Can Progressives and Democrats Make This Thing Work?

Progressives debate corporate money in politics and the potential for change.

Theo Anderson June 11, 2017

The People’s Summit comes at a time of increasing clarity around progressive goals and, at the same time, deepening skepticism over whether the Democratic Party can become a reliable partner for achieving them. (JIM YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images)

Some­thing remark­able hap­pened at a Sat­ur­day ses­sion of the People’s Sum­mit in Chica­go. Some­one took a moment to take a stand for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

"Trump became president. Anything is possible."

This was long before a heck­ler cried out about the cor­rup­tion of the par­ty. It was right around the time a pan­elist asked how many peo­ple in the hall trust­ed the Democ­rats, and two hands went up. There were 300 peo­ple in the room.

But then Zephyr Tea­chout inter­ject­ed that she want­ed to focus on what we can do in prac­ti­cal terms.” Tea­chout is a law pro­fes­sor who lost to Andrew Cuo­mo in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for the governor’s race in New York in 2014. She ran for a House seat in 2016, los­ing to a Repub­li­can in the gen­er­al election.

I don’t like talk­ing them’ [in ref­er­ence to] the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty,” Tea­chout said. I am an FDR Demo­c­rat. I’m going to fight for this party.”

The ses­sion fea­tur­ing Tea­chout was about the role of cor­po­rate mon­ey in pol­i­tics. The one fol­low­ing it focused on the Democ­rats. But the ses­sion titles could have been switched with­out los­ing much in the way of coher­ence. They are two sides of the same coin: Solu­tions to Big Mon­ey and Polit­i­cal Cor­rup­tion” and Trans­form­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.”

Teachout’s point wasn’t to defend the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as it exists but, instead, a vision of what it once was and might yet be, if pro­gres­sives can con­front and reform the role of cor­po­rate influ­ence in U.S. pol­i­tics. She not­ed that in 2016, in Con­gres­sion­al races, for the first time you were more like­ly to hear from a super PAC than a can­di­date. That’s a real­ly big deal. That is super PACs replac­ing can­di­dates and par­ties. And that hap­pened in the very short space of sev­en years [since the Supreme Court’s Cit­i­zens Unit­ed decision].

The solu­tions are, we’ve got to — at the munic­i­pal lev­el, coun­ty lev­el, state lev­el and fed­er­al lev­el — pass pub­licly financed elections.”

Pro­gres­sive goals

Don­ald Trump’s rise has accel­er­at­ed the trends and mag­ni­fied the fault lines in our pol­i­tics. The People’s Sum­mit comes at a time of increas­ing clar­i­ty around pro­gres­sive goals and, at the same time, deep­en­ing skep­ti­cism over whether the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty can become a reli­able part­ner for achiev­ing them.

The cen­tral goals that pro­gres­sives have coa­lesced around include a $15 min­i­mum wage, some ver­sion of free high­er edu­ca­tion or tech­ni­cal col­lege for every­one, sin­gle-pay­er health­care and cam­paign-finance reform.

The deep­en­ing uncer­tain­ty is ground­ed in the moun­tain of cor­po­rate cash in the polit­i­cal sys­tem, and the way it inhibits Democ­rats, warps their pri­or­i­ties and makes pro­gres­sive plat­forms most­ly irrel­e­vant to their campaigns.

What is the vision, the agen­da, and the mes­sage of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty?” asked Prami­la Jaya­pal, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic U.S. House mem­ber from Washington’s 7th Dis­trict. We have to pro­pose a vision of how we’re going to move the coun­try forward.”

Calls to battle

At the sum­mit, in the ses­sions devot­ed to end­ing the role of big mon­ey in pol­i­tics and to trans­form­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, there were plen­ty of mil­i­tary metaphors and calls to bat­tle. One speak­er said that there’s nev­er been a more excit­ing time in Amer­i­ca for the awak­en­ing of the pro­gres­sive move­ment … not root­ed in the orga­ni­za­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but peo­ple storm­ing the gates from the out­side, and actu­al­ly tak­ing on big fights.” Anoth­er said the effort to reform the way cam­paigns are financed is a war for the future of the party.”

The mil­i­tant lan­guage is a spillover from the resis­tance” to Trump, and it’s a reflec­tion of the fact that the Left is tar­get­ing Democ­rats just as much as the GOP. That has long been true. What is new, how­ev­er, and what’s behind the mil­i­tant lan­guage, is the scale of the chal­lenge. Push­ing Democ­rats to the left on pol­i­cy was once the aim. In the age of Cit­i­zens Unit­ed, the first pri­or­i­ty is to trans­form the entire way our pol­i­tics is financed, and to do so with a part­ner — the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — that isn’t entire­ly reli­able, to say the least.

At one point, a pan­elist described the sit­u­a­tion by shift­ing the metaphor away from mil­i­tary lan­guage. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is about what we’re going to do, how are we going to run it,” he said. It’s a car. Take it over. Use it for yourself.”

It was a nice break from the calls to bat­tle, and as a lis­ten­er you couldn’t help but to extend the metaphor a lit­tle. The road stretch­es out so far, and it’s so full of pot­holes and road­blocks. The poten­tial for crash­ing, or at least run­ning out of gas, seems high.

And yet, in those moments of doubt, the ulti­mate good news/​bad news shock to the sys­tem, deliv­ered time and again over the past few months, comes to mind: Trump became pres­i­dent. Any­thing is pos­si­ble. You can stand there doubt­ing the vehi­cle and the plan, or you can get in, take the wheel and get on with it.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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