Whither the Democrats?


A story about California Governor Jerry Brown in the New York Times comes as friends ponder just where the Democratic Party goes in the wake of the 2016 presidential primary. (I’m not the one here to comment on California politics, but I’ve got the 3-hour news jump.)

Whether a hard rain is gonna fall or not this year will depend on how the party appeals to the wave of energized voters who support Bernie Sanders and whether it can energize those who support Hillary Clinton. Putting aside arguments about the process, it is undeniable that there are broad bases in the party for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Party leadership that is typically ham-fisted about finding any kind of message would be foolish not to take to heart themes that have energized Sanders’ base and led to his strong showing nationwide. Adam Nagourney suggests Jerry Brown can show them how it’s done:

Mr. Brown is in many ways a blend of these two very different candidates, having created a style that has made him an enduringly popular and successful California governor. And it is not only Mr. Brown: The California Democratic Party stands as a model of electoral success and cohesion, in contrast to national Democrats struggling through a divisive primary and debate about an uncertain future.

California is one of the few states in the country, and easily the largest, where Democrats are completely in control, holding every statewide office as well as overwhelming majorities in the Assembly and the Senate, not to mention both United States Senate seats. Mr. Brown and his party are using that power to try to enact legislation — on guns, tobacco, the environment, the minimum wage and immigrant rights — that suggest the kind of agenda that has eluded national Democrats.

On big reason for that is demographics. As the Latino population has grown, Republican registration has shrunk. Republican governor Pete Wilson’s 1994 initiative to cut off social services for illegal immigrants didn’t help, Nagourney writes. But Brown’s popularity is more than that:

“Jerry Brown is a unique combination of the leadership qualities of Hillary and Bernie,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor, who is running to succeed Mr. Brown when his term ends in early 2019. “Jerry is extraordinarily adept at populism. But he also has the hardheaded pragmatism that comes with experience, wisdom — and age.”

It certainly seems appealing to California voters: According the latest Field Poll in April, 55 percent approved of his performance. But he has not endorsed anyone in the presidential primary on June 7, and it is difficult to say whether voters prefer the Sanders or the Clinton side of their governor. A poll last week by the Public Policy Institute of California found Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton essentially tied, a surprise to Mrs. Clinton who had expected California to be a relatively easy win. As a result, both candidates are making frequent appearances here, and are advertising on television, in advance of the primary.

Newsome goes on the say that Brown will be hard to replace because he has “figured it out” and found the “sweet spot.”

Endless online discussions among activist friends (pre 2016) about building progressive infrastructure as the way to advance policy goals have given way to near-religious ones about whether the soul of the Democratic Party is redeemable. Perhaps that is because the focus is and has been what happens in Washington more than what happens in the states. Republican gains across the country in 2010 and 2014 did not just happen because of the collapse of the Obama coalition (Democratic failure in Washington), but because of REDMAP and good organizing in the states by Republicans as Democrats napped. It is something national Democrats have neglected since Howard Dean’s fifty-state strategy got tossed, sure, but long-term coalition building is often just not sexy enough or immediate enough for new activists. They want to fight the big, high-profile fights when the real action where things get done is more local. Finding the sweet spot between national and local focus seems to elude progressives as a movement, especially during presidential years.

From a tribute at my other blog to an activist friend I just lost, a reflection on that:

I live in a state taken over by a T-party legislature that has passed one of the worst voter ID bills in the country, drafted absolutely diabolical redistricting maps, passed HB2 as a get-out-the-vote tool, and launches regular legislative attacks against our cities where the largest block of blue votes are. President Bernie isn’t going to fix that for me. Neither is President Hillary. And not in Michigan or Wisconsin either. We have to beat them ourselves. Here, not in the Electoral College.

But friends on the left now talk about the Democratic Party the way conservatives talk about “the gummint,” as though it is some sort of monolithic beast with agency of its own apart from that of its voters and activists. I get it. That’s how it looks if your focus is Washington. It looks a mite different out here in the provinces where we’re fighting the border wars. Sometimes out here — and more regularly than every four years — we get to win. That’s what keeps us going. Because the battle never ends.

If we are going to talk about sustainability, it is the smaller wins that sustain us for the long haul, not just the marquee battles. If you don’t show up to play, you forfeit. But showing up — consistently — really improves your chance of winning and of building that infrastructure we so often complain of lacking.

What is perennially impressive about California is how state and local initiatives begun there seem to migrate east. That makes them worth doing and perhaps makes their national impact more long-lasting. Maybe that’s what Jerry Brown figured out.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : Democrats, National, Parties

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