I get that we can’t run Bernie Sanders in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. I get that you have to start where people are rather than where you want them to be. I get that people don’t vote based on policy; instead, they tend to vote for who they like. I get that corporate special interests dominate our media.
I can explain much of this to people who I talk to about the Democratic Party. I can explain how they are better than Republicans.
Nevertheless, I’m struggling—especially when I talk to my friends on the left, the people who are fighting the grassroots fight. Especially because the right is speaking to the left. The right is telling them that the reason the Democratic Party is losing is because it’s not “left” enough.
I don’t think this is true (and will explain why below), but it doesn’t matter. If enough people believe it and drop out because of it, it’s going to hurt Democrats. In the past election, one of the reasons Trump won was because of the attacks from both the right and the left. The right gave people a reason to believe. The attacks from the left gave people a reason to disbelieve.
Ralph Nader wrote an article recently in The Intercept arguing that Democrats need to get rid of the crusty old people in the party with bad ideas. Setting the irony aside, things do need to change. But getting rid of people like Nancy Pelosi (arguably the most powerful Democrat in Congress right now) seems right up there with some of Nader’s other brilliant ideas—like how the left should work with libertarians. (Have you ever tried to work with someone who is so paranoid that they don’t trust any attempts at working together, Ralph?)
Nader’s idea that “policy precedes message” is wrong, and this leads him to a lot of not-so-great ideas. But he makes a valid point that things need to change. Here are a few thoughts on how.
If we look at political change, how it tends to happen is that social change leads to political change leads to policy change:
Social change -> political change -> policy change
What does this mean?
It means that the public perception of what is “right” changes first, which then leads to new people getting elected, followed by policy change.
This is the model used by corporate think tanks like the Mackinac center, and the one activists such as Bill Moyer (not Bill Moyers) describe in Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements. This is how the Civil Rights movement, the suffragist movement, the LGBT movement, and the corporate special interest movement have all managed to pass significant legislation.
This is different than Nader’s “policy precedes message” approach and also the opposite of his critique of the Democratic Party that “message precedes policy.”
What this model says is that in order to accomplish something through legislation in our country, the ideas behind the legislation have to be mainstream. Otherwise what happens is that people get unelected.
For example, in order to pass gay marriage in some places, this idea had to be popular first. It had to not cost politicians their jobs. In places where the idea is popular enough and has enough public support, it’s been passed.
You can also look at gun legislation. In order to pass conceal and carry laws, the idea that it’s okay for everyone to walk around carrying guns needed to be popularized so that politicians could pass laws without getting unelected. Towards this end, the NRA invests a great deal of money on advertising and popularizing these views. They’re views which, at one time, would have been perceived as crazy. Views like: “Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.”
Getting back to Ralph Nader
In his article, Ralph Nader makes one of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to their ideas about politicians. He believes that politicians should be instruments of social change. He wants politicians to be more like him, out there leading the charge to win minds.
While this is noble, it is typically unrealistic.
Politicians tend to support what will get them elected or re-elected. This is why many lawmakers were reluctant to support the Affordable Care Act. Corporate special interests worked very hard to make it unpopular with people.
If this view of politicians is correct, it means Ralph Nader’s advice that politicians should be leading the charge is terrible. The frustration is understandable. But it won’t make any difference because conditions on the ground haven’t changed enough to put someone better in place.
Another way to say this is that people leading the charge on ideas often can’t get elected. For example, we couldn’t elect a Bernie Sanders-type politician in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District because there’s not enough support for all of his more populist ideas.
I get it though. Nader wants the populist ideas. I do too, and so do most of the people I know.
A good way to think of this is to perceive politicians as simply floating in water. They can swim upstream or downstream, but swimming downstream is much easier.
If the current is with you, it’s easy to get somewhere. If it’s against you, it’s hard.
The “current” in this analogy is social movements—change in beliefs. In the ‘60s, for example, the civil rights movement was a huge current. The movement for equality was a huge current. The anti-war movement was a huge current.
Unfortunately, what happened was that corporate special interests hated these populist movements and decided to change them (the plan was laid out in the Powell Memo to the Chamber of Commerce).
They started changing people's minds and created a lot of the propaganda that most people believe as popular opinion today. Ideas like "Let the markets work," and all the anti-government ideas which are so popular now and get so many conservatives elected. They put a lot of money into changing the current. And they started electing people who agreed with them—and unelecting people who held populist views.
This is what Nader gets backward: Democrats didn't start to lose when they weren't populist enough. Corporate special interest groups started electing Republicans, and they changed the current so anyone populist had to swim upstream. Many Democratic politicians decided to swim with the current in order to get elected.
Politicians don't tend to create change. They get elected. That's all they do. And they have to do this in a current, or the reality of the given moment.
What we almost got right in 2016 (whether we meant to or not)
What all this means is that if we truly want to change things, we need to change the current and elect better politicians.
In the past election, we almost got it right—not with Hillary and not with Bernie, but with Hillary and Bernie.
Bernie was the tip of the movement spear. He was out front talking about inequality. He asked a very simple question:
How do we create an economy that works for all of our people rather than a small number of billionaires?
His interest was more from the social movement perspective. He pushed popular opinion. He moved Clinton and the Democratic Party to adopt more populist ideas.
Clinton was the politician who won the primary. She had the money and the party connections to get elected. Because remember, in our political system you have to get people elected if you want to change policy. If you don’t have representation, you have no influence on policy.
If Clinton had gotten elected, it would have been on the most populist Democratic platform in my lifetime.
What happened, though, was that there was still a lot of distrust between these two groups. Clinton and the Democratic Party weren’t able to convince enough of the populists that she was serious. She relied instead on hoping that people would never vote for Donald Trump.
Her campaign lacked a reason to believe.
In the book Shattered, one of her election aides posed her problem as this:
How do you take credit for eight years of Democratic progress but also get that things haven’t gone far enough?
The answer should have been: be honest with people. You simply say, “We’ve made progress, but we haven’t gone far enough.”
You give them a reason to believe. I saw Clinton twice during the 2016 campaign season and didn’t see a reason to believe other than, “That guy over there is much worse.”
A reason to believe
Unfortunately, there’s still no obvious reason to believe from the Democratic Party. Instead, we’re still hearing, “That guy over there is much worse.”
While it is true that he’s much worse, we’ve seen that this strategy had issues in 2016.
We’re seeing some good things from the Democratic Party in terms of fighting against rigged elections and fighting for health care. But we still keep hearing, in a thousand different ways, that the Democratic Party needs to change. We hear it from Thomas Frank. We hear it in Ralph Nader. We hear it from people of color. And we hear it from women.
Upon hearing this, I think they mean many things. They want politicians to be agents of change. They genuinely want things to be different. There are lots of cries to change leaders, or to announce even more populist policies. And there is lots of frustration.
At the same time, what I’m hearing from those inside the Democratic Party is that politicians still need to get elected.
Political, non-violent change is slow. It is more like turning a battleship, because popular opinion has to change (if the model above is correct)—especially when corporate special interests are pouring so much money into propaganda to change the current themselves.
This is why any answer lies in figuring out how the social movement people and the Democratic Party can figure out how to work together.
On the social movement side of things this might involve recognizing the following:
- How change happens (see above)
- Policy can’t change without politicians
- Politicians have to get elected
- Politicians can only go as far as what will get them re-elected (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren can push much further, for example, because they both live in states that will re-elect them)
One of my favorite examples of this is Thomas Frank. When people try to cite him as someone who is anti-Democratic Party, remind them that Thomas Frank said he’d vote for Hillary Clinton:
I may end up voting for Hillary this fall. If she’s the candidate and Trump is the Republican. You bet I’m voting for her. There’s no doubt in my mind. Unless something were to change really really really dramatically.
Thomas Frank wants to reform the Democratic Party. He wants it to stand for working people. At the same time, he understands the difficulties and challenges.
On the Democratic Party side of things, figuring this out might involve the following:
- Understanding people’s frustrations with politics
- Being honest about the problem of money in politics and asking people for help
- Talking about how change happens
- Working to build trust with movement activists (the sense that we’re all fighting for the same thing)
- Giving people a reason to believe
Giving people a reason to believe is the most important challenge.
Because you can’t tell people that they need to work together. If a Hillary person said this to a Bernie person, it sounds like, “You need to work with me.” If a Bernie person said this to a Hillary person, it sounds the same. Similarly, you can’t tell people they’re wrong or call them sellouts. I recently joked that I was going to join the Socialist Party so that I could call the Greens neoliberal sellouts. People laughed because we’ve all seen this happen so often.
What you can do is give people a reason to believe. A reason to believe helps establish trust and works to bring people together. A reason to believe creates a pull instead of a push. In 2008, for example, the reason to believe in Barack Obama was change. It was an aspirational goal. In 2016, Donald Trump’s reason to believe was “make America great again.”
This is what people want to hear from the Democratic Party: something to inspire them beyond electing politicians. Something that will help bring people together and inspire people who aren’t voting now to possibly vote again. Something that lets people know the Democratic Party wants to move in a more populist direction.
Whether this means having a prominent activist in a position of power, or whether it’s being more honest about money in politics, the Democratic Party needs a reason for people to believe again.
Our reason to believe should be that the Democratic Party is the party of the people.
David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (also available as an ebook).