Great Party, Brutal Hangover—Why Democrats Should Reject Their Donor Class
As the parties have given up on their core functions, wealthy donors with ideological agendas have filled the void they’ve left.
Democrats suffered losses up and down the ballot on Nov. 8, bolstering Republican dominance of both national and state governments. A presidential campaign launched with high hopes wound up adding to the party’s demoralizing string of defeats in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Outside of a candidate named Barack Obama, Democrats have not had much success on election days since 2008.
The party needs to change, but how? Media attention has focused on the race between competing factions to take over the Democratic National Committee. The press will obsessively cover the “dramatic” picking of a party chair in Atlanta this weekend, where 447 voters will choose the new superhero to return the party to power.
It’s the wrong battle, though, because the DNC cannot be the instrument for the party’s revival. Thanks to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, the national parties have lost power to the growing role of outside money. Formal party structures have become empty vessels overshadowed by external ideological networks of wealthy individuals and organizations on the right and left.
For Democrats the real power resides in a growing “progressive network” lavishly funded by a handful of super-rich individuals, mostly in New York and California. If Democrats really want to get back on a winning track, they will have to rebuild state operations and reclaim their party from the liberal donor class—especially the Democracy Alliance (DA) that has built ideological silos of interest groups that silence the dialogue elected officials need to engage in.
Like its Republican counterpart, the DNC gives almost no money to candidates anymore, yet it sucks up a massive amount of cash to sustain itself and prepare for the next presidential campaign in 2020. The DNC does not do policy work outside of crafting the party platform that no voter in America pays attention to and no candidate defines himself or herself on the basis of.
The DNC is now basically a fundraising committee that throws one hell of a party it calls a nominating convention every four years. With fewer voters associating themselves with either party, traditional party structures are collapsing and the donor class on both the left and right is usurping their role. Voters in November made it clear they are not seeking answers from inside the Beltway, so why are Democrats so focused on an archaic Washington institution like the DNC?
Since 2001, national party committees have outsourced their traditional functions: building voter rolls, running ads, and all other activities people think the DNC still performs. Parties cannot and will never have control over the policy debate, because of the change in election law. It has no ability to pick winners or losers for elections, despite outrage from Bernie Sanders supporters.
If you want evidence of the death of national political parties, ask yourself, did anybody at the Republican National Committee want Donald Trump to be the nominee in 2016? They would have stopped him if they could.
What the party committees used to focus on was winning. Party leaders accepted the fact that Elizabeth Warren could not win a race in Alabama, nor could Pete Sessions be elected to the Senate in Massachusetts. The DNC and RNC worked to have the infrastructure in place to help in the general election after local voters chose candidates in primaries. This process worked. It allowed candidates to reflect the ideals and concerns of a region in an organic way—a way that candidates reflected the needs of those voting for them and not the needs of a few wealthy elites or the Washington, D.C., establishment.
The handing over of party functions to the donor class has ended that process and led to the litany of ideological purity tests the far right and far left demand.
Say a Democratic candidate in North Dakota represents the booming energy sector that has led to well-paying jobs and economic growth across the state. These jobs building pipelines and driving big trucks in and out of the state are solid middle-class opportunities for the working class. But a Democrat running in North Dakota is handcuffed in their ability to embrace the good coming from the economic boom, as they will be seen as not “pure” on clean energy, as the DA donor class demands.
This lack of dialogue is exactly what the voters on Nov. 8 rejected.
Forget the battle for the best party planner this weekend. Democrats need to focus on loosening the donor class’s control of the party infrastructure and rebuild via new candidates and stronger state parties. Allow local elected Democrats to return our party to success, give them the tools and resources to do that, but don’t rely on a hamstrung national party or a handful of well-funded liberal coastal elites demanding one-size-fits-all-Democrats identity politics.
The focus this weekend in Atlanta at the DNC meeting should not be about the next party chair but about the DNC, big donors, grassroots, and others directly funding state parties and allowing them to find ways to win outside of control from Washington, D.C. Funding the Wisconsin Democratic Party is a better bet than funding the DNC, and funding the Democratic Party of Alabama is a better bet than funding Black Lives Matter.
Lindsay Mark Lewis, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, is a former finance director of the DNC.