Democratic Party leaders at the DNC and throughout the country must build relationships with social movements on the basis of genuine cooperation and coalition-building.
Why does polling show that Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the nation? What does that have to do with current social movements? If we were watching a video and came across these two questions, we might want to hit the “rewind” button at this point.
Let’s go back to 2010, the year before the first Occupy protest on Wall Street. University students were marching in public spaces and occupying campus buildings to protest budget and staff cuts, tuition hikes and crushing student debt. The term “occupy everything” would become the spark that inspired the Adbusters organization to call for a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate undermining of democracy, increasing disparities in wealth, and the lack of accountability for oligarchic forces that had caused a financial near-meltdown. By September of 2011, the Occupy Wall Street call to action had worldwide impact, with protests in more than 80 countries. In the United States, within weeks, over 600 communities had held protests and occupations of their own.
The slogan “We are the 99 percent!” became the rallying cry at Occupy protests and spoke to the growing concentration of wealth with the 1 percent. On a scale never seen before, it was a massive rebuke of neoliberal economic policies — privatization of public space and institutions, attacks on labor unions, corporate globalization and systemic police repression. The dramatic upsurge of articulated resentment at vast economic injustice caused a major shift in the country’s political discourse, which served as a whetstone for Obama to sharpen his attacks on Mitt Romney. The GOP nominee’s wealth and his services for the rich kept him in a defensive crouch. As the New York Times reported midway through 2012, the Obama-Romney battle was proceeding “in an era of populist backlashes against the 1 percent and increased concern about the economic and social ramifications of income inequality.”
Yet after Obama’s re-election, denial of some inconvenient truths had devastating results. The Democratic Party establishment, largely insulated from the unease coalescing among the base, stayed the same course during the second term. The status quo consensus assumed that the upheaval about income inequality was simply a moment in time that could be addressed with improved messaging — an assumption that would later prove to be far off the mark. During Obama’s second term, the mantras of “wait and see” and “give him time” gave way to an accelerated erosion of the base. Black voter turnout was to drop 7 percent between 2012 and 2016. The numbers of black voters in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who stayed home on Election Day in November 2016 may well have been determining factors in Clinton’s losses in those states. What would cause such a case of mass ennui that so many people, in communities that would certainly be on the short end of the stick under a Trump administration, decided to sit this one out? In part, communities that had invested their votes in the hope for change — two key words of Obama’s 2008 campaign — were instead experiencing disillusionment.
Two years after Occupy, the country would again erupt in mass national protests, this time over the killings of African Americans by police. The movement for Black Lives Matter would organize nationally to address systemic racism and, in doing so, call politicians to account for policies that devalued and killed black people — while helping to create a burgeoning prison-industrial complex, a school-to-prison pipeline and a “New Jim Crow.” In urban areas, the reality was especially acute, with communities suffering from a loss of services and chronic absence of jobs after many manufacturing plants had relocated overseas.
During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton was confronted numerous times about her support for her husband’s record of massive prison expansion through his 1994 crime bill. Her reference at that time to teenaged “super-predators” needing to be brought “to heel” would haunt her during the campaign. That some of the largest Black Lives Matter protests were in the Midwest — or that her “personal commitment” to remedy the Flint water crisis would necessitate repeated interaction, something approaching relationship building — seemed lost on the minds of her campaign. She would go on to lose Michigan.
Clinton’s failure to recognize the power of mass movements evidently left her unprepared to consider how she — as the standard bearer for a status quo that had overseen such massive social dislocation and wealth disparity — could begin to develop substantive relationships with the affected constituencies. Such thinking would have afforded the opportunity to more deeply engage with the struggles they faced, and to reckon with the groundswell of anger toward policies that had failed so many Americans.
The beginning of this section rhetorically asked why Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the nation, and how that phenomenon is connected to current social movements. The answer is that Bernie Sanders has understood the significance of this period of widespread discontent and mobilization of increasingly intersectional social movements — in opposition to policies that protect structural racism, corporate domination, outsourcing, privatization and oligarchy.
The director of the Labor Institute, Les Leopold, recently pointed out: “Sanders didn’t change but the world did. His message about the ravages and unfairness of runaway inequality hit home because it is true. He and his campaign became the next phase of the revolt against the 1 percent initiated by the remarkable, yet short-lived, Occupy Wall Street. Sanders took this discontent many steps forward by clearly articulating a social-democratic agenda for working people. He turned ‘We are the 99 percent’ into a clear policy agenda. That agenda, not just his enormous integrity, is why he remains so popular.”
Also key: how Sanders responded when faced with critiques brought on by Black Lives Matter activists who called him out on his campaign’s lack of meaningful policy positions (up to that point) regarding police brutality and structural racism. Sanders demonstrated a respect and engagement with those activists in scenes that are all too rare in politics. At that juncture, his willingness to listen and learn, combined with on-the-ground enthusiasm and inspiring public events, served Sanders well in the later primaries as he won a majority of young minority voters (including young black voters who had viewed Clinton with skepticism), all part of the overall trend of millennial votes that went to him. These connections with activists increased the strength and momentum of Sanders’ campaign as the primary season continued; in Michigan he proved the pollsters wrong in part because they didn’t expect the surge of support from black voters and young voters overall. This is a lesson the Democratic Party would do well to learn. There are profound opportunities to demonstrate the ability to go beyond surface graciousness and become a better leader for it.
A party that functions primarily during election seasons has lost the initiative in terms of integrating itself into the daily lives and concerns of potential and actual supporters.
During the 2016 campaign, numerous reports of deep cynicism among voters mirrored the vast discontent so unmistakably expressed in recent protests. Reporting about the Flint water crisis, Lucia Graves wrote in the Guardian:
Interviews with residents before, during and after Clinton’s visit revealed fear of a candidate helicoptering in on the campaign trail, attempts to salvage a modern economic and environmental crisis that is Flint’s own, and few answers for a city being abandoned by its residents.
“Don’t jump on a cause just to get votes,” said Flint Lives Matter organizer Calandra Patrick, as Clinton’s jet arrived in town. “It doesn’t matter to me if she makes an appearance or not — it doesn’t matter to me one bit.”
There are solid reasons to believe that Clinton’s concern about the crisis in Flint was genuine. The cynicism on the part of portions of the electorate was more informed by a longer-term assessment of her record, and by their overall attitudes toward politicians and — by extension — the Democratic Party.
Social movements cannot be understood as tools to get Democrats elected. The ebb and flow of social movements offer a rising tide in their own right that along the way can lift Democratic Party candidates — if the party is able to embrace the broad popular sentiment that the movements embody. Candidates’ lip service to social movements is commonly understood as such; failing to make genuine common cause with grassroots outlooks can undermine campaign enthusiasm, volunteers, online participation, recurring small-dollar contributions, and turnout at election time.
One of the most memorable grassroots themes at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was the sustained protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership by environmental, labor and other activists in the streets of Philadelphia and by many delegates inside the arena. President Obama’s all-out push for the widely unpopular trade pact loomed over the convention’s platform drafting process as Obama surrogates and Clinton delegates worked to prevent explicit language opposing the TPP, even though during the primaries Clinton had made public her switch from supporting to opposing it. Shortly before the convention, progressive populist and Sanders supporter Jim Hightower warned that working-class families in swing states wouldn’t be content with “soft words,” and that “using lame language tells them we will not stand with them.”
Party activists opposing the TPP ran up against party leaders who favored corporate globalization over sovereign laws, workers’ rights, the environment, public health and financial regulation. The grassroots that energized the Fight for $15 — showing the power of union activism teaming up with non-union advocates for workers — encountered a party leadership that barely paid lip service to the importance of labor unions and union growth. That growth would certainly help to expand the middle class and, with it, support for the party.
In this era of Trump/GOP rollback against health care gains and worker protections, Democrats need to be clear whose side they’re on. As labor activist Jonathan Tasini said, “if raising wages and preserving pensions is what Democrats want, they’re not going to get it without growing the power of unions. Unions built the middle class. Wages are low because, over the past several decades, employers have effectively stolen the productivity gains made by workers — and only by revitalizing unions, publicly, aggressively and explicitly, will that change.”
On any normal canvassing trip for a campaign these days, it’s quite common to encounter voters at the door who express skepticism, wariness and an overall lack of interest in the subject of the outreach. Voters have come to expect shallow interaction to the point where it is difficult for the party and its candidates to be seen as being authentic on issues during a campaign. For more marginalized communities, the effect is magnified. On a daily basis, they see inaction and the lack of prioritizing of their issues by politicians, governments and political parties; routinely they see themselves as powerless to effect change since they lack meaningful access to conventional avenues of power.
The Democratic Party is badly positioned to present itself as a foe of the powerful forces causing widespread economic distress for working people, the poor and “near poor,” the elderly, millennials, people of color — in short, the party’s purported base. Weakness of messaging is directly related to the comfort that corporate power enjoys not only in legislative halls across the nation but also within the party itself. Such corporate dominance prevents the party from truthfully projecting itself as an ally of the working class. In contrast to all the posturing, the institutional lack of authenticity is a key reason why 40 percent or more of voters consider themselves independent, a number well above the 30 percent or less for Democrats and Republicans alike.
Overall, the party leadership conveys ambivalence toward progressive populism, with performances that approximate and hum the tune but often seem to be fumbling with the words, as if awkwardly lip-syncing. Unable to belt out populist themes, party leaders are apt to seem most candid when they acknowledge what has become of the party’s orientation. Astute observers could hardly be shocked when, in December 2012, President Obama told a Miami-based Univision station during an interview at the White House: “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.” In a time of economic distress, such “moderate Republican” policies badly undercut the potential for synergy with progressive social movements — while alienating much of the party’s base and discouraging voter turnout from core constituencies.
Since Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic Party has lost control of both houses of Congress and more than 1,000 state legislative seats. The GOP now controls the governorship as well as the entire legislature in 26 states, while Democrats exercise such control in only six states [eight states, after the November 2017 elections]. Republicans now outnumber Democrats in governors’ offices by more than 2 to 1. The reversal of fortunes in state legislatures was extreme during the Obama presidency, as a New York Times writer noted: “In 2009, Democrats controlled both the state senate and house in 27 states, the Republicans 14. After the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled both branches of the legislatures in 32 states to 14 for the Democrats.”
Despite this Democratic decline, bold proposals with the national party’s imprint are scarce. Whatever the virtues of “A Better Deal” that Democratic Party leaders rolled out in mid-summer 2017, the months that followed gave scant indications that it ignited much grassroots enthusiasm, while one critique after another after another faulted the party’s new manifesto as too cautious, too corporate and too removed from the energizing passions of the current era. The party leadership appears to have concluded, yet again, that major structural changes are not needed, in the party or in the country. Amid all the calls to “resist Trump,” top party leaders seem to have largely pinned their hopes on Donald Trump finally going too far, an ominous echo of an electoral strategy that failed in the 2016 general election.
For the Democratic Party, the goal of outreach cannot be only to get votes. The enduring point of community outreach is to build an ongoing relationship that aims for the party to become part of the fabric of everyday life. It means acknowledging the validity and power of people-driven movements as well as recognizing and supporting authentic progressive community leaders. It means focusing on how the party can best serve communities, not the other way around. Most of all, it means persisting with such engagement on an ongoing basis, not just at election time. When insincerity and a poor record of community engagement are detected, the outcome is a depressed turnout on Election Day. Democratic Party pros have routinely discounted the political importance and electoral impacts of genuine enthusiasm at the grassroots. But passionate supporters and vital movements are crucial to lifting the fortunes of the party and the country.