For many years, Democrats have been lecturing progressives about the importance of political pragmatism, defined as settling for someone other than their preferred candidate – someone much closer to the New Democrat party establishment than they prefer – in internal Democratic Party elections. They have been urging this, they insist, not out of a hostility to progressivism or the effort to move the party to the left, and not out of a desire to maintain their own power within the party, but in order to secure a large-enough electoral coalition to win the general election. And for years, progressives have been suspicious that this argument is a pretext for simple opposition to progressive politics and to political figures who are not creatures of the party establishment. Some progressives, such as me, find this argument compelling, and some do not. The portion of progressives who buy it varies from election to election, and when the degree of skepticism reaches sufficient heights, enough progressives bolt from the Democratic coalition, by staying home or voting third-party, to produce the Democrats’ defeat. That’s how Bush was election in 2000. It’s how Trump was elected last year. Some make the case that Reagan’s election in 1980, after Ted Kennedy primaried Jimmy Carter with the support of the left, fits this pattern.
During the 2016 Democratic primary, that level of skepticism reached a new peak. Contributing to this trend were revelations of establishment Democrats putting their thumb on the scale in their own interest, of contempt and hostility towards Sanders and his voters among the avowedly-neutral Democratic National Committee, and of their candidate telling a room full of rich donors that her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was merely a “public position,” a ruse to fool the rubes. Meanwhile, the avowed pragmatists were pulling out all the stops to nominate someone with a 56% unfavorable rating to be our candidate for the presidency – even as they continued to preach the same message of pragmatic self-denial to progressives. Under these circumstances, it was entirely unsurprising that a larger number of progressives would dismiss their pragmatism argument as a self-serving scam.
Today, the ability of the Democratic Party to win the 2020 election depends primarily on one factor: the ability to win back the loyalty of those progressives who failed to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton. While the party’s Congressional and state legislative future may or may not require winning over some segment of Trump voters, winning the presidency does not. The Obama coalition, if it can be put back together, can not only deliver the presidency, but will do so by increasing margins in each subsequent quadrennial election for the foreseeable future. The pragmatic consideration most important for turning Donald Trump (or Mike Pence, should Trump fail to complete his term) out of office in 2020 is the necessity of healing the rift brought about during the 2016 primary, and not exacerbating it.
Tomorrow, the Democratic National Committee will pick a new Chair. The election is going to come down to Keith Ellison, the unity candidate who has the support of the insurgent faction as well as a substantial number of figures from the establishment faction; and Tom Perez, a candidate who, while an admirable liberal, enjoys support only from among the Clinton side, and who was encouraged by the White House to run in order to deny the seat to a candidate from the Sanders faction. One of these candidates has demonstrated the capacity to bring together the party’s factions – that is, to satisfy the essential pragmatic need the party faces today – and the other, regardless of his merits, has been unable to win support beyond his side of the divide. If the body that votes for DNC Chair roughly represented the electorate that chooses Democratic presidential nominees, Ellison’s coalition of Sanders supporters and some Clinton supporters would ensure his victory. But the party figures voting tomorrow are not a reflection of that primary electorate; they are a reflection of the party insiders who backed Hillary by such lopsided margins in the 2016 “endorsement primary.”
The election of Keith Ellison will bring alienated Berniacs back into the Democratic fold, while the election of Tom Perez will, fairly or not, drive them away. Ellison winning the chairmanship will accomplish two essential objectives. Obviously, the ascension of their preferred candidate to the top job in the Democratic Party will give Sanders supporters a reason to support the party. What may be less obvious: the sight of the barons of the Democratic Party agreeing to settle for Ellison despite their preference for Perez, for reasons of pragmatism, will demonstrate that they are willing to practice the very same pragmatic self-denial that they have been preaching at progressives for so long, and thus restore their credibility in making that argument. The opposite result will produce the opposite outcome – the Berniacs whose relationship with they party has already taken such a hit will see their broadly-popular candidate rejected merely because he is popular among them; and they will see the very people who attempt to sell them on the notion of taking half a loaf for the common good refuse to do so, once again, when it is their turn.
The election of Keith Ellison will put the Obama coalition back together and make a Democratic victory in 2020 overwhelmingly likely. The rejection of him will likely produce another progressive-defection election in four years. That’s what it comes down to.
It’s time for the powers-that-be to put the good of the party above the maintenance of their status within it.