#DemEnter Notebook: Democrats Need to Take Risks to Attract Voters

Bumped by Rosi.

In a recent Ezra Klein podcast, Anand Giridharadas argues that there are two types of change (here I’m paraphrasing): 1) change that is compatible with existing power structures and 2) change that fundamentally challenges existing power structures.

Anand is talking about elites and their desire to change the world. But he could just as easily be talking about those trying to strengthen the Democratic Party. Some believe that strengthening the party requires valuing institutional support over everything else. That means voting for Democrats. It likely means justifying corporate dollars to support those candidates. It means supporting centrist or right-leaning candidates because their wins strengthen the party and the party selected them. It means support for the Democratic Party needs to come first, and that the best avenue for change is compatible with the way the party functions now.

Others believe that making the party stronger requires fundamentally challenging existing power structures. That in the short term, challenging Wall Street, not taking corporate money, and running progressive candidates may have road bumps, but that in the long-term it better positions the party to attract a deeply skeptical populace who see the existing party as deeply complicit with existing structures they struggle against and are harmed by. In this view, strengthening the party requires challenging those power structures, even if some of them have mutually-beneficial relationships with the Democratic Party or are the party itself.

Anand’s argument about change is largely focused on elites — he argues programs such as the fellowship he received at the Aspen Institute subtly restrict the willingness of people hoping to “change the world” to take the second, more radical approach to change. He argues it’s hard to criticize Silicon Valley, or Wall Street, when you’re in a room full of start-up founders or Goldman Sachs executives. It’s even harder when those entities are funding a program you’re invested in. So over time, you build these social and professional relationships, and you internalize the idea that they are “good” and change is compatible with the way they do business. Anand argues that’s why so many executives support mentoring programs, but are hesitant to push for radical changes for justice within their own (much more impactful) organizations.

The same is true of the Democratic Party. Over time, being involved in the party leads to a subtle acceptance that’s what is good for the party and the pursuit of justice or equality naturally coincide. It becomes easier to look the other way at anti-democratic practices such as “the line” or when a county party has a lousy record and process for nominating representatives.

Why does this matter? Because there are potential Democratic voters who are hurt by this belief that existing power structures and social change are compatible. Too often, the good of the party leads to logic that says we can’t support this progressive movement because we might lose an election. And systematically, vulnerable populations and communities of color lose out when that decision is made — something Coates argues quite clearly in his Case for Reparations.

Now, I don’t expect the Democratic Party to actively give up power. But there are changes in culture around the margin that could make the party a more friendly place for those who believe challenging existing power structures is necessary. People could be allowed to push candidates with deeply troubling records, such as Jeff Van Drew, to be better. Or even push for progressive primary competition to hold such politicians accountable, without fearing retaliation.  And one or two key leaders could do so publicly to prove that it’s ok. Progressives who sounded important warning bells on flawed policies like state control over education or giant tax subsidies for corporations with little oversight or community benefit could be celebrated as thought leaders, not derided as party critics. Members of county or town committees who vote their consciences could be lauded as a healthy part of the deliberative process, not criticized for not being team players and replaced.

In short, the New Jersey Democratic Party could embrace progressives who believe that sometimes you have to radically challenge and alter power structures (even the Democratic Party!) to spur social change, and make the party a supportive home for them instead of aggressively trying to rein them in for the good of the party. Opening opportunities for those progressives also sends a bigger message. It tells those in communities that have been hurt by those existing power structures that the party is willing to take a risk for them. That it’s wiling to risk itself to help them. That’s the kind of signal that can build new coalitions and attract new voters.

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