There are many misapprehensions about what a mass political party does and how it delivers votes to candidates and political goods to constituents. This is becoming clear as I observe the floundering of the Sandernista “Our Revolution” types, but it’s worth working out. Consider this more a PSA than anything, though I will take some swipes at the stupid along the way.
The most important thing to remember about a mass political party is that it is a very loosely organized beast in the US, hewing more closely to the original federal impulse of the nation than the states have done. Our parties are less structured and powerful than those in Europe, with significantly less powerful personal affiliation. There is a difference between the major parties, namely that the Republicans are far more ideological and compact than the Democrats and function mostly through political demonization. They are the part of reaction, battling historical social & political changes. They are also trying to roll-back economic changes, but those battles are mostly focused on defeat of regulation of capital and labor. Democrats, in contrast, have become the party of institutions in conflict with that revanchist ideology. Their focus is not preservation of tribal rights (state’s rights), but elevation of individual rights through regulation of power relationships. This is done through investing bureaucracies with the power to enforce impersonal law and regulation.
The political battles we are seeing now are the result of a last ditch effort to protect personal power relationships (between men & women, between white and non-white, between capital and labor) from deconstruction. It is the battle of ideology vs. institutions.
Even with the Republicans, you do not (yet) have an authoritarian political party structure, where party membership is necessary for access to comfortable life, and extreme dedication is the prerequisite for advancement. We still have our civil society, and politics is an affiliation, not a requirement.
For Democrats (and for democrats), it is less party membership than voting habits that define you as belonging. At most, you need to declare as a Democratic aligned voter when registering to vote so you may participate in the more formal political activities of electing officials in primaries. This is where the Sandernistas start making mistakes. They assume (because they are mostly young, inexperienced and frantically seeking order in their lives as they figure things out) that there is a party apparatus that dictates things. Heh. There are layers of actions and institutions, candidates float in and out as they please, and most party functionaries don’t get much beyond the county level. What you do get are people who have enough political interest and spare time to show up at meetings and do a lot of organizational shit-work. There are state and national level operations. Beyond the state level, what you’re really talking about are fund raising and distribution organs, who evaluate viability of candidates in this or that contest and distribute funds. High profile races are mostly up to the candidates to organize and fund.
What results is an interesting mix. From the Leninist view of the Sandernistas, corrupt “corporatist” dollars flow in, the evil DNC orchestrates all the elections, and bought candidates take office. In truth, most quid pro quo deals are on the Republican side because they are the party in national power, with the greatest ability to dismantle the regulatory state. Their constituency is very clear – do whatever the fuck you want, take as much money as you like, as long as “those people” do not prosper. The Democratic constituency wants power regulated, and they give their support to those who will do so.
Power relationships are not just economic. Economic relations are, in fact, basically epiphenomenal when compared to social and political relations. Economic relations are the easiest to reorganize and restructure because they are amenable to rules in a way that personal relations are not.
Voting constituencies know who wants to regulate which power relations. We’ve learned it over years, even lifetimes. Political realignment takes time because party policy changes change slowly. When a party shows they can be trusted about a certain power structure, the constituents stay loyal. What may seem shocking – like Trump’s win on an appeal to white supremacy – are usually just a blunt statement of previously unspoken agreements.
There is an argument in alt-left land that they should do to the Democrats what Tea Partiers did to Republicans – seize the party through shock tactics, remove the top leaders, and rule. They ignore the actual situation among Republicans that the extreme outliers of the party were simply saying out loud what had, since Nixon and probably since the New Deal, had been the operating principle of the party.
The Democrats, on the other hand, had their realignment back in 1964, when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. It plunged the party into de facto minority status until the mid-90s, and pretty much finished its reorganization with Obama’s first election. There is a reason that Black voters are the most loyal, most passionate voting bloc in America – their very lives depend upon keeping in power the party that is in opposition to what Trump represents. This is bigger, deeper and more personal than an economic system. It has taken almost a century for them to transfer their support from the party of Lincoln that fought to free them to the party that once represented the institutionalized denial of their very humanity.
The presidential battle in 2016 was between those who were striving to continue deconstructing these power relationships – race, gender, economic – and those trying to halt it. The parties themselves were mostly powerless in the face of the larger battles. Social identity directed political decisions.
Fast forward to the current political falderal. The alt-left has a fantasy that they will capture the Democratic Party. They’ve figured out that the party apparatus itself is fairly minimal, and so have fought aggressively to try to gain control of certain organizations. If they can’t control them, then they want to bring them down. The DNC seems to have become the focus of the more unhinged elements. The current “plan”, as far as I can tell, is to force caucuses on states with closed primaries to allow them backdoor their own non-Democratic candidates onto general election tickets. They seem to confuse their Russian-bot inflated numbers in social media with actual voters. I’ve seen statements to the effect of they will “Demexit” and “take the base”, confident of their economic theory’s appeal.
What they ignore, mostly because they are dominated by young, upper-middle class, college educated white men (and a shitload of conspiracy theorist crackpots) are the power relationships that they embody, the horrifying blind spots to their own protected status, and their casual deployment of precisely the power plays that mainstream Democrats abhor. They fantasize that “The DNC” is an all-powerful dictatorial regime that orders the state and the party as it pleases – mostly because that is how they want to run things. They project onto their political opponent their own worst impulses.They believe the party and its “corporatist” rulers are thwarting their march to economic nirvana, and don’t accept that the party, from top to bottom, is telling them that they are full of shit.
Back to the party. The way the party operates at the grassroots level is through the unpaid labor of a lot of middle-aged and older women who volunteer time and energy to keeping the party apparatus running and the voters coming in. Most never become candidates for anything outside the party structure itself. People who identify as Democrats recognize the party’s thorough going dedication to making government a watchdog on the power relations that harm us. They are likely to be those regulators, civil servants and private sector citizens who make sure rules are followed and political goods distributed equitably. Whatever our personal belief in how things should be done (I’m 100% signed on for some very radical socialism, as it happens), we tend to be practical as to how much time and energy we can devote above and beyond our daily acts, and we’re willing to make some choices as to what must be done and what can wait.
This is why Sandernistas and their cult of personality for a cranky, spoiled, privileged, lazy, vengeful, old fart isn’t cutting much ice with regular Democrats. Even those who voted for him in the primaries are rolling their eyes at the petulance on display. My own family (3 BS voters, 4 HRC voters) have rejected the proposition that the alt-left should be in charge because they don’t seem capable of acknowledging that there are multiple legitimate views of how to get from where we are to where we want to be.
The Democratic Party is not a monolithic institution. It barely deserves the title. It is a loose federation of disparate political entities who share a fundamental commitment to a particular vision of a good society, disagree on how best to get there, and contest over who should be in charge of drawing up the plans and leading the parade. It is a good, yet fragile, coalition. It cannot, by its very nature, dictate. It resists attempts to impose an ideology. It insists that people learn to negotiate in good faith. It persists in respecting the diversity of its constituents. It enlists who it can to get the work done, from a presidential candidate to the person phone banking on behalf of a local council member.
What it will not be is the submissive handmaiden of a hateful, cynical, grifting bastard who thinks that he is better than the rest of us.