As Democrats and progressives rebuild for the Trump era, they need a bold vision and a new strategy. Now is not the time to re-litigate the fractious intraparty fights of years past. Instead, they need to rally around new leaders who offer a truly transformative way forward.
During the 2016 primaries, Democrats had a choice between an establishment candidate campaigning on her hard-won experience and insider credentials, or a liberal populist buoyed by a sea of small-dollar donors calling for big change. Democrats went with the status-quo candidate and experienced a general-election loss that grows more devastating with each day of the Trump presidency.
Clearly, we must face the fact that most Americans want significant changes. But rather than embracing this core lesson of 2016, Democratic establishment leaders—the very people who just lost the most important election in modern history—are using that defeat to grab more money and power, distracting allies from their failures by redirecting attention to the very real damage being done by Republicans. They embrace the same broken tactics, privileging well-connected insiders and an uninspiring agenda that was part of what led to their catastrophic loss—which would all but ensure further losses, more infighting and a deeply divided opposition to the Trump agenda.
Take, for instance, the continued prominence of David Brock and his organizations as centerpieces of the party apparatus. Brock is a conservative journalist-turned-liberal political strategist who some have called Hillary’s attack dog. To many progressives, Brock represents the insider, establishment wing of the party—the Wall Street Democrats whoi have roused the ire of Americans who rightly feel that they’ve been sold out. As a longstanding member of Hillary Clinton’s team, during last year’s primaries, Brock orchestrated attacks on Bernie Sanders were brutal and unfair—as when he proclaimed that “it seems black lives don’t matter much to Bernie Sanders”—and exacerbated divides within the Democratic Party.
Now that the election is over, Brock is calling for unity. Days before Trump’s inauguration, he even wrote an open-letter apology to Sanders for his past insults. But Brock’s recent machinations—including a January conference where he promoted his own organizations amid chatter that he’ll launch a Koch Brothers-style donor network—show that he and those like him have no interest in learning from or adapting to what the country needs in this moment. Establishment figureheads are calling for Democrats to unify behind a common agenda, but it’s an old agenda with amorphous values, one that is more focused on defeating the right than on creating an economy and society that lifts up all people.
Brock is just one part of a broader constellation of insider efforts to maintain the dominance of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party against a rising progressive populism. Another such group is Third Way, the centrist think tank featured prominently at Brock’s January conference. Third Way’s president, Jonathan Cowan, is open about his intent to steer the party away from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and back toward an uninspiring, Republican-lite, status quo agenda (which makes sense given that a major component of Third Way’s budget comes from donors on Wall Street). Even now, in the wreckage of the 2016 election, Third Way has launched a $20 million effort to win back white working-class voters in the Rust Belt—seemingly ignorant of the fact that the pro-Wall Street, pro-free trade economic policies that Third Way has long promoted helped lead to the Rust Belt’s demise.
Whether Brock or Third Way, these establishment players and institutions are narrowly focused on taking down the right in a game of hyperpartisan insider powerplays. They fail to recognize that our country is indeed suffering from major structural problems—problems that demand a fresh approach. For Democrats to continue following those who brought us to this precipice—those who were, essentially, the architects of our 2016 loss—would be a huge and historic mistake. It would reinforce what Americans, progressives especially, hate most about politics: that it has become an arena for a well-connected, powerful few who enjoy a consequence-free existence.
In this moment, progressive donors face a stark choice. They have the option of turning back the clock and freezing us in time at the exact moment we desperately need to leap forward. What donors choose to do during this time—and who they choose to follow and fund—will have significant and lasting impact. Their resources will help determine which people, programs and policies have the capacity to move forward. Will they choose the establishment path that represents little more than the lesser of two evils? Or will they try to build something more visionary: an inclusive progressive populism that can combat the ethno-nationalism now in ascension, offering hope in the face of Trump-era fear and despair?
If they take the former path, we are essentially doomed; with the latter, hope abides. Here is what that hopeful, radical vision could look like.
Espouse real values, not propaganda. Brock wants to create a new “Breitbart” of the Left, a propaganda machine. This is the last thing progressives need. Instead of fake news and propaganda, we need to get real and define the values that we want to define our country.
For what it’s worth, the right offers a vision of personal freedom and independence, however disingenuous and manipulative that may be. And they also offer community—though that community is created through exclusion.
Ours must be a community created through inclusion. But people will never feel included if progressives embrace the same old losing playbook and elevate the same powerful insiders to positions of privilege. Instead of propaganda, Democrats need to articulate values and vision for America—to spread messages Democrats truly believe in, messages that resonate on an emotional level and speak to people’s real material concerns. If the Democratic Party can’t offer something inspirational that is grounded in the core values of justice, equality and solidarity, we may need to build a party that does.
Seriously take on economic inequality, Wall Street and corporate power. Millions of Americans—whether they’re people of color, white, immigrants; whether they live in cities, suburbs, small towns or the country; whether they’re Republicans, Democrats, independents, voters or non-voters—living in poverty or struggling to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Millions are unemployed or underemployed, choosing between health care, heat or housing. Many more feel like they’re slipping behind and lack the economic security they once had.
America has moved from a production-based economy to a financialized one that is producing less and less value for the majority of the population, while funneling profits to the wealthiest. Half a century ago, the U.S. had strong antitrust regulations, corporations could not spend unlimited sums on elections and workers had vehicles to voice grievances and bargain for fair pay. Today, the vehicles that support working people have broken down from neglect.
One need not be anti-capitalist to understand that the Democratic Party is complicit in this, having allowed for policies that deregulated the finance sector (under President Bill Clinton), allowed for the privatization of many public goods (including the weakening of the public education system through the promotion of charter schools) and bailed out Wall Street banks without taking measures to truly address the needs of struggling working Americans. These issues must be reckoned with, and if we can’t propose a radically progressive economic agenda that offers a vision for transforming the financial industry and guaranteeing dignified jobs, then we should not be surprised when right-wing populism wins.
Stand up for racial justice. The Democratic Party establishment has long taken communities of color for granted, assuming they have their votes and creating a one-sided extractive relationship. They should not expect that people of color will turn out for them when they offer nothing in return.
Some liberals would argue that Democrats should have paid more attention to working-class whites, and made a mistake by overemphasizing racism and “identity politics” and “political correctness.” These analyses are, at best, simplistic. And they rely on an incorrect frame that makes economic and racial concerns either/or—that pits those concerns against one another, as though they’re mutually exclusive. Economic justice and racial justice aren’t competing, contradictory values. They’re mutually reinforcing. Democrats and progressives must resist this binary and fight for policies that lift up all boats.
If Democrats actually make racial justice a core principle, they would not only be on the right side of history, but might in fact have the power to rebuild a party that is in a changing America’s own image. While Trump is feeding into a global right-wing populist wave that pits working-class white people against immigrants and people of color, Democrats have a chance to create an alternative that recognizes Trump’s tactic for what it is: a way of scapegoating people of color while the ruling class continues to profit off a broken system. It’s a historic opportunity to forge a progressive, multiracial populism that tackles corporate power and rectifies our broken economy while also lifting up a vision of pluralism.
Build local and state power through permanent political organizations rooted in community. One of biggest mistakes that Democratic donors continually make is short-term thinking around elections. Too often, campaigns helicopter into communities with an ask and an agenda, laying down temporary infrastructure in the form of short-term organizers, renting storefronts for a season, wasting hundreds of millions on high-priced consultants and TV ads, without any long-term strategy.
It’s a quick hit—donors seek the instant gratification of investing directly in a candidate, rather than building something that might last. And that’s a problem not only because it leaves Democrats to lurch from election to election without any sense of continuity or any overarching strategy, but also because it’s incredibly expensive and inefficient.
The right has done a fantastic job of building strong, permanent infrastructure that has become the backbone of innumerable campaigns and candidates. Such organizations exist on the left, like New Florida Majority, the Texas Organizing Project, and the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, but they are drastically underfunded. Democrats need to build institutions that are rooted in communities, build local leadership, conduct voter engagement throughout the year, win elections (of course), and hold elected officials accountable.
Embrace new leaders. It’s time for Democrats to rethink who they want to follow, and the kinds of people they want to lead. With respect, those who have led the Democratic Party and have brought it to this point should step aside.
The party needs a new vision. And it has a good starting place. Democrats have some visionary, inspiring elected officials—Rep. Keith Ellison, Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Minnesota State Rep. Ilhan Omar, to name a few—and the party needs more like them. There is amazing work being done on the ground by people like Rashad Robinson at Color of Change, Heather McGee at Demos, and leaders of myriad state-based organizations whose efforts—with more support—offer a real vision for the Democratic Party. There are talented leaders who are ready to help change course, but for any of this to be fully realized, progressive donors need to break free from the clenches of the establishment and begin to make different kinds investments.
Four weeks into the Trump presidency, the resistance is in motion, but whether this anti-Trump energy catalyzes into an effective opposition with a coherent political agenda will depend, in large part, on access to financial resources to build the long-term capacity and infrastructure required to win on all levels. Donors will need to step up in a big way, resourcing bold strategies and leaders who are going to challenge the establishment.
Going forward, the Democratic Party needs to make clear that Democrats will be held accountable, not just by their opposition to Trump, but by their embrace of an agenda that truly addresses the deep scars of racism and economic inequality that mark our country.
If the party can’t be transformed, it shouldn’t expect to survive.