She recognized me right away and was excited to see me. I told her a story about something crazy Danny and I did together as kids. She told me she knew he was someone’s angel now. I hugged her, and filed out, stopping to talk to some former teachers. There was a circle of people roughly my age standing in a circle outside smoking cigarettes. I gave Simon a hug and tried to say hi to a few guys I knew. Danny’s younger brother came up and tried to make conversation but he could barely talk. People were mostly silent and numb, so I left to go to the luncheon that followed.

Sitting in the car outside the town hall I thought about why I drove 4 hours for this funeral of someone I hadn’t seen in years. Mostly, it was because he was a very important person in my life at one time, even if that time was many years ago, and I think that it’s important to show people that you give a shit about them, whenever you can, even if it’s too late. But it was also partly because I am still grieving for the loss of my community, and I had a selfish mission to show myself that I was still connected to it. Most of all dammit, Danny was a good kid, and from what I could tell, was a good man. I was pissed he was gone.

I went in to the hall and looked around. People were trickling in and it was quiet. Some were eating, some were drinking punch. Someone tried to laugh. I stood in the corner and surveyed the scene. These were my people, or at least the people I thought of as my people. Rural, hard working, no nonsense folks that took care of each other. People with a sense of humor, impatient like they were always ready to get on with it. And they were hurting. I couldn’t take it. I pulled an Irish goodbye and ducked out without talking to anyone. I got into the car and pointed it back toward my big city, middle class, health insurance, no callus having, soft existence.

A few miles down the road, I was forced to admit to myself that, whatever selfish mission I had coming up here, whatever I had to prove to myself, I had accomplished it. I didn’t want to admit it. I was trying to think about the sub sandwich I was going to get for lunch, or the work I had to do the next day. I wasn’t trying to reconcile with my guilt. I wasn’t even trying to accomplish closure. But I was forced to. And I was forced to pull over. I was forced to by the tears beginning to spill down my face.

Goddammit Danny, 27 is way too young.