I recently sat down to read Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis, a report which has been circulated widely by progressives in the U.S. trying to make sense of the 2016 election cycle and suggest ways to reform the Democratic Party so it can start winning elections.
While some of the data underpinning the report’s conclusions are worth digging into, I felt the report’s conclusions miss the mark a bit for reasons I will try to lay out below. Nonetheless, for those who want to better understand some of the root causes for the decline in Democrats’ influence across the country, I do recommend it.
I read the report with one eye toward the problems in the Democratic Party in my own state, Hawaii.
By some superficial measures, the Democratic Party of Hawaii may be the envy of Democrats around the U.S. While across the country Democrats have lost legislative and gubernatorial seats, Hawaii’s Democrats have seen gains. Just recently, we made news when a young shining star of the Hawaii Republican Party, stripped of her leadership position for publicly criticizing our orange-baboon-in-chief, officially became a Democrat.
Since the “Democratic Revolution of 1954,” that Party has reigned supreme, with the exception of a brief revolt in 2002 when the state was led by a Republican Governor for two terms. Democrats took it back in 2010. Currently, the State House of Representatives is comprised of just five Republicans to Democrats’ 46, for a total of 51. In the State Senate, the numbers are even more dramatic; Democrats hold all 25 seats.
Based on this alone, one might think the Democratic Party of Hawaii has found the magic formula for reaching across demographics to appeal to the vast majority of voters. But you’d be wrong.
In 2016, the last major election year, Hawaii ranked near the bottom among states in the country for voter turnout in the general election among eligible voters. Voter apathy of this level usually reflects deep dissatisfaction with elected officials and electoral politics.
|Eligible Voters*||Ballots Cast||%|
In Hawaii, given the lop-sided nature of the two major parties, it is usually the primary election where the “action” happens. So, one might suppose those numbers are less grim. Nope. Total turnout among registered voters, a slightly different metric was just 34.8% (compared to 58.4% in the general election).
|Eligible Voters*||Democratic Ballots Cast||%|
The DNC “autopsy” highlights a number of troubling findings in its Executive Summary, but there are a couple that I think can be applied directly to Hawaii Democrats, as well.
- “Emerging sectors of the electorate are compelling the Democratic Party to come to terms with adamant grassroots rejection of economic justice, institutionalize racism, gender inequality, environmental destruction, and corporate domination. Siding with the people who constitute the base isn’t truly possible when party leaders seem to be afraid of them.”
- “The Democratic Party’s claims of fighting for “working families” have been undermined by its refusal to directly challenge corporate power….”
Now that I’ve reviewed the basic deficiencies plaguing Democrats, it’s important to draw a distinction, in Hawaii, between the official party structure and elected Democrats holding offices across the state.
The Democratic Party of Hawaii (DPH) is grassroots, populist, and reflects a broad cross-section of the state including a strong progressive segment. On the other hand, Democratic elected officials (“electeds” hereafter, to keep clear what we’re talking about) are generally centrist, at best, and represent an unrelenting pro-business, pro-corporate constituency.
For example, we can look back just a few years to 2014 when the DPH supported a $12 minimum wage (ahead of its time and shortly before the “Fight for $15” hit the mainstream), elimination of the tip credit, and a CPI chain for future automatic minimum wage increases. Along with organized labor, social justice groups, and progressives, the DPH organized together in a broad coalition to “fight” for the issue. Despite supermajorities in the House and Senate and a Democrat in the Governor’s Office, those electeds refused to adopt the DPH position, choosing instead to bow to pressure from business. A “Fight for $15” effort is underway for the 2018 legislative session and despite DPH support, electeds in the State House have signaled their flat-out opposition.
Despite a national review of Democrats’ ongoing misguided message and approach to policy, despite the overwhelming “blue” nature of Hawaii politics, local electeds nonetheless continue to plant themselves firmly in opposition to populist messages that support economic justice.
Last example. A friend and colleague of mine recently pointed out that electeds found the political will necessary to convene a special session to bail out an ill-conceived public rail transit system mired in financial and logistical mismanagement. Electeds, buckling to pressure from developers (and the building trade unions) contorted themselves to find the funds necessary to continue the project’s construction, but have yet to find the means, will, or money to address a housing and houselessness crisis facing the state.
On the heels of the seismic shift that occurred during the 2016 Presidential Election, progressives in Hawaii are organizing. The energy that gave Senator Bernie Sanders his largest margin win (70% to 30% in Hawaii) during the Caucus is now being poured into local elections in 2018. And while there are ongoing efforts to bring more progressives into the DPH, the primary organizing effort is being directed at unseating some of these electeds who have been an obstacle to real solutions to real problems faced by local working people.
As a member of the DPH for more than a decade, I have witnessed its relegation to the fringes of political influence at the hands of electeds who want to run as “Democrats,” but who don’t want to be bothered by such things as its platform or rules. And the DPH hasn’t developed the muscle to enforce. We have focused on elevating issues advocacy over organizing. A top-down policy approach has atrophied our Party structure which has not be used in any effective way to support candidates for elective office.
The work necessary to reform the Democratic National Committee will be a long, hard slog. Countless losses, big and small, have done little to wake them up to the deep structural and political problems it faces. In Hawaii however, a handful of electoral progressive wins against “establishment” electeds will go much farther toward changing the corporate culture that dominates state and county government.
In order to compete against the influence of the corporatist and development interests within the Democratic Party and among the elected officials, progressives must increase our activity within those arenas, not withdrawn in frustration. We need to draw the appropriate lessons, hone our skills and strengthen ties with allies. We must bring more populist energy into the process.
The DPH, County Councils, and the Legislature are each responsive to strong and well-thought public input, especially as it approaches the level of an uprising. Bernie Sanders won Hawaii’s presidential caucus overwhelmingly because we had a common goal, developed a plan, and worked that plan. The Democratic establishment, the same forces which dominate the rest of Hawaii’s political system 99% of the time, was swamped by the flood of turnout and fueled by dissatisfaction with the business as usual Democrats who supported Clinton.
The challenge now is to direct a similar uprising of discontent and aim it at multiple local targets, electing more progressives to County Councils and the Legislature. That will take hard and sustained work. Can we rise to meet this challenge?
There is an ongoing struggle within the DNC. Those on the “left” see a need for a real commitment to a progressive agenda that motivates the Party’s base and those voters who are skeptical of its ability and willingness to change. On the other side is the corporatist-establishment, lawyer-lobbyist-vendor professional class who see the DNC as a means for advancing their own personal careers and better serve the interests of their clients.
Autopsy and similar documents provide an important opportunity to help spur this much-needed discussion. The DNC has so far failed to provide its own assessment of what went wrong in 2016.