October 16, 2018

Social Movements and the Party: One Year Later

Mixed developments


In last year’s Autopsy, ambivalence about growing and intensifying social movements seemed the most accurate description of the DNC. From the party platform struggles of 2016 through the “Summer for Progress” coalition convened by Our Revolution in the summer of 2017, the DNC seemed tone-deaf to the policy demands of its base. When Summer for Progress activists marched to DNC headquarters in Washington to deliver their People’s Platform, they were met outside the front door by barricades.

But since mid-2017, the DNC and party leadership have been pulled along by the grassroots to recognize and even embrace policies that likely would have been rejected by a Hillary Clinton White House: for example, the single-payer “Medicare for All” movement. The U.S. House recently saw the formation of a Medicare for All caucus, with at least 70 members. Even ex-President Obama recently got on board. Thanks to pressure from activists, including groups like National Nurses United with significant organizational resources, party leaders may have little choice but to follow the lead of its own rising stars and future presidential hopefuls. A year ago, a Vox headline summed it up: “The stunning Democratic shift on single-payer: In 2008, no leading Democratic presidential candidate backed single-payer. In 2020, all of them might.”

Benjamin Day of Healthcare-Now, the grassroots single-payer advocacy group, recalled that “the DNC had nearly denied the existence of our activists before Bernie Sanders’ campaign moved the issue forward.” Years of organizing have overcome the claim that single-payer is “politically infeasible,” according to Professor Lindy Hern, who cites polls revealing “majority support for Medicare for All within the public at large.” (Hern’s research also shows a record increase in news media coverage using the term single-payer — an increase of 94 percent in 2017 from the previous year.) No one is under the illusion that the DNC has fully embraced single-payer. But notes Alex Lawson of Social Security Works: “Two-thirds of House Democrats support Medicare for All and over 90 percent support expanding Social Security. In the Senate, every potential presidential candidate supports expanding Social Security and Medicare… The 2016 Democratic platform had a strong plank in support of expanding Social Security, but the 2020 platform must be even stronger and include Medicare for All as well.”

Student survivors of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School became accidental leaders of an intense new push for gun control. Within six weeks, the #NeverAgain movement helped organize the March for Our Lives in Washington — with more than 800 solidarity events across the country — and a national voter registration drive. Though most congressional Democrats had been avoiding or downplaying the gun control issue, it was hard to ignore this youth movement that targeted Republican intransigence first, but also Democratic avoidance. After an initial faux pas of using a Parkland survivor in a DNC fundraising email less than three weeks after the shooting, the party seems poised to support multiple candidates who are making gun control a prominent issue in their campaigns — some with the backing of grassroots groups.

Another youth-energized social movement, the climate justice movement, was dealt a slap in the face by the DNC, when it reversed its two-month ban on accepting donations from the fossil-fuel industry. The August 2018 reversal led a co-founder of 350.org to declare: “This sort of spineless corporate pandering is why Democrats keep losing.”

This has been a banner year for successful primary campaigns by progressive Democrats nationwide allied with organizations such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Democratic Socialists of America, People’s Action, Democracy for America, Citizen Action, Working Families Party and Progressive Democrats of America, to name just a few groups that knocked on doors and email inboxes all year. In New York State alone, there was the stunning defeat of powerhouse Rep. Joe Crowley by 28-year-old political newcomer (and former Bernie for President organizer) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and then a progressive deluge that unseated six “Independent Democratic” state senators — corporatists allied with the GOP and Democratic Governor Cuomo. If there’s a “blue wave” across the country in November 2018, much of the credit will belong to grassroots groups that magnified their resources and/or held Democratic incumbents to account.

How did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee react to this grassroots energy and campaign engagement? Often by resisting it — on behalf of establishment primary candidates against progressives. In Colorado’s 6th District, where the DCCC favored establishment candidate Jason Crow, progressive favorite Levi Tillemann secretly taped House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer urging him to get out of the race and to not be negative toward Crow. The “be nice” request sounded hypocritical in light of the DCCC’s intervention in Texas’ 7th District, where the DCCC bizarrely issued an opposition research” attack on progressive primary candidate Laura Moser. In both districts, local activists in groups like Progressive Democrats of America, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats protested the DCCC interference.

Progressive social movements have the ability to energize the Democratic Party, but not if blocked by party leaders.

Next -> War and the Party

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