Going into the largely meaningless election for DNC chair contested by Tom Perez, Keith Ellison, and others, the Democratic Party is broadly unified around a progressive policy platform. The Democrats support stronger assistance to for public college students, better leave policies for new parents, aggressive action on climate change, and higher taxes on the wealthy. To the extent we need an adjustment, the issue is less the policies than the fact that they clearly aren’t connecting the way they need to be.
Jon Favreau is constantly talking about how Bernie Sanders biggest attribute was his ability to talk in a way that regular people talk, and I wouldn’t be the first to say that Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi don’t exactly speak in a way that “plays in Peoria.” That said, I think the truth is actually much more inconvenient for Democrats than this. What truly separated Sanders and Clinton were their relationships to the current political and economic power structure.
But what really sets him apart isn’t his policy platform, which can be fairly described as shifting the United States toward the Scandinavian model of social democracy more rapidly than Clinton and other Democrats would; it’s his fiery rhetoric. In calling for a “political revolution,” attacking the “billionaire class,” and embracing the label “democratic socialist,” Sanders is using language that has never been heard before in a Democratic Presidential primary. (Socialists such as Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas have run for President in the past, but on the ticket of the Socialist Party.)
Sanders is a senator from Vermont, a tiny state with basically no major business constituents. He’s therefore been able to rise to political prominence first as mayor of Burlington, then U.S. Rep., and now as a Senator, without building any relationships with the business community. This makes his attacks on corporatists, billionaires, bankers, and other horribles extremely credible, since he and his followers can assert that the rest of the Democratic Party consists of a bunch of shills and hacks who are in bed with the billionaires.
It also makes him a very rare breed in the party. As the Democrats have become a more urban party, most of their elected politicians represent large and growing metro areas with major corporate constituents. So while the Democratic base and the country at large may want a strong anti-corporate message, the local incentives for on the ground representatives is going to be forming relationships with major corporations. Nancy Pelosi would hardly be doing her job if she didn’t have a good relationship with Wells Fargo and United Airlines (which employ over 10,000 people each in the Bay Area). Same with Chuck Schumer on Wall Street, Los Angeles’s Adam Schiff for Hollywood, and Maria Cantwell for Boeing. Even liberal hero Elizabeth Warren went to bat for Boston’s massive med-tech industry.
This is not to say Elizabeth Warren is not a “real” populist, or that Nancy Pelosi isn’t actually a liberal. However, the reality of the situation is that the locations where Democrats can actually win elections are bigger metro areas home to thriving industry clusters.
Note from the chart that even gains in Texas are likely to be led by improvements in Houston and Dallas, which have enormous oil and telecom industry clusters. So even while the Democratic base is hankering for someone to stick it to the billionaires and other baddies, effective relationships with the management of large corporations is just a skill that most locally elected Democrats are going to need going forward. For Democratic elected officials hailing from Houston, LA, San Francisco, New York, and Miami, a fuck-the-man type populism is just not going to work since these people are going to end up with solid professional and social relationships with the management class of large corporations.
What is actually most telling about this issue are the names floated as rising stars for the new Democratic populist movement. The three I read about most commonly are Jason Kander, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Periello, who are each touted as blueprints for bringing a relatively uncompromising prosgressive message to territories the Democrats have recently lost touch with. I have listened to and read a few interviews with all three, and have been impressed with their tenacity and talent. Periello and Kander ran well ahead of generic Democrats in deep red territory, while Buttigieg seems to be an effective messanger in red Indiana. That said, when you’re touting people who’s greatest success is winning a congressional seat for one term with the largest Democratic tailwind since watergate and the Missouri Secretary of State, perhaps the hill is just too big.
Sanders and the trio mentioned above all draw on the American political tradition of prairie populism: challenging the big corporations that don’t pay their fair share of taxes, big banks that seek bailouts and, above all, the big money that has come to dominate our politics. The appeal of this type of fire and brimstone messaging is obvious, and it’s easy for a Mayor of South Bend or a representative of western Virginia to rail on the traditional power centers. But this is just not where most Democrats are living now. The Democratic party is overwhelmingly made up of urban professionals and people of color. As long as these are the Democrats’ voters, it is hard to envision elected officials who represent large corporations being able to credibly lambaste those same companies.