Why Don't More Progressives Get That Seizing the Democratic Party is Our Best Chance to Power?
In America, there is only one way for us to accomplish the progressive goals we’ve fought for all these years, and that’s through getting inside and seizing control of the Democratic Party
Years ago, a caller named “Jeff from Denver” used to call my show complaining of a lack of progressive action and sold-out Dems in Colorado. One day I challenged him to show up at his local Democratic Party and do something about it instead of just complaining. He stopped calling, which made me think I’d offended him and he’d stopped listening.
Instead, about six months later, he called back in to say that he’d joined first his county and then his state Democratic Party and not only helped get a good progressive candidate on the ticket but participated in writing the national Democratic Party platform.
Activism works, but it requires more than just words. Nowadays numerous callers brag on the air that they’ve become precinct committee persons (more on that in a minute) and are actively influencing their local Democratic Parties.
If we wanted to take over NBC, for example, to promote progressive change, it would take billions of dollars. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is a nonprofit corporation with, in most states, a “Come on in!” sign on the front door that, with hard work, we can (and, in many parts of the country already have) take(en) over.
Just look, for example, at the impact of Bernie’s two Democratic presidential primary candidacies on grassroots support for progressive values and issues and how the conversation within the Party has changed since the days of the Clinton presidency.
President Biden is, in many cases today, taking positions that Bill Clinton’s Democrats claimed were “too far left” to be considered, and Bernie is chair of the powerful Budget Committee in the Senate. Build Back Better, while betrayed by two sold-out “Corporate Dems,” was championed by our Democratic President and nearly passed; it was arguably the most progressive legislation since the 1960s.
A friend recently dropped me a note asking why I don’t go after “corporate Dems” as often as I do Reagan, Trump and the Republicans who’re following in their footsteps.
“This is something I don’t quite get,” he wrote. “All your examples are of Reagan and deservedly bashing the Repugs. But little mention of the corporate Democrats.”
He (and others) correctly pointed out that it was Democratic President Obama, for example, who chose not to prosecute any of the banksters (many contributors to Obama’s campaigns) who crashed our economy in 2008.
He (and others) noted that Obama’s Affordable Care Act, while expanding healthcare options for all Americans until five conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted its Medicaid expansion, was also one of the largest windfalls for the insurance industry in history.
It’s very true that“corporate Dems” have let us down repeatedly.
When George W. Bush and his buddies pushed through the “Medicare Advantage” scam to privatize Medicare — consigning millions of Americans to terrible insurance coverage while draining the coffers of Medicare far more rapidly than “real” Medicare — neither Obama nor Biden (so far) did a thing to stop it, and most Democrats in Congress are equally complacent even today.
And then there’s Bill Clinton’s bear-hug embrace of Reagan and Bush’s neoliberal plan to destroy American unions by shipping over 60,000 factories and tens of millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.
It’s not like Democrats don’t have a lot to answer for.
(And, truth be told, I’ve written about every one of the examples above, both in Op-Eds over the years, on these pages, and in my books, particularly the Hidden History series on Monopolies, Oligarchy, Healthcare, and Neoliberalism.)
But the unfortunate truth is that, in America, there is one and only one way for us to accomplish the progressive goals we’ve worked and fought for all these years, and that’s through getting inside and seizing control of the Democratic Party.
That’s because America is a two-party state. It’s built into our Constitution because of the way we do elections in nearly every state in the union, and it’s why we’ve had two parties and two parties only controlling our politics since 1789.
During the Washington and Adams administrations, they were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. After Jefferson was elected in 1800, the Democrats dropped “Republican” from their name and the Federalists were replaced by the Whigs. By the time of the Civil War, the Whigs were replaced by the Republican Party, and it’s been Republicans and Democrats ever since.
Of course, it doesn’t say in the Constitution, “There shall only be two political parties.”
But it may as well, because when our nation was conceived as the first modern democracy in nearly 3000 years, the Founders and Framers didn’t have the benefit we do of looking back on a 200-year experiment in how to make space for multiple political parties.
They knew that democracy meant “majority rule,” and set things up so that whoever won the majority of the vote in an election ended up with the whole thing. Winner take all. Which always produces a 2-party polar system.
People will call into my show and ask, “Why can’t we have a dozen effective political parties like France or Israel?” The simple answer is that our system isn’t organized like theirs. And it would require amending the Constitution or universal state-by-state adoption of Instant Runoff Voting (and getting rid of the electoral college) to get us close to being there.
It wasn’t until the year the Civil War started, 1861, that British philosopher John Stuart Mill published a how-to manual for multi-party parliamentary democracies in his Considerations On Representative Government.
It was so widely distributed and read that nearly all of the world’s democracies today — all countries that became democracies after the late 1860s — use variations on his “proportional representation” parliamentary system.
In Mill’s system, if a political party gets, say, 12 percent of the vote then they also get 12 percent of the seats in that country’s congress or parliament. The result is a plethora of parties representing the broad range of perspectives and priorities, all able to participate in the daily governance of their nation.
Governing becomes an exercise in coalition building, and nobody is excluded. Most European countries, for example, have political parties represented in their parliaments that range from the far left to the extreme right, with many across the spectrum of the middle. The result is typically an honest and wide-ranging discussion across society about the topics of the day, rather than a stilted debate among only two parties.
It’s how the Greens became part of today’s governing coalition in Germany, for example, and are able to influence the energy future of that nation. And because of that political diversity in the debates, the decisions made tend to be reasonably progressive: look at the politics and lifestyles in most European states.
In our system, though, if a party gets 12 percent of the vote — or anything short of 50 percent plus one — they get nothing. Whoever gets 50 percent plus one wins everything and everybody else in aggregate gets nothing, so we end up with two parties always battling for the higher end of that 50/50 teeter-totter.
Another factor that maintains our system is that with two parties, at least the winner typically has support from half or more of the voters. That increases the chance the government is viewed as legitimate, keeping the system somewhat stable.
But with three major parties in a system like ours, a winner could seize the entire office with only 34 percent of the vote; with 4 parties the winner could carry only 26 percent of the vote. With such weak popular support, a minority-run non-coalition government like that would be in constant crisis.
When James Madison and Alexander Hamilton took on the job of trying to sell our new democracy in October 1787 with a yearlong series of newspaper articles we now call “The Federalist Papers,” they knew they had to confront this terrible problem.
They were haunted by what’s called “first-past-the-post winner-take-all” elections — majority rule — meaning that, in practical terms, there could only be two political parties.
They were so horrified by this realization that Madison devoted the entirety of Federalist 10 to begging Americans not to empower factions or embrace political parties, as I quoted at length in my March 21, 2022 rant Is America Facing the “Doom Loop” of Democracy? and Dan Sisson and I devote several chapters to in The American Revolution of 1800.
In the first of their series, Federalist 1, Hamilton writes:
“Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these” are typical of the “intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties.”
Thomas Paine, writing from Paris in 1795, laid it out clearly six years after our Constitution was adopted and modern America was birthed:
“[F]or it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit … the power and impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far shalt thou go and no further.” [emphasis Paine’s]
They all saw this as a fatal flaw in the republic they’d birthed: there could only be two political parties of any consequence because of the way the election system worked.
Any third party might have an influence for a cycle or two, but ultimately would always pull votes away from one of those two primary parties and increase the chances that the one closest-aligned to the third party would lose.
This is why the Republican Party and partisans aligned with them have repeatedly been busted for funding the Green Party, and Democrats sometimes have tried to boost the fortunes of the Libertarian Party.
Similarly, Republicans have overtly used third-party participation on the left to their advantage in the past. In a Washington Post story titled GOP Figure Behind Greens Offer, N.M. Official Says, Post writer Thomas B. Edsall noted that: “The chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico said yesterday he was approached by a GOP figure who asked him to offer the state Green Party at least $100,000 to run candidates in two contested congressional districts in an effort to divide the Democratic vote.”
It’s how Ralph Nader’s winning 90,000 votes in Florida in 2000 — even if most of those people wouldn’t have voted at all if he hadn’t been on the ballot that year, as he asserts to this day (and is, I believe, right) — helped George W. Bush “win” that state, and thus the presidency, by 537 votes. (And why David Cobb, the Green’s presidential candidate who followed Nader, didn’t campaign in swing states.)
David Koch figured this out when he ran for Vice President on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, pulling about a million votes away from Republicans (Reagan won anyway). His Libertarian efforts helped push Reagan to the right, but he quickly abandoned both the effort and the Party.
It’s presumably why he and his brother, after that electoral failure, committed themselves to help build a 50-state infrastructure to build their influence within the Republican Party.
It's what progressives need to do, too, only within the Democratic Party.
But we have a challenge, because criticism isn’t enough.
What I’ve discovered after doing progressive talk radio for nearly 20 years, is that most people who want to gratuitously trash the Democratic Party falsely believe that there’s an easy alternative.
But there isn’t.
Most think the Greens or some other third-party can someday win and thus elevate progressive values. While they can be a significant and positive force at the local level and have brought instant runoff voting to over 300 municipalities, at the congressional and presidential level they generally pull votes away from Democrats and overall reduce the power of the left.
Some think if they can just “tear down the system” by breaking windows, setting fires, or engaging in massive strikes (that never happen), a thousand flowers of democracy will bloom. Sometimes such things are triggers for change — witness the Boston Tea Party — but more often they simply alienate locals and give conservatives a handy villain to complain about.
Others are convinced we just need to loudly criticize any Democrat (or ally) who’s not sufficiently pure, and they’ll all fall right into line. That “yelling on social media” can be satisfying (and sometimes slightly alters politicians’ behavior on specific issues), but most often just provides an excuse to avoid the hard work of infiltrating and taking over a party and/or running for political office.
This is not to say I’m not a big fan of public accountability. Locally, for two election cycles in a row (for example), I’ve tried to help rid Oregon of a “corporate problem solver” Democrat, Kurt Schrader, who regularly tries to sabotage progressive programs as simple and elementary as letting Medicare negotiate drug prices.
Some of my colleagues have made holding Democrats accountable a regular part of their beat. I salute and often quote their efforts, like The Lever critique of Biden continuing Trump’s support for corrupt and predatory for-profit colleges.
And sometimes it makes a difference: Schrader announced this week that he’s no longer going to take contributions from Koch.
I still prefer his progressive primary challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. As do FOUR local Oregon Democratic county Parties where progressives have done the hard work to get inside and now have actual political power.
Democrats can and do change when enough progressives get involved.
But what, some say, of the “bad Democrats” like Manchin and Sinema? Shouldn’t the Democratic Party purge itself of them right away?
Years ago, a political consultant here in Portland gave me a much-needed lesson in politics 101.
“The single most important vote a member of the House or Senate casts,” Kari Chisholm told me, “is their first vote. The vote for who’s going to lead the legislature.”
In other words, if we were to purge Sinema or Manchin from the Party today, leadership of the Senate would shift from Democrat Chuck Schumer to Republican Mitch McConnell. And, while Schumer’s no progressive superstar, that wouldn’t be good for anybody except the billionaires and Russian oligarchs who own McConnell and the GOP.
So what do we do?
When Obama was president, a conservative group that called themselves the Concord Project, presumably preparing for the 2010 elections, put together a series of videos about how movement conservatives could seize control of the Republican Party.
Their message was simple: get inside the Party and take it over.
Even simpler, they noted, party precinct committee members are, in aggregate, the single most powerful political force in America.
Here’s one of their clips, running just two minutes and well worth your taking a moment to watch:
This strategy, now being openly advocated by Steve Bannon, worked for the conservatives who wanted to take over the GOP and evict the “weak” Republicans they saw as standing in the way of rolling back Roe v Wade, reversing decades of racial and gender progress, and rigging election laws to create a permanent Republican majority.
Today, because of these very same types of efforts by Bannon and people like him on the right, Trump-aligned neofascists have seized considerable control over the Republican Party in almost every state in the nation.
Successful nations with power distributed over multiple parties are:
using government to improve the lives of their citizens with national healthcare systems
maintaining high quality public schools and colleges
keeping big money out of their politics
and building a green infrastructure for the future.
But to do that here takes political change within one of our two parties. A political revolution, to paraphrase Bernie.
Revolutions never happen from the top down, even when they look that way, as Thomas Paine pointed out at length in The Crisis. Without popular support they fail right away or their foundation is so weak they don’t last.
Instead, changing American politics and creating a progressive future requires large numbers of us working from the bottom up, getting directly involved in the daily, messy work of the Democratic Party.
When, in 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders ran for president on the Democratic ticket, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez volunteered as an organizer for his campaign.
She got inside the system. And two years later she took down the ultimate “corporate Dem” (and Chair of the Democratic House Caucus), Joe Crowley.
Today, she and other progressives within the Democratic Party have become major forces in our nation. We need more like her.
When Bernie first started doing his “Brunch With Bernie” hour every Friday on my program back in 2003, he’d recently started the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
I remember doing a fundraising event back then for them; it was a small affair with a half-dozen politicians (including its then-chair, Rep. Raúl Grijalva) and fewer than 100 activists. The CPC only had a few dozen congressional members; it was new.
Today, because more and more Democrats are waking up to and rejecting widespread corporate-funded grifts with names like “Corporate Problem Solvers” and “No Labels,” the Progressive Caucus has grown into one of the largest and most vibrant caucuses in DC.
And the most powerful.
Look at what progressives have helped to get through already in less than two years. The list is exhaustive.
While much of it is attributed to Biden, the political reality is that he could not have done much or even most of it if the Progressive Caucus wasn’t with him. That is true political power.
Progressives are gaining political power by the day, and America needs us to continue pushing back against the corporate bribery and graft that’s infected both parties. While the Republican Party has turned to outright white supremacy and neofascism, the Democratic Party has rapidly moved in a more progressive direction. But there are still stragglers.
We can help. Reach out to your local Democrats and show up at the Party meetings. Make friends, pitch in, help out. It’s satisfying, meaningful, and important work. God’s work, some would say (those who take Jesus’ words about feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and healing the sick literally).
As in so many meaningful efforts in life and even in work, when you go into political battle you often don’t necessarily like or even fully agree with the people who stand by your side.
Nonetheless, it’s important to remember who’s the real opponent, versus who shares some or hopefully most (but not necessarily all) of your values.
Whether you’re volunteering to canvas or campaign, running for precinct committee-person, or just helping out, if you really want to see progressive change in America the single most effective way to do it is to
infiltrate join the Democratic Party and transform it from the inside.
Just yelling about the evils of “corporate Dems” may be satisfying, particularly for those of us in the media, but it’s often just the political equivalent of masturbation. Instead of just complaining, get inside the Party and evict those corporate Dems, replacing them with good progressives, so we can create genuine and lasting progressive change!
The Hartmann Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
10 Years of Service in the Texas Democratic Party
I've been inside the Galveston County Democratic Party as a precinct chair for 10 years. I was also part of Battleground Texas for 3 years. I was responsible for county party communications for 5 years and promoted progressive ideas. I chaired the county party resolutions committee at three of the county conventions. I served on the state resolutions committee during one state convention.
On the other hand, the rules of the Texas Democratic Party limit party members relative to changing the county or state party. The only Democrats I get to vote for and elect to office within the Party are for County Chair and two members to the 62 member State Democratic Executive Committee. I have no influence over selection Party candidates for elected office. All candidates are volunteer. If progressives don't volunteer to run for office, I can't vote for them.
If I'm a delegate to the state convention, I do get to vote there and one of those votes is for the state Party Chair. Unfortunately, the incumbant party power brokers have significant control to make sure their Chair candidate is elected. We have a state chair that has remained in office for too many years despite our never ending loses in general elections during his service. Delegates to the convention should recognize this and vote for change, but it hasn't happened.
At the county and state levels, I do get to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. If there is a contested race in the primary and a progressive has volunteered to run, I can vote for them in the primary. However, the state and national Parties tend to get involved during primaries and try to make sure progressives lose any contested election. In 2012, a local county effort got former Congressman Nick Lampson (10 years prior service as a Democrat), a moderate, to run again for Congress. I worked on his campaign and managed phone banking efforts in north county. Galveston county is the largest block of voters in this district. The national party took control of the campaign because Nick had high name recognition. However, he still lost. Galveston county, unlike other large metropolitan counties like Harris (Houston) is still 57% white, non-hispanic.
After the primary, even if a progressive is selected during the primary, they have little chance of winning the general election in this county or the state. Anytime Democratic voter participation increases in Texas, it is met and surpassed by Republican participants.
My current PC term will end in June and I did not reenlist for the next 2 year term. Ten years of trying has not made enough of a difference for me to continue. It's a lot of effort for a minority member of a minority party to make change happen and I don't have the energy to continue. We also have new leadership that I'm not compatible with.
I'm not an optimist like you, Thom. Ignoring today's weltschmerz is harder and harder to do.
I am going to say something some people will hate, I like the two party system. It isn't really just two, because the unaffiliated folks always determine the outcome these days. People can bitch all they want about closed primaries, but independents can choose a party for any given election and then get out.
What convinced me about a parliamentary system being just as bad as ours was watching the series called "Borgen"; it's Danish. What it demonstrates is how crazy and unethical the bargaining can get (behind closed doors) to form a majority.
I like how Thom expressed some satisfaction for the work accomplished by the Progressives....we're getting there. President Biden and Senator Sanders, a Dem and an independent are leading the way.