Democratic Leaders Sold Out DACA Recipients. Maybe It’s Time for Voters to Replace Them.

By negotiating a government funding deal with no protections for immigrants, top Democrats made a strong case for why the party’s activist base should be able to replace them with new leadership.

Kate Aronoff

Even before Monday’s vote, many members of the party’s base said they oppose the current Democratic leadership. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the year since Pres­i­dent Trump took office, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s Con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship has occa­sion­al­ly shown some real back­bone by fight­ing Repub­li­cans in near lock-step on issues rang­ing from health­care to tax reform. Last week, when Democ­rats demand­ed pro­tec­tion for undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants as part of any gov­ern­ment fund­ing deal, they seemed to dis­play a lev­el of com­pas­sion for immi­grants rarely seen in pre­vi­ous years. It briefly appeared that par­ty lead­er­ship — in forc­ing a gov­ern­ment shut­down — was will­ing to take sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal risks to stand up for pro­gres­sive values. 

If Schumer and Pelosi really are capable of leading the Democratic Party, and representing its base, a leadership election would require them to prove it—not just to their colleagues on the Hill but to rank-and-file members of their own party.

On Mon­day, all that changed. Democ­rats joined forces with their GOP coun­ter­parts to pass a short-term fund­ing bill with no pro­tec­tions for immi­grants, effec­tive­ly throw­ing DACA recip­i­ents under the bus. What Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers got in return was a vague promise from Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell to con­tin­ue talks on immi­gra­tion in three weeks, plus six years of fund­ing for children’s health insur­ance that Repub­li­cans’ used as a bar­gain­ing chip in negotiations.

The GOP right­ful­ly tout­ed this capit­u­la­tion as a win for their par­ty. And by push­ing the com­pro­mise deal, Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers, includ­ing Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer, made a strong case for why the par­ty’s activist base should be allowed to replace them.

As Stephanie Tay­lor, co-founder of the Pro­gres­sive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, explained in a state­ment Mon­day, the cave by Sen­ate Democ­rats — by weak-kneed, right-of-cen­ter Democ­rats — is why peo­ple don’t believe the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty stands for anything.”

Even before Monday’s vote, many mem­bers of the party’s base said they oppose the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship. In an Octo­ber 2017 Har­vard-Har­ris poll, 52 per­cent of Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers said they sup­port move­ments with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to take it even fur­ther to the left and oppose the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic leaders.”

With­in the con­fines of the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem, how­ev­er, replac­ing par­ty lead­er­ship is near­ly impossible.

The pri­ma­ry mech­a­nism grass­roots advo­cates cur­rent­ly have for influ­enc­ing par­ty lead­er­ship and hold­ing offi­cials account­able is through engag­ing in Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries at the local, state and fed­er­al lev­els. By back­ing pro­gres­sive chal­lengers, par­ty activists can pres­sure the cur­rent lead­er­ship and poten­tial­ly unseat these lead­ers if they’re not rep­re­sent­ing the inter­ests and posi­tions of the base. Addi­tion­al­ly, activists can pester these offi­cials through protest and direct action. These strate­gies can sig­nal to Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers that they face oppo­si­tion among seg­ments of their base, and — with enough orga­niz­ing — legit­i­mate­ly threat­en their replacement.

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, the bar­ri­ers to actu­al­ly oust­ing nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship remain high. Vot­er turnout in par­ty pri­maries is noto­ri­ous­ly low, and incum­bents enjoy a strong advan­tage in these races. Even if a sit­ting leader is unseat­ed in a pri­ma­ry, their replace­ment is cho­sen by oth­er sit­ting sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives. As a result, the path to any lead­er­ship shake-up is a tedious one.

So while the base may be ener­gized and grav­i­tat­ing left­ward, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­er­ship has con­tin­ued to offer pro­gres­sives and the Left some ver­sion of a line bor­rowed from Mar­garet Thatch­er: There Is No Alter­na­tive. As the Democ­rats’ inspi­ra­tional slo­gan released last sum­mer put it, Have you seen the oth­er guys?”

In lieu of root and branch changes to the struc­ture of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, here’s a mod­est pro­pos­al: Why not make it pos­si­ble to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives out of leadership?

For­mal lead­er­ship elec­tions could force the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s top brass to reflect the will of the peo­ple who actu­al­ly vote for them, and help turn the par­ty into a vehi­cle for bold pro­gres­sive policies.

Take the exam­ple of the Unit­ed King­dom, where lead­er­ship elec­tions are a reg­u­lar fea­ture of par­ty pol­i­tics. Through these elec­tions, mem­bers are able to select both the face and direc­tion of their par­ty by cam­paign­ing for their cho­sen can­di­date. Par­tic­i­pa­tion in these races among par­ty mem­bers is high: The Labour Par­ty cur­rent­ly has around 552,000 mem­bers through­out the UK, and around 506,000 mem­bers and sup­port­ers vot­ed in the last lead­er­ship election.

In the UK, when lead­er­ship fails to deliv­er on their cam­paign promis­es — or los­es in gen­er­al elec­tions— oppo­si­tion with­in the par­ty can call lead­er­ship’s man­date into ques­tion. Once par­ty MPs issue a vote of no con­fi­dence in lead­er­ship, they can trig­ger new elec­tions, where­in can­di­dates get on the bal­lot by secur­ing the sup­port of their fel­low MPs. It’s also cus­tom­ary for defamed par­ty lead­ers to resign after a major elec­toral defeat, as for­mer Labour Par­ty leader Ed Miliband did when he lost the 2015 gen­er­al elec­tion to Con­ser­v­a­tive for­mer Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. Cameron him­self resigned as prime min­is­ter and Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty leader after the Brex­it vote in 2016, hav­ing lost his man­date to rule.

The cam­paign to elect Jere­my Cor­byn as Labour leader in 2015 won in large part by bring­ing tens of thou­sands of new mem­bers into the par­ty and recruit­ing thou­sands of vol­un­teers to make the case, door by door and phone call by phone call, for why he should be the new par­ty leader. Cor­byn was elect­ed with a man­date to car­ry out his stat­ed plat­form, and was empow­ered to set the direc­tion of Labour nationally.

In the sum­mer of 2016, short­ly after the Brex­it vote, Cor­byn defend­ed his lead­er­ship from the party’s more con­ser­v­a­tive wing, win­ning with an even stronger man­date than he had pri­or to the chal­lenge. Under Corbyn’s lead­er­ship, Labour has shift­ed marked­ly to the left, and the par­ty per­formed sur­pris­ing­ly well in the 2017 gen­er­al elec­tion by run­ning on an open­ly social­ist man­i­festo.

The Unit­ed States, of course, does not oper­ate under a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem. And the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty gen­er­al­ly func­tions as a loose coali­tion of var­i­ous con­stituen­cies — Wall Street bankers, col­lege-edu­cat­ed whites, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, immi­grants, union mem­bers and many others.

Depend­ing on their con­stituen­cies, indi­vid­ual Democ­rats appeal more or less to each one. Repub­li­cans in that sense have a some­what eas­i­er job decid­ing what poli­cies to push for, giv­en that their base is over­whelm­ing­ly white and mid­dle class, along with a seg­ment of work­ing-class vot­ers and a hand­ful of wealthy, influ­en­tial donors.

Democ­rats needn’t be demo­graph­i­cal­ly homoge­nous to have a more prin­ci­pled and uni­fied mes­sage, though. 

Insti­tut­ing open lead­er­ship elec­tions in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty could cre­ate a struc­ture for can­di­dates to bat­tle it out between the party’s var­i­ous fac­tions, mak­ing it explic­it what those fac­tions are and defin­ing their bounds. Win­ning a lead­er­ship bid would mean out-orga­niz­ing oppo­nents in ways not dis­sim­i­lar to par­ty pri­maries, with can­di­dates pre­sent­ing their visions for how the par­ty should oper­ate and what poli­cies it should fight for.

If Schumer and House Minor­i­ty Leader Nan­cy Pelosi real­ly are capa­ble of lead­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and rep­re­sent­ing its base, a lead­er­ship elec­tion would require them to prove it — not just to their col­leagues on the Hill but to rank-and-file mem­bers of their own party. 

The onus would still be on pro­gres­sive chal­lengers to win lead­er­ship fights against incum­bents. But the end result would be a par­ty that’s con­sid­er­ably more clear about both what its pri­or­i­ties are and what it means to be a Democrat.

Whether you think Schumer was play­ing a cun­ning game of 12-dimen­sion­al chess or sell­ing out undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, there are oth­er rea­sons to ques­tion his lead­er­ship. In a polit­i­cal land­scape defined by pop­ulist anger at elites and busi­ness as usu­al — where Bernie Sanders remains the country’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian — Schumer may be as close to Wall Street as any Repub­li­can. In 2009, 15 per­cent of the $11 mil­lion that big banks poured into 2010 Sen­ate races went sole­ly to his campaign.

But there’s cur­rent­ly no direct way for Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers nation­al­ly to hold lead­ers like Schumer more account­able to the par­ty’s base than to his back­ers on Wall Street.

Imple­ment­ing lead­er­ship elec­tions could give the base more influ­ence over the direc­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but such a change couldn’t take place in a vac­u­um. Par­tic­u­lar­ly after Monday’s vote on the gov­ern­ment fund­ing deal, many younger and more pro­gres­sive vot­ers feel an under­stand­able lack of invest­ment in a par­ty they see as unwill­ing to take bold stands. Moti­vat­ing these vot­ers to care enough to take part in a lead­er­ship elec­tion would require a major cul­tur­al shift in and of itself. And insur­gent pro­gres­sives would like­ly still face a steep uphill bat­tle just as they do in par­ty primaries.

In a func­tion­al and rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy, though, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers would have stepped aside after the dev­as­tat­ing 2016 elec­tion and new lead­ers would have been cho­sen, along with a new direc­tion and strat­e­gy. There’s good rea­son to believe that young peo­ple, women and peo­ple of col­or are the future of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Rather than end­less­ly re-lit­i­gat­ing the 2016 pri­ma­ry, lead­er­ship elec­tions could set­tle the ques­tion of where the ener­gy of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty actu­al­ly lies rather than read­ing the tea leaves of con­sul­tants, poll num­bers and spo­radic spe­cial elections.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty leadership’s capit­u­la­tion on pro­tect­ing DACA recip­i­ents was proof to many pro­gres­sives that such a turnover remains long over­due. Why not let them prove it?

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue