To Save the Democrats, the Captives Must Break Free

Over at The Nation, I was honored to be invited to participate in a discussion on Saving the Democratic Party (Dec. 24-31, 2012 issue), alongside other contributors including Congressman Keith Ellison, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and JIm Hightower. Below are my thoughts on what it will take to bring the party back to its progressive roots. You can read more of the roundtable online here.

Bemoaning the Democratic Party’s drift to the right is nothing new. The challenge is to identify the practices that have sustained this drift and to establish a plan to do something different. To do that, I think we need to be specific about the groups that would make up a more progressive faction within the party. In a sense, the party is the sum of its parts. So what are its parts?

The party relies heavily on several groups that political scientists call “captive constituencies.” Labor, women, and African-Americans are chief among these groups. They vote heavily Democratic, yet they yield little influence in pushing for a more progressive trajectory within the party because they are perceived as having nowhere else to turn politically.

The captives are united in being dissatisfied, but they are not united in opposing the main force pushing the party in a neoliberal direction. Some of the big-money interests within the Democrats may join with the party’s core constituencies in acknowledging the reality of inadequate social services, struggling schools, stagnant wages, and unaffordable health care. But their solution is the market. They envision private sector businesses (albeit incentivized by tax breaks and other public support) as the answer. Unions, community groups, faith-based organizations, and other social movement actors—the institutional representatives of the captive constituencies—are regarded as part of the problem.

To combat the dominance of neoliberalism, we need policymaking that rejects the notion that the market is the best and only answer to social problems. There will be hope for a more progressive party when the core Democratic constituencies are engaged not as lesser-evil voters to be turned out at the end of each election season so as to prevent a disastrous Republican win. We need these groups and their institutional representatives to be empowered as a countervailing force to the market and considered partners in governance.

It’s time that core Democratic constituencies raise their expectations and demand to be more than a voice at the table. It’s time for the captives to break free.

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