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Weaker Together: The Price of Unity

Unity & Other Four Letter Words

AP Photo / Branden Camp

Since the end of the primary, “unity” has become the permanent word of the day for the Democratic Party. The theory that unity is something that is always, inherently desirable is what makes it such a powerful (fundraising) slogan. However, it requires deeper analysis to determine its true value in specific situations. Therefore, when confronted with rallying cries for unity, it is prudent to ask four questions.

  • What are we uniting for?
  • What are we uniting against?
  • Who am I uniting with?
  • What is the price of this unity?

Following the primary, most answers to those questions were vague and shallow. It became apparent that the Democratic Party was only able, or willing, to answer one of these questions in a compelling way: “What are we uniting against?” However, they gained crystal clarity during, and in the aftermath of, the contest for who would serve as the chair of the DNC. What became clearest is what price would have to be paid for this unity to exist. Interestingly enough, unity, in this specific situation, will only worsen the condition of the modern Democratic Party’s problems and is not the solution.

Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith

If unity were the true goal of the Democratic Party, they would have been hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Ellison. His qualifications and some of the benefits of having him as chair have been well explored. Therefore the question that many have asked, and attempted to answer, is “why pick Perez?” Why pick a candidate so ideologically and rhetorically similar? However, that question is inherently flawed.

Perez was an astroturf candidate. This candidate was purposefully chosen by the Obama White House because he could make a superficial claim to grassroots activism and progressivism. His past positions, whether on minimum wage or worker’s rights, simply aided the construction of that illusion. However, Perez’s reasons for entering the race communicated vastly different intentions for the future of the party as it pertains to its power structure.

Ellison distinguished himself from Perez in his belief that power within the Democratic Party should be situated in the grassroots and sought to give them a “meaningful voice.” While both he and Perez called for funds to be raised from the grassroots, only Ellison called for corporate lobbyist donations to be limited or even banned. This became the biggest point of divergence between the camps. This divergence demonstrated that he intended to empower the grassroots within the party, not simply utilize them to accomplish establishment agenda.

The organic support that Ellison garnered from the Left was only possible due to their belief that he was genuine in his desire to elevate their voices within the Democratic Party. Choosing Perez as the counter to Ellison demonstrates that there exists a desire for the Left within the Democratic establishment. However, that desire does not extend to allowing them to occupy any meaningful leadership position, for fear of setting a dangerous ideological tone.

Ellison’s loss, as well as the combined membership loss of the “Bernie Wing,” and Ellison’s appointment to the newly made position of Deputy Chair sent a clear message as to the price of unity.  Unity, in this instance, does not refer to people coming together in the middle. This is about one group demanding the other give in with no sacrifice offered. This is unity as a one-sided compromise, which is more accurately described as submission.  With their willing submission, the Democratic Party seeks to co-opt the power of the grassroots while simultaneously erasing their ideological concerns from the party’s internal discourse and external agenda.

Democratic Primary 2: Electric Boogaloo

Ellison’s campaign, while not a direct re-litigation of the primary, was absolutely a critique of the party’s leadership. Consequently, it became his job, in the name of unity, to mitigate the way his campaign made those within the Democratic Party’s leadership feel. They use calls for unity as a cudgel to escape the need for change and accountability. As opposed to “unity,” a more accurate assessment of what the Democratic Party is looking for from its base is a lack of conflict or criticism.

Of course, this need for reckless civility is also one sided. The vicious smear campaign against Ellison when he went against the establishment position on Israel provides evidence enough of this. However, one-sided lack of conflict is not unity, nor is it a lack of conflict. It can more accurately be described as abuse. Simply put, there are critiques of the Democratic Party, its establishment, and the Party’s core values that are not allowed if one wishes to be united with, much less lead, the party.

It does not matter whether that critique is lobbed rhetorically or symbolically. On the other hand, there are certain narratives and concerns that must be accepted and repeated. Currently, many such narratives revolve around a vague Russian threat to America or democracy or something, in a reckless attempt to skirt legitimate self-reflection.

It has been pointed out that the divide between Ellison and Perez’s rhetoric was quite small. However, that ignores that by the time Perez entered the race, Ellison had pulled back his critique of the Democratic Party. In the beginning, he was not only critical of the messaging and tactics of the Clinton campaign but of the fact that the Democratic Party had lost connection with its ideological roots as the “People’s Party.” In tweets from November, he blamed Clinton’s loss on low voter turnout and a failure to campaign in the Rust Belt. By December, Ellison had modified his rhetoric to be less critical of Clinton and more focused on Pres. Trump and the Republicans.

Ellison's take in NovemberEllison's take in December

This is apparent in his repetition of the establishment narrative that the dislike and distrust of Hillary Clinton could only be based on “GOP Smears.” Similarly, he proved his willingness to play ball with the establishment by attending billionaire donor retreats held by David Brock, the head of the now defunct boondoggle known as “Correct the Record,” in lieu of attending any of the various protests that occurred during Pres. Trump’s inauguration weekend. Furthermore, his decision to back billionaire donor Steve Bittel in the Florida State DNC Race, over Dwight Bullard, who also had the support of Sen. Sanders, did little to endear him to the progressive Left.

However, even Perez had to adjust his criticism of the DNC, and apologize, after famously admitting that the Democratic Primary was “rigged” and that acknowledging that fact was important to moving forward. A similar question was asked on the January 14 “Future Forum”, a “debate” where there was very little disagreement and was universally dismissed. Despite rescinding this criticism, Perez was correct on both accounts. The primary was rigged and admitting that, as opposed to quibbling over the definition of rigged and cheating, is necessary to move forward.

People have underestimated what Ellison’s victory would have meant. While not a total coup, there was actual value in it. Understandably, he would not have been able to affect meaningful change immediately. No doubt, it would have been the first of many battles for the soul of the Democratic Party. At the very least, he could have prevented a repeat of what occurred with Organizing for America after the 2008 election. However, it would have also fundamentally altered the answer to the question “Who am I uniting with?”

By Your Powers Combined…

This question is actually more important than it might seem because it hits at the core of the ideology of the Democratic Party by addressing its most valued population and leadership. In seeking to understand the ideology of any group, it is more illustrative to look at which people it welcomes and elevates as opposed to simply expressing their values through platitudes.

The Democratic Party has shown through the reappointment of party loyalists such as Pelosi and Schumer to leadership, the incessant flaunting of disgraced ex-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and the revolving door of party operatives who worked on the failed Clinton campaign to new positions within the DNC’s anti-Trump “war room,” that it is very welcoming of establishment loyalists. If you fail in the name of establishment politics and upset the base, you are welcome.

Keith Ellison as DNC chair would have had an effect on the populist presence in the leadership. Irrespective of anything else, that would have had a welcoming effect to progressives whose voices Ellison would have elevated. However, his victory would have set a precedence for legitimate critiques of the Democratic Party.

His defeat and treatment, coupled with the great lengths the party went to not alienate the donors, is indicative of who is being prioritized and welcomed within the party. While it is easy to make this solely an issue of money, this is also an issue of ideology. It is this discrepancy in the ideology of the Democratic Party’s grassroots and establishment that is hindering the Democratic Party, as it prevents their ability to construct a positive message.

It is hard to believe that the Democratic Party will be able to mount an effective resistance. The past few months have demonstrated that they lack a proactive message. They are unable to provide a compelling answer to the question “What are we uniting for?” They have attempted to answer this question with shallow identity politics. However, with the election of Perez, they have continued to signal that they lack anything positive around which to unite. The vast difference in the ideology of the Democratic establishment and the grassroots is illustrated perfectly in the difficulties that Ellison, and Perez, faced in attempting to appeal simultaneously to the establishment and the base.

The Democratic Party, in the name of unity, lacks the ability to construct a positive message because they refuse to take positive steps to fix, or even acknowledge, that the internal schism present is primarily caused by hard differences in ideology. Not, as Ellison himself put it in a tweet on December 23rd, no doubt trying to alleviate the feelings of implied fault that his candidacy must have caused, the work of a “Russian or a bot” on Twitter. It is quite clear that all the Democratic Party has in Pres. Trump is a very compelling thing to unite against, but very little to unite for.

Within this dynamic, they will never be able to construct a compelling, proactive message. The party will always be defining itself in opposition to vague, poorly defined threats.  Always looking for a better thing to “resist against” as opposed to “fight for.” Always waiting for things to get worse to distract from their lack of coherent goals. Given the media’s positive reaction to the State of the Union as well as Democratic Senator’s Manchin and Heitkamp’s applauds during, it is very clear that many in the “Resistance” are not even sure what exactly about Trump they are supposed to be resisting.

Russia is their new obsession. It fits their dual need to frame their losses as the result of an elaborate conspiracy, as opposed to incompetence and corruption, and to avoid having to make promises to their base they could be held to later. Currently, it may be playing well with their valued establishment donors, those desperate to believe there is nothing wrong with the party’s values or leadership. However, that narrative will go away once they realize this message is not connecting with their base. Mainly, because they cannot see any example of Russia’s influence on their actual lives, materially or socially.

In the wake of the 2012 election, the Republican Party, in a moment of genuine introspection,  conducted an autopsy. One that accurately accessed many of their party’s flaws in an attempt to do better. In the wake of the 2016 election, the Democratic Party made refusing to acknowledge the mistakes of the past the requirement for “unity” and leading the party into the future. Ellison’s campaign was a critique of the Democratic establishment, but it was one that needed to be delivered. His victory would have been both a symbolic admission of its flaws and guilt, something that the Democratic Party seems incapable of admitting.

Unity is the last thing the Democratic Party wants, especially if it comes at the expense of addressing its past failures and having cogent internal discussions regarding the future of the party. Especially given that even after multiple failures, “I’m With Her,” “Come to us” is still the party’s definition of unity. That, coupled with no positive message, is what lost them the general election and their willingness to continue on this path prove that there exists a self-destructive stubbornness in the Democratic Party establishment that borders on pathological.

Written by B. Sutton

B. Sutton

I'm an Anthropologist. I do Anthropology. Follow me on Twitter @PrettyBadLefty.

Find me on Project Sanity Thursdays from 8-9PM ET and Politics and Grits on Sundays at 10am ET.

B. Sutton is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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Weaker Together: The Price of Unity