Why the Battle for Leadership of the Democratic Party Mattered

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez may be as progressive as Representative Keith Ellison, but the race for DNC chair was about the reactions each evokes—not the policies they’d pursue.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

During an unusually charged race for leader of the Democratic Party, analysts and liberal commentators argued that former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who won, was basically just as progressive as Representative Keith Ellison, who was backed by progressive standard-bearers Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But they missed the point. The race for DNC chair wasn’t about policy or, for that matter, facts. It was about ideas, ideology, and symbolism—the very things that mainstream liberals are (still) uncomfortable talking about.

As Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum has argued, the very fact that the race had become so charged was “ridiculous,” since Perez and Ellison are “about equally progressive.” Or as his colleague David Corn wrote: “There’s truly not much ideological distance between the two. They are both grassroots-minded progressives.”

Perez, whatever his positions, was encouraged to run against Ellison by the Obama White House, with Obama’s top aide Valerie Jarrett whipping votes and telling Democratic National Committee members “I’ll let the president know you’re with Tom.” This happened after Ellison had already established himself as the early front-runner, with strong union support and the endorsement of figures like Senator Chuck Schumer. The left flank was looking for evidence that it would be fully accepted and incorporated in a party that was known for neutralizing and ignoring its base. Instead, the Democratic “establishment”—is there anyone more establishment than the president?—worked to undermine the candidate of the party’s left.

After Hillary Clinton’s election defeat, liberal commentators have, by and large, done what makes the most sense for a center-left technocratic party: sought refuge in facts and empirical reality (against someone who clearly values neither). Facts are obviously good and necessary, but they don’t make a strategy. Moreover, focusing on empirical data creates incentives to downplay the role of emotion and feeling in politics. These are, after all, the things that are difficult to measure and fall out outside the scope of “rational” action.

The race for DNC chair took place after eight years, under Obama’s presidency, in which Democrats were decimated on the local and state levels and lost the presidency to arguably the most unqualified presidential candidate in the history of the nation. If you looked hard enough, of course, you could probably find a way to argue that Barack Obama’s ideas or even his style of governing had absolutely nothing to do with the sorry state of the Democratic Party. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox put it rather succinctly: “It’s structural.” You could similarly make an argument that there was simply no lesson to learn from Clinton’s defeat. After all, she “outperformed the econometric models.”

In “normal” times, such a straightforward, even optimistic way of looking at the world may have made sense. Yet, everywhere around the world—in the Middle East, in Europe, in India, in Israel, and in the Philippines—the unexpected, the ideological, and the idiosyncratic were shaping events. In an ever more prescient article they wrote before September 11th, my colleagues Dan Byman and Ken Pollack discussed that blind spot of the social sciences—the role of individuals, and their ideas, in changing history. “Individual personalities take on added significance,” they write, “when power is concentrated in the hands of a leader, when institutions are in conflict, or in times of great change.”

Donald Trump represents a number of ideological currents coming to a head, but he himself was, and will continue to be, ideologically promiscuous, borrowing from right, left, and center. At least until he became president, it mattered less what he said. What mattered was who said it and how, and it happened to be Trump.

So, it may be true that the Democratic establishment’s “best tactic for beating the left is adopting more left-wing stances,” but this presumes that the content of positions are enough. They aren’t. Bernie Sanders did, in fact, drag Hillary Clinton leftwards, but very few voters went on Clinton’s website to find out. She could have quite literally said the exact same things as Sanders and offered up the same vaguely “socialist” proposals, but it wouldn’t have persuaded his supporters. It wouldn’t have been convincing or credible.

Keith Ellison may be about as progressive as Tom Perez, but it’s what he represents that matters. It’s what he evokes and inspires, for both better and worse, and that’s not something you can quantify in a chart or plot on a graph. It’s definitely not something you can measure, and you shouldn’t have to.

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