Who Decides What It Means To Be A Democrat?

In handling some communications between the 31st LD Democrats and members of our community, I have recently been confronted with an in interesting problem: fallout from the recent “split” in the Democratic party. You know which split I’m referring to: the DNC email scandal, and the national party’s apparent attempts to suppress and burden the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. This problem has caused me to stop and consider what it means to be a Democrat, and why I (still) proudly identify as one. What follows is my take on the matter, and should not be taken as an official position of our organization. If you are interested in further discussion on this issue, please contact us, or look for me at our next general meeting!

The Two Democratic Parties

A little background on the division:

While the DNC incident is often cited as the source of the split, most of us know that there is a more deeply ideological difference at the root. On one side of the rift, we have “establishment Democrats” (though I doubt they refer to themselves as such), those thought to be centrist and corporatist, unwilling to take strongly progressive stances, unwilling to stand up to Republican bullies, and unwilling to refuse corporate donations. On the other side, we have the “Berniecrats,” seen as leftist extremists filled with fanciful ideas but no real solutions, as uncompromising idealists who divided the party when it most needed to be united. Oftentimes differentiated as “Hillary people” versus “Bernie people,” each side thinks the other betrayed the party. Both sides blame the other for Trump.

I have frequently seen it said that the differences between the two factions are irreconcilable. But is this division truly so firm? Is the Democratic Party now a centrist party? Must progressives now seek to establish (or join) a different, truly left-leaning party? I cannot answer these questions definitively, but I can talk a little about myself and the choices I have made. And I can speak, a little, about the type of people I have met since getting involved in the 31st LD Democrats a little over a year ago.

A little background on me:

To start, I must “confess” that of the two factions, I identify more as a “Berniecrat.” I was extremely excited about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, I caucused for him, and I was very sad when he did not win the Democratic nomination. And I was absolutely annoyed with the DNC when media reports of election tampering came out, but, honestly, I was annoyed before then. Because the things the party had been doing, the favoritism, the snubbing, were all already apparent throughout the primary. It was clear that powerful people were backing Clinton. It was clear that people in the media, people with money, corporations, were tacitly favoring her campaign over Sanders’s. And it was disheartening that, when such things were called out, the response from higher-ups in the DNC was to name-call Bernie supporters, and, worse, to accuse us of sabotaging the party and Hillary’s chances — all when the primary hadn’t yet been decided.

But when the primary was decided, I absolutely threw my support behind Hillary Clinton. And it wasn’t because I had been told to “fall in line.” It wasn’t because my identity as a Democrat is so strong that I felt it would be a betrayal of self not to vote the party line. It was because, when I read the 2016 party platform, I knew that this was still the party that best represents the political worldview that I would most like to see shape our country. It was because Hillary Clinton’s record  and stated priorities agreed with the policy I wanted to see enacted far more than those of any other candidate. And yes, the fact that I never had complete confidence that Trump wouldn’t win certainly guaranteed I would have voted against him even if I hadn’t wanted to vote for Clinton. But in this case, I absolutely did want to vote for her.

Moving forward:

But that’s all history now, as unfortunate as it is. What I want to talk about, really, is why the Democratic Party is (still) the party for progressives. The way I see it, there are three points to consider. First, that the Democratic Party, unlike the various other left-leaning 3rd parties, is a viable party. If it is possible to elect progressive candidates from within the party, then that is absolutely the most effective route and we ought to take it. Which leads to the second point of consideration: is the party, at its core, truly progressive, or is it centrist? Some “Bernie or bust” folks believe that the party is not ideologically progressive, and therefore it must be abandoned (even though doing so means accepting a less-viable route to election). I, however, thoroughly disagree with this assessment. If we look at the Democratic Party’s stated ideals and platform, if we take these statements at their word, then we must accept that the party is built on progressivism. And “Bernie or bust” folks, as well as “moderate Democrats,” have to recognize that, on the whole, we hold those ideals in common. Our major differences lie, instead, in how they are realized. Which leads me, finally, to the third consideration: how can we move forward as a unified party? If a “revolution” is required, must it be based on hard stances and lines in the sand, the result of a “hostile takeover”? The answer might be “yes” if it were true that the people who call themselves Democrats were all easily categorizable into one or the other of these factions. But the truth is, whether we identify more strongly with one side or the other, none of us hold identical ideological positions. We never have, and we have never wanted to. We are a party of individuals, not the Borg. We are bound together, not because we are the same, but because our many commonalities present powerful starting points where we can work together for progress. We must recognize that progressives, liberals, moderates, and Democrats of all banners can work together to redefine the party from the inside.

Who Decides What It Means To Be A Democrat?

Though the DNC is often perceived as a monolithic establishment (and, in truth, it has frequently been allowed to operate as one), the true character of the party is constantly being refined and redefined depending on the individuals who show up. If you want a progressive candidate, campaign for one, vote for one, be one. If you want to change the party, be the change in the party that you want to see. And nowhere is this more possible than at the Legislative District level.

The LD level of politics is unique in that it has a lot of influence while remaining extraordinarily accessible to regular citizens. The 31st LD covers a huge geographical area, and comprises nine cities and towns. We have the ability to sway tens of thousands of voters. We are responsible for a State Senate and a State House seat, positions which have immense influence over the character of our state’s law and order. The 31st LD Dems is the political body responsible for electing progressives to these seats. As well, we are responsible for helping to elect progressives to other local seats, on councils, boards, judiciaries, and more. We have, for lack of a better word, a lot of power. And yet, when I started attending 31st LD Dems meetings just over a year ago, the entire organization seemed to rest in the hands of approximately two dozen people. This small concentration of “power” was not intentionally elitist, however. On the contrary, everyone was more than happy to welcome newcomers. In fact, there were far more positions to be filled than there were (and are) people to fill them. I did not have to pass a test of allegiance to the Democratic Party in order to have a voice; I simply had to show up. And I found that the people I met there were not mini-Debbie Wasserman Schultzes. They did not carry around “establishment” cards. They did not receive and promote Party directives from on high; they were simply my neighbors. When they spoke, they espoused a variety of opinions. They were Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters, and the issues they most cared about ran the gamut of liberal causes, from LGBTQ issues, to healthcare, to workers’ rights, to campaign finance reform, to a wide range of opinions on guns. They were “moderate” Democrats and “socialists.” And, while they sometimes disagreed, they listened to each other.

When I started attending meetings, I suddenly found that I went from having no influence over my district to having a lot of influence. Not only have I become a PCO responsible for my precinct (a position which I accepted reluctantly, at first, because no one else had volunteered), but I have become the Newsletter Chair, and I sit on the e-board, and I am a member of many committees. To be honest, I have probably overcommitted. But overcommitment in our organization is common, because there is a lot of work to be done, and still not enough people to do it. More than ever, I am in a position to influence the direction of the Democratic Party: as a dues-paying member of the 31st LD Dems, I have a vote on which candidates and positions we endorse (we recently endorsed Keith Ellison for DNC Chair, by the way). As a PCO, I had a voice in the election of the King County and Pierce County Dems Chairs earlier this year. As a member of our LD’s e-board, I frequently interact with influential people in our state’s Democratic Party. Me. Just a concerned progressive living in a reddish-purple district in Washington state. I am part of the fabric that makes up the Washington State Democrats.

So, what is my relationship to the DNC? Am I responsible for its decisions? Does the DNC speak for me? Yes and no. Rather, I’d say I speak for the DNC. It is up to me to show up and be the change I want to see in the party. And if you are a progressive in this country, you ought to, too.