The unsexy truth: three structural reforms the Democratic Party needs to survive

Before reading this article, please do me a quick favor. Don’t worry, it will only take a second. Go to your calendar app and check the date. If it says 2016, then your device is likely malfunctioning. The year 2016 has come and gone! I say this because too many people in the Democratic Party have not moved beyond their squabbles from the 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

It is hard to avoid seeing this bitter divide playing out online, and with Sanders looking into a 2020 run, these feuds will only intensify. But all this fruitless bickering could not come at a worse time: the Democrats control no branch of government and the 2018 midterm election is only 273 days away. If the Democratic Party wants to have a fighting chance in the future, people need to move beyond the 2016 primary and implement real reforms to the party apparatus.

Right off the bat, I need to acknowledge that both Clinton and Sanders camps have some bad apples in them. There are far too many Sanders supporters who believe nonsense conspiracy theories about the Clintons, such as them paying for the murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich. In the Clinton camp, far too many people believe utterly baseless claims that disgruntled Sanders supporters somehow cost Clinton the election.

I think it is important to routinely call out the “both sides are equally bad” media narrative for being lazy, amoral sensationalism. In this instance however, I think it’s fair to say that both sides are equally bad in their continued squabbling over a primary that ended nearly 1½ years ago. This demagoguery will get them nowhere, especially with an important election right around the corner.

However, you will not find me saying that people should just “get over it” and work together. Nonsense conspiracy theories need to be called out for what they are, but at the heart of this debate is the future of the Democratic Party.

This debate is frequently defined as “outsiders vs. insiders,” “far left vs. center left,” or “shaking things up vs. the status quo.” These are all unhelpful ways to look at the debate, primarily because it forces a dichotomy onto these complex issues. Thinking of this as an “either/or” forces people to pick their tribes and defend them to the death. Let’s not do that, shall we?

Certainly Sanders and Clinton had different voting records, policy views, and ideologies. While I do not want to overlook these important differences, I want to focus mostly on what the Democratic Party can do to strengthen itself.

In my view, a more constructive conversation could start by asking, “How should the Democratic Party operate?” It is certainly a harder question to answer. It is easy to criticize, but much more difficult to propose solutions.

Here are some of my thoughts.

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Photo captured October 22, 2017.

First of all, the Democratic Party needs to address its rampant issue with consultants:

It’s become a common statement over the past few months: The Democrats have raised more money than ever and lost more seats than ever (1,000+ seats nationwide since 2009). They had an elaborate convention, beautifully crafted marketing, what was praised as the most sophisticated data operation to date and teams of veteran campaign strategists working in what was supposed to be the easiest Presidential race in recent history. But around 9:45pm ET on Nov 8, it was clear that the house of cards was on the verge of collapse. And that by the next day, the DNC would have to not just answer how they lost the Presidency and so many other races, but: Where did all that money go?

[…] There’s much finger-pointing towards OFA, President Obama’s national organizing entity that, in retrospect many members feel competed with their state’s funding. After the 2010 electoral shellacking, OFA scaled back, and mostly sent out fundraising emails. But the senior staff for OFA has not gone away, as many moved on to start consulting firms which picked up contracts with both the DNC and [Hillary for America]. And the cross over contracts are jarring — with almost $1 billion being allocated to eight major consulting groups from 2015–2016.

If the Democratic Party wants to start winning back lost territory, these budget issues need to be rectified. I’ve heard some people saying that Howard Dean’s “fifty state strategy” needs to be reenacted; how is this possible if billions of dollars are being sucked out of the party by grifters?

Second, the Democratic Party needs to renew public trust. To put it bluntly, the Democratic National Committee did some pretty sketchy stuff to promote Hillary Clinton. But, the loss of trust cuts deeper than that: Clinton’s email scandal made a much bigger impact on voters than Democrats were willing to admit at the time. (It was mostly a bunch of hooey, although did raise some valid questions about transparency, cyber-security, and accountability.) Further, the kerfuffle over superdelegates was a source of much media ire during the 2016 campaign.

To be very clear, the DNC’s shameless, biased promotion of one Democratic candidate over another was unacceptable, but its importance has been overstated. Superdelegates are perhaps not fitting for a twenty-first century Democratic Party, but it seems unlikely that they would’ve opposed Sanders if he won the majority of votes in the primaries.

Regardless, the DNC–and, by extension, the party apparatus itself–needs to shed the public perception of corruption. It is a promising sign that the DNC seems open to reforming its broken superdelegates system. While it should not be up to the DNC to pick candidates, hopefully the frontrunner in 2020 will have a better reputation, as well.

Third, Democrats need to run on a consistent, appealing message rooted in policy. Here’s an experiment you can do at home: ask a friend what Donald Trump stood for while campaigning. They’ll likely mention the infamous wall, the Muslim ban, and maybe something about trade. Next, ask that same person what Bernie Sanders stood for. They’ll likely mention universal healthcare, free college, and probably something about income inequality. Last, ask them what Hillary Clinton stood for. Chances are they will shrug, and maybe say something vague about women’s rights. The contrast will be clear.

After the Democratic primary ended and the general election fired up, Hillary Clinton became the anti-Donald Trump candidate, without putting forth a consistent message of what she would actually do if elected. The Clinton campaign would even go so far as to adopt the god-awful slogan “America is Already Great,” cementing her as an opposition candidate. We all know how this strategy played out.

But, have Democrats worked to fix this problem? Going into 2018, Democrats are making compelling cases for why Donald Trump is an inept leader. Still, it’s a hard case to make that they are running on a coordinated set of popular issues. Perhaps anti-Trump rhetoric will be successful–Trump is super unpopular–but Democrats can do better to establish a long term vision for their brand.

These suggestions–anti-corruption, transparency, unity–are not original ideas; Bernie Sanders has been talking about them for years. While many establishment Democrats and devoted Clinton supporters hold contempt toward Sanders, they need to have a reality check. Bernie Sanders is the most popular sitting politician in the United States. The Democratic Party does not have to be made over in his image, but Sanders has tapped into something important.

In 1995, Republicans ended the Democrats’ 40 year stronghold on the control of the House of Representatives. Since then, the Democrats have only managed to win majorities in 2006 and 2008. While it is frankly embarrassing to me to vote for a party so bereft of strategies to win, it is also dangerous for the country when conservatives are running the show. The Republican Party controls every branch of the government, as well as most state legislatures and governorships. It’s time for Democrats to take party management seriously if they want to be a relevant political force going forward.


In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.