The DNC race is a choice for Democrats to look to the future or stay stuck in the past

The past or the future?
The past or the future?
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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The 447 voting members of the Democratic National Committee will convene this weekend and decide who will be the next chair of the national Democratic Party. While there are nine (remaining) candidates, there are two clear front runners: Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota and former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. But truthfully, this is not about Ellison or Perez. It’s not personal. It’s about the future of the Democratic Party—and perhaps even if it has one.

For most Americans who could be considered the Democratic constituency the first month of the Trump administration has been a time of action. Social movements are moving, people are planning, councils are convening. It’s a base that’s growing–from the massive Women’s March on Washington to the taxi strike, from A-Day-Without-Immigrants to the anti-“Muslim Ban” airport actions. It’s daily phone calls (and phone apps) and promises to knock every door. Arguments about strikes, platforms for strikes, understanding how a labor strike and a general strike differ; these have become the everyday talk of a wide swath of Americans.

Trump and the Republican Party may hold all the government cards, but many ordinary citizens (and residents) can smell a little blood in the water. They were not out there merely against Betsy DeVos: they are out there for a vigorous defense of education as a universal public good. They are not merely trying to stop the anti-ACA tide, they are actively showing up to push for universal healthcare. They did not merely stop Andrew Puzder; they are standing up for the principle of organized labor, of work with dignity, of workplace democracy. Americans are turning out and showing up in record numbers to stop the most egregious acts of the Trump administration, while also building demands for a world far beyond that of the day before the 2016 presidential election.

Yet, the conversations swarming the DNC chair election are rather more modest. There are, at least, honest appraisals of the electoral situation. The loss is catastrophic: nearly 1,000 state and federal level seats across the United States over the past eight years. Republicans control not only the presidency, both houses of Congress, and soon, likely, the Supreme Court, but also 32 state houses and 33 Republican governorships. But part of the problem is that the conversation around “winning,” both in the Democratic Party and in the media, addresses electoral politics almost exclusively.

The more important loss that the Democratic Party must reckon with is the one that Americans see every day. Americans are watching life expectancy decrease for the first time in US history. They see a sharply increasing life expectancy gap that falls upon expected racial and economic lines and a maternal death rate that is increasing. Americans live with income and wealth inequality returning to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. The bottom 25% of Americans as measured by wealth have seen their net worth go from essentially zero in the early 2000s to negative 15%. Real unemployment is nearly 10% and even while falling most new employment is in the lowest paying sectors. 94% of new job growth in the US since 2005–starting in the Bush years but expanding under President Obama–has been in casual and part-time work. Wages have stagnated for nearly forty years even as productivity (and sheer hours worked) steadily rise. Union membership has reached its lowest level in modern American history. The United States has the world’s largest prison population both in total and per capita, with African-Americans and Latinos at vastly overrepresented rates.

The United States also has the world’s largest network of migrant detention camps—even before President Trump’s attempted “Muslim Ban” and newly announced Homeland Security enforcement measures. While Americans are marching against Trump’s executive orders and appointees, Democrats must reckon with this steady history of union busting, an intensifying incarceration state, deregulation, education “reform,” and economic failure. These are not new conditions; these are the realities that the vast-majority of Americans have lived every single day for decades now. Even more than seats and state houses, these are the losses that haunt this DNC election. These are not just electoral losses; they are the failure of a political program.

The real choice for the 447 voting members is about more than choosing a party chair. Will that choice be a candidate that represents the best of this moment, uniting hopes for racial and economic justice, expressing the aspirations of so many Americans in the streets, at townhalls, and, in some cases putting their livelihoods on the line and their bodies in the way of injustice? Or will the choice be a candidate that represents the idea that the victory of President Trump and such total Republican domination is a mere bump in the road, an aberration from a more tolerable status quo?

Despite their many and myriad fine qualities, this is what the choice between Rep. Ellison and former Secretary Perez represents. Will the DNC join so many Americans in rejecting not only Trump and the Republican Party but also in overturning these basic conditions which across the globe are paving the way for leaders of the far-right? One hopes that each candidate for DNC chair will take to heart the crucial 2016 lessons of massive organizing failures (although only Rep. Ellison has released a 100-day plan to start doing so.)

President Trump has already launched his re-election campaign that will play on his favorite themes of fear and separation. Will Democrats counter with a winning message of freedom and flourishing? Will they champion a winning program of fundamental social, political, and economic transformation that the American people demand? Or will they tell Americas that rolling back the clock to Nov. 7, 2016 is their date to “Make America Great Again?” It’s rare that any individual has substantial voice in true historical change, but over the next days, every voting member of the DNC will have the unique opportunity to play their own part, to really make a difference, even if only as a single step for the Democratic Party and the country. I hope they choose wisely.