The Democratic Schism is going full tilt. Not to be confused with the Great Schism in the Catholic Church in 1054 when the Eastern Christian Churches under the leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople split with the Western Christian Churches led by the Pope (Leo IX in this case). However, it is instructive to note that both schisms 864 years apart have as their defining features winning at all costs, political jealousies, and rancorous disagreements over philosophy and beliefs. The Great Schism of 1054 was not resolved until 1965 when Pope and Patriarch met and the Schism became a draw.
What are the possibilities that the Democratic Schism will result in a “happily ever after” scenario? If you’re betting the ranch on it, better starting looking for another place to live. It all started in 2016 when Hillary Clinton riding the wave of “Finally, it’s her turn,” was challenged by a fresh old face, Bernie Sanders. He had all sorts of inconvenient ideas, universal single payer health care, free college tuition, taxing the wealthy, and other equally pie-in-the-sky notions. The beating heart of the Democratic party, its wealthiest donors (George Soros and George Clooney are two), were up in arms. What was going on? He wasn’t even a real Democrat but some mysterious hybrid, a Democratic Socialist. Something had to be done. A plan was quickly put into motion. Despite Bernie’s strong primary results and a multitude of polls showing him to be a stronger candidate than Hillary to oppose Donald Trump, he was defanged and chastised and performed his penance by shilling for Hillary throughout the presidential campaign.
Not all was lost. The energy that had electrified portions of the democratic base lived to see another day. Their time came in 2018 as energized fresh young faces began clamoring for their turn to challenge the Republicans in races all across America. The issue that became the litmus test for both old and new Dems —abortion rights. There were other pressing concerns, traditional Democratic issues, the minimum wage, healthcare, entitlements, gun laws but the abortion issues quickly separated the women from the girls. With abortion rights center stage and new-found energy and determination among democratic women office-seekers looking to kick butt, the old guard feared things were getting out of hand again. Establishment dems, used to issuing fiats and having them faithfully obeyed, weren’t disposed to countenance rebellion in the ranks.
The real problem is that the party has come far from its monolithic roots. Think of today’s Democratic party as a huge two-winged bird of prey. One wing is the win-at-all-costs Democratic political machinery consisting of dark money groups whose donor lists are secret. Political Action Committees (PACs) some controlled by House Leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the official fundraising arm of the Democratic House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). In their playbook, Ideological concerns, traditional Democratic hot-button issues, run a distant second to winning. The big prize in 2018— control of Congress.
The other wing of the Democratic party leans toward progressivism, is generally younger, new to politics, committed to issues and campaigning on the promise of making constituents’ business first priority rather than the business of lobbyists (as it is now). They tend to run grassroots campaigns, usually raise the majority of campaign funds from small donations (modeled after Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign) and rely on old and new ways of campaigning: shoe leather and digital media.
Adding to the general mayhem in party ranks are the issue-oriented non-profit groups whose endorsements translate into thousands of votes from their members. First among many are the organizations whose main focus is abortion rights. The most influential, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, were the voice of the pro-choice movement for many decades. Their trajectory from the voice of women’s issues to shills for the Democratic party marks a notable shift in emphasis. The newcomer making up the third leg of the major abortions rights groups is EMILY’s List, a strictly political operation founded in 1985 to give financial support to pro-choice (almost always Democratic) women in both local and federal elections. The fly in the ointment is that NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and EMILY’s List have wandered far off the reservation. Trolling to maintain their status as power brokers in the party, they routinely fly in the face of their principles to support candidates vetted by the national party.
In primaries around the country, the struggle between the politics of winning and the principles that used to undergird the Democratic party are on exhibit. Examples proliferate of progressive candidates battling establishment candidates. Particularly head-scratching are the antics of Democrats Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison thought to be mildly progressive but still getting their marching orders from party leaders. Their attempt to negotiate the distance between the principles they claim to believe in and the candidates they endorse is unconvincing at best.
In a different era, a mundane election for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska would have elicited a big yawn from Democratic big wigs. But with midterms approaching, Democrats were pulling out all the stops. The sole democratic candidate endorsed by official Democraticdom, Heath Mello, had a checkered legislative past on abortion rights. As a state senator in 2009, he co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation. His moderate stance on other issues, like the environment and the labor movement, drew in the centrist portion of the democratic base and convinced leadership to ship Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison to Omaha to let voters know that history was well history and Heath Mello deserved to be welcomed back into the good graces of the Democratic party. The abortion right movement wasn’t so easily fobbed off. NARAL slammed the move: “The actions by the DNC to…support a candidate for office who will strip women —one of the most critical constituencies for the party—of our basic rights…is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid.” The power of the abortion rights issue easily overwhelmed the Bernie and Keith show. Democrat progressives stayed home and Republican incumbent Jean Stothert won a second term (which she probably would have without their help).
As outraged as NARAL was over the treachery (as they saw it) of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), they soon did their own flip-flop on behalf of the Democratic leadership. After all what are friends for? Another day, another dollar for the cause —winning. In a Nebraska congressional primary. Kara Eastman, a progressive in name and deed and a newcomer to politics, was running against an ex-Republican state senator who shape-shifted into a Democrat and served one term in Congress. Eastman pushed all the progressive buttons: a long-time supporter of abortion rights, a believer in Medicare for all, tuition-free higher education, increased minimum wage and taxing the wealthy. Her opponent, Brad Ashford, had a decidedly non-progressive record in his one term in Congress — supporting the Keystone Pipeline, the roll back of Wall Street regulations, and easing of employer-mandates for employee health insurance coverage.
Guess who decided not to endorse Kara Eastman, preferring to let their silence speak volumes: not only NARAL but their sister organizations, Planned Parenthood, and EMILY’s List. When asked why, their answers were revealing. Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL — “We have to believe in change and evolution. I think he’s absolutely sincere.” Well, maybe. But Brad Ashford has been a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat. He was stridently anti-abortion as a state senator when he co-sponsored anti-abortion regulations making it harder for Nebraska women to get abortions. Less reactionary in his one term in Congress where he generally voted with the Democrats, he still managed to vote with the Republicans 20% of the time. To label his “change of heart” evolutionary is a stretch. In contrast, his opponent, Kara Eastman didn’t have to evolve, she has been pro-choice her entire career. Ilyse Hogue didn’t cotton to those credentials “We love that she’s taken a strong stand but she has no voting record. Hypocrisy being a necessary credential for leading a non-profit feeding at the Democratic trough, she does not disappoint: “[Since both candidates are pro-choice] there’s no compelling reason for us to support her” I suppose it depends on your definition of a pro-choice candidate. By any standard other than Hogue’s, Brad Ashford’s pro-choice credentials don’t make the cut.
Planned Parenthood was similarly obtuse in the Eastman-Ashford contest, giving Ashford a 100% rating on abortion issues. Here’s their “we make it up as we go along reason” for flying in the face of their own mission statement — “We wish we were able to get into every primary, but both candidate have been clear in their support for reproductive rights.” How a Republican turned Democrat vocally astride the anti-abortion bandwagon up to 2011 can be favored over a woman whose unblemished and uninterrupted support of abortion rights is perennially on display is unfathomable to all but the terminally jiggered mind.
EMILY’s List makes the betrayal of progressive politics by the major pro-choice non-profits unanimous. At least they didn’t try to sugar coat their non-support of Eastman with lame justifications — choosing to remain silent rather than pollute the airwaves with a hefty load of codswallop.
Here’s Kara Eastman speaking out about the rank disloyalty of these women’s rights groups —If these organizations want to preserve a woman’s right to choose, they should be supporting candidates who are willing to consistently vote that way.” As it turned out, Nebraska Democratic voters ignored the baloney served up by Democratic party mouthpieces and handed Eastman a close but convincing win.
This surrender of principle to the politics of winning doesn’t end there. Instances of it cropped up in Democratic primaries in several states. In a Democratic primary in Texas, a pro-choice activist Laura Moser ran a hotly contested race against a corporate attorney who worked for an anti-union, anti-labor, pro-employer law firm. EMILY’s list donated $250,000 to Moser’s opponent. The DCCC went one step further releasing opposition research in an attempt to crater Moser’s campaign: “Democratic voters need to hear that Laura Moser is not going to change Washington. She is a Washington insider....” In another grassroots victory, defying hokum and sleazy politics, Moser came out on top.
In the contentious world of two-party politics in the U.S., winning often overshadows what most of us still consider traditional Democratic values. If Democrats want to regain control of Congress in November, the grassroots have made it clear that the old way of doing business —nominating inoffensive candidates beholden to the moneyed elite and Washington power brokers— is not good enough. These primaries are convincing evidence that change is in the air. The Democratic electorate has drawn a line in the sand and progressive candidates armed with new ideas and new ways of doing business are in demand. Will the generation of “go along to get along” politicians who have run the party into the ground and their non-profit allies get the message in time?
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