When the “Founders” sat down in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to write our Constitution, they were driven by and concerned with a host of specific, critical logistical matters—for example, whether executive power should exist in one person or three, or whether slaves should be counted for purposes of determining proportional representation in the House of Representatives—but at the forefront of their minds, and underlying what were at times extremely contentious debates, was the knowledge that every single preceding experiment in republicanism had failed. Because they were so keenly aware of the fragility of republican governments, these colonial delegates to the Constitutional Convention were careful to equip our governing document with mechanisms and safeguards they felt would prevent ambition and tyranny—the forces perpetually locked in battle with liberty—from destroying what they could only hope would be the first successful republican government the world had ever known.
To be sure, there were many things the Founders could never have envisioned back then (not the least of which is the election of a non-white president) but one significant institution they didn’t (and couldn’t conceivably) contemplate was the development of a two-party system employing the instruments of mass communication and advanced technology to carryout out its essential purpose: to organize the masses behind political candidates of its choice. In fact, the concept of a “legitimate” party standing in opposition to the conventions and ideas of the governing party was so foreign to the Founding generation that many feared—seriously—that the potential election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and the ascendance of his so-called Democratic-Republican party would spell the end of the barely decade-old United States of America. But that’s what we’ve got now, and I have to tell you, the Democratic Party is killing me.
Before I continue, I’ll make a few disclaimers: I am a card-carrying, life-long Democrat who has worked for multiple Democratic candidates seeking elected office. I also have no present intention of transferring my allegiance to any other party, especially not one as tone deaf and perennially decrepit as the Grand Old Party—emphasis on “Old.” But in all seriousness, the Democratic Party has a significant problem in its own right—one that I’ll herein argue owes much to the deplorable state of affairs in the GOP. Ready? Here goes: the Democratic Party has been the beneficiary of a “pass” granted by that Party’s faithful, and the pass itself has been largely (and unfortunately) predicated on the human tendency to settle for the lesser of two evils until pushed to the absolute edge.
Ladies and gentlemen: I’d respectfully submit that we’ve reached that edge.
As a consequence of the fact that the Republican Party is so far off the reservation on so many issues, many Democratic candidates have enjoyed the luxury of (1) avoiding the truly thorny issues that so many Americans actually care about and (2) paying mere lip service to them, when forced, in order to keep the shrillest of voices at bay until Election Day comes and goes. Here are just a handful of the pivotal questions so many Democratic candidates continue to so artfully avoid:
“What are we going to do about the affordable housing problem plaguing poor and working-class families in major cities around the country?”
“How do we tackle the homelessness epidemic?”
“What steps are we going to take to narrow the achievement gap between the sons and daughters of the rich and poor, and between minority populations and their white counterparts?”
“How can we justify a massive bailout of Wall Street while continuing to watch as a significant portion of an entire generation of young people—folks who did ‘the right thing’—drowns under a sea of crippling student-loan debt?”
“How will we address the continuing disproportionate incidence of HIV cases and deaths amongst minority populations in this country?”
To be fair, we Democrats do sometimes ask these questions at election time, but we let Democratic candidates slide by with platitudes and promises that rarely result in substantive action after the precincts close and votes are counted. Why is that? Here’s my educated guess: because Democratic candidates know exactly what we voters know…that the vast majority of GOP candidates typically won’t even make a good-faith attempt to address the substance of these questions because of the negative impact an honest, thoughtful response would have on their fundraising and the hell they’d suffer from their all-important Republican base (even though many folks in that base would benefit from thoughtful policies aimed at alleviating these very problems!).
One of my very best friends from law school is a Republican—a black Republican. And I always encouraged him to speak out (not that he needed it) because I felt that pragmatic, principled and compassionate opposition is precisely the thing that would force Democratic candidates to move beyond talking the talk every few years when they’re out stumping for votes. I’ve learned a few lessons during my time hanging around politics, but one is particularly germane to this discussion. Although they’ll often talk at you about how progressive they are until they’re blue in the face, most Democrats won’t go the distance once they’re in office because they aren’t sufficiently incented to do so—yes, I’m telling you that your vote isn’t the only thing that matters to them. And although truly progressive candidates are defying convention (and party bosses) by rising up and running for office “out of turn” more often these days, they typically lack the kind of donor base needed to seriously contend—particularly when the forces of the status quo (think the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its brethren, for instance) do everything in their power to drive money and voters to the candidates they deem “electable”—just ask Chris Rey, an eminently qualified African-American Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in North Carolina, about what the forces of the status quo are doing in his primary race.
I actually hoped and believed that in the aftermath of the drubbing the GOP took in the presidential election of 2008 and again in 2012, and after the RNC’s infamous post-2012 “what the hell is wrong with our party?” autopsy, the Republicans would come back swinging with a more colorful slate of candidates and an at least marginally-more progressive platform in 2016. Being of the belief that while the Democratic Party does generally have a monopoly on swag it does not have a similar lock on intelligence, I cannot help but conclude that obvious answers to questions like “how do we expand our party’s appeal?” were ignored. I guess the specter of potentially having to drop the incessant Ronald Reagan “shining city upon a hill” dog whistling (often intended to appeal to racist white folks) was too high a price to pay just to win a presidential election.
My fellow Democrats, here’s the relevant news flash: until the GOP gets its act together—by recruiting a more diverse set of candidates who hold more progressive views on the issues that appeal to the growing minority population in this nation—Democratic calls for real change will continue to meet with candidates and a Party apparatus that refuse to spend significant political capital in addressing the needs of the most marginalized members of our society by prescribing and then fighting to implement solutions that reduce the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots. And I’ll tell you something else. We ignore the legitimacy of the Founders’ fears around the fragility of republicanism at our own risk—if we don’t get serious about tackling the massive and still growing disparities currently dividing Americans along lines of race and class, the long-term existence of the American experiment in republicanism is in grave danger.
Over the course of the last few weeks, debates between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have become particularly heated. There are those who cast Clinton as a progressive pretender (think Michelle Alexander), a woman so hell-bent on becoming president that she’ll say or do whatever she must to reach her goal. Then there are those who believe that Bernie Sanders, a man who stands to the left of Clinton and the current president on many issues, is unelectable—and that his commitment to issues impacting African-Americans has been fabricated to serve his present political purposes. I won’t litigate the Clinton v. Sanders case here, or the merits of the various charges leveled against them, but I will offer this food for thought:
Imagine if the GOP fielded a presidential candidate who willingly acknowledges the existence of gaps in achievement and wealth between white and minority populations, and who enumerates as well the systemic, structural inequities having birthed those gaps and that have both perpetuated and deepened their impact. Don’t you think that might cause Democratic candidates to reconsider the Posture Politics in which they are so frequently and conveniently permitted to engage? Might this turn of events require them to think hard about and articulate specific policies around alleviating the aforementioned problems—and then actually fight for them once elected?
I’ll end with this. There is an assumption held by many liberals in this country surrounding conservative black candidates for political office—mostly based on historical fact and damned good evidence—that their candidacies are inconsistent with compassion, pragmatism and sensitivity to issues around race and equal opportunity. I think we’d all be better served if this assumption, and the realities underlying it, were reversed because until this occurs, and until Republican candidates actually pose a legitimate threat of consistently walking away with minority votes, Democratic candidates are incentivized to continue to say a lot and do diddly-squat. We get only what we demand folks, and we ought to demand a great deal more from those who seek our votes—those in whom we entrust our sovereign power. And that goes for GOP voters too…I know you aren’t all Bad Guys…
The dirty little secret is that politicians—Democratic and Republican—and their financiers benefit from the system as currently constructed, not us. And they will continue to benefit as long as we continue to view the essential conflict in the political process as one between Democrats and Republicans instead of as one between voters and political parties who only pretend to speak for us. Instead of remaining complicit in a top-down system established and perpetuated to preserve power in the hands of an elite political oligarchy, why not assert our will and demand a bottom-up system headed by stewards who stay accountable to the folks who gave them power in the first place—We the People?