Tom Perez Is a Good Progressive. That Is, and Isn’t, the Point.

There have always been two sides to the Bernie Sanders Revolution: progressivism and populism. The progressivism is found largely in the policy substance – single-payer health care, strong financial regulation, aggressive action to combat clime change, to note three prominent examples. The populism is more found on the procedural side – small-dollar individual donations instead of money from corporations and lobbyists, grassroots movements instead of decisions by connected insiders, open primaries instead of superdelegates.

The establishment side of the Democratic Party, at long last, may be starting to get progressivism. The Platform Committee at the 2016 convention produced a solidly progressive document. Tom Perez is the furthest-left cabinet official the Democrats had since Robert Reich, and while Clinton fired Reich, Obama promoted Perez and gave him a long leash. The real progress for left-liberalism represented by the shape, and even the outcome, of the 2017 DNC Chair race should not be under appreciated. Casting Perez as a centrist in the Clintonite mold does him a great disservice. That there is a DNC Chair that is even in the neighborhood of someone as liberal as Tom Perez – at that he comes specifically from a labor political background – should itself be seen as a victory for the progressive wing of the party.

Which is not to say progressives have no grounds to complain about his selection, and his recruitment into the race, by the party boo-bahs over Keith Ellison. Rather, it misdiagnoses the problem; as great as Perez himself is from an ideological and policy progressive, the effort to recruit a candidate as a block the populist unity candidate because he was <i>too</i> popular among the Sanders wing was a consummate insider power move, meant to maintain power for a Boomer-dominated, established elite rather than share it with the ascending future of the party.

Those most loyal defenders of the DNC have a tendency to cite the liberalism of Perez and declare progressive opposition to his candidacy irrational. These people aren’t even wrong on the question of procedural populism; as far as I can tell, they don’t even seem to know that it exists at all. The number of pro-Clinton bloggers who managed to believe that it was the Sanders side that made this a proxy war, apparently wholly ignorant of the circumstances of Perez’s entry, is surprising. At best, they dismiss the argument as a pretext. “How can you object to a candidate recruited into the race to maintain the establishment’s monopoly on power? He’s a liberal fer chrissakes!”

Their behavior reminds me of the glib “show me the quid pro quo on a vote” argument they used to dismiss Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street money problem. They never took that history and relationship seriously; and what’s more, they never acknowledged that the Bernie supporters took it seriously either, dismissing the entire critique of the financial connections between Wall Street and the top of the Democratic Party as a ginned-up one-liner for the 2016 primaries. (Perhaps this sort of thinking explained why they were so confident that disgruntled Sanders supporters would come home in the general election to the same degree as disgruntled Clinton supporters in 2008). Just to cement their inability to get it, they treated the whole topic not as a debate over a core structural flaw of a our politics, but as a character attack against Clinton as an individual.

One of the key teachings drilled into me in city planning school was that true public and stakeholder backing of a plan could only be achieved through a letting go of control, and the ceding of actual power in decision-making to the stakeholders. If Democrats who side with the Democratic establishment in the ongoing dispute actually want to achieve party unity, put the Obama coalition back together, and have that progressive activist wing feel that they have a home in the party and vote like it, then they’re going to have to stop their campaign to monopolize power within the party, and make the types of reforms in how the party works that the Ellison candidacy, and the practical agenda he advocated, represented. What they did instead on Saturday was to vote against Barack Obama’s ban on corporate money, and then vote in favor of the candidate the establishment put in to block Ellison. We’re going to have to hope that former labor organizer Tom Perez demonstrates more of a clue over the next few years than the people who put him into power have.


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