The Bruises of the Democratic Party

by | Oct 19, 2015 | Atticus On The Trail, Creative Nonfiction, Politics

STATESBORO, GEORGIA – Real palpable trouble is brewing in the Democratic Party and it’s been fermenting since the 1960s. Not since the ascendancy of George McGovern have we seen a power struggle in the DNC this explosive and undeniable.

At the heart of the matter is a foregone conclusion that no longer looks as foregone or conclusive as it did a year and a half ago when the party put into place its current machinery to make Hillary Clinton’s coronation as the first female President of the United States go as smoothly as possible. Now we are seeing a power struggle that isn’t just about current chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s leadership, but rather a fundamental divide in vision that has plagued the party since the rise of the Counterculture and Civil Rights Movement, a division that’s playing out in the battle between Clinton and insurgent Bernie Sanders, but has been there far longer than any stalwart would like to admit.

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The trouble first came to light following Tuesday night’s Democratic Debate, the first of six agreed-upon occasions. There’ve been criticisms, primarily from the Martin O’Malley campaign, as to why there aren’t more, particularly in comparison to the overwhelming number of Republican clashes. O’Malley’s concerns have gained little traction until Tulsi Gabbard, Representative from Hawaii and one of five DNC vice-chairs, took to cable news this week and told everyone who would listen she had been disinvited from the debate due to her shared concern.

Disagreement between party leadership is as old as parties themselves, but the story took a new and more problematic turn as another vice-chair, the former mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Ryback, joined Gabbard in criticizing Wasserman Schultz, going so far as to accuse her of telling out-and-out lies regarding the debate process. Simultaneously, cracks are showing and anonymous sources talking. A large portion of Democratic insiders are now telling journalists around the country that the DNC has made it clear to its members that the party’s weight is, and always has been, behind Clinton’s candidacy.

Currently, the clash consists of former Clinton confidants and insiders, collectively referred to as Clinton World among the initiated, like Wasserman Schulz and Vice-Chair Donna Brazile, a longtime Clinton cohort who has worked for nearly every establishment campaign since Bill and Hillary came to D.C., and the rising stars of what I like to call the New New Left, a conglomerate of Internet-age liberals that has managed to earn a share of the controls via its mastery of technology. The latter group first came to prominence following Howard Dean’s failed-but-innovative run in 2004, a campaign that both instilled new life in the long-distrusted tag “liberal” and first harnessed the messaging and fundraising capabilities of burgeoning social-media.

The dispute isn’t new as this is the type of turf war we see every four years when the primary process hits its stride, but it is fresh in its possibilities as never before have the establishment Democrats needed the New New Left so badly, and never has the New New Left needed the establishment less.

Well, unless you want to talk about McGovern.

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There’s no shortage of books written on the 1972 Presidential Campaign because, quite frankly, it was one of the weirdest and most unpredictable contests the country has ever seen. Because of a convergence of factors, among them the Vietnam War, public unrest, and rapidly changing demographics, that field was built and ready for absolute pandemonium.

Originally the frontrunner to contest President Richard Nixon was party establishment favorite Ed Muskie, a New England bureaucrat who exemplified all the principles of Democrats in the mid-20th Century. He was compassionate but tough, hopeful but pragmatic, a descendant of FDR less concerned with utopias and more enamored with JFK’s long-heralded sensibilities. At his back was the entire strength of the Democratic Party, including kingmaker Richard Daley, the long ballyhooed mayor of Chicago who’d directed the party via a series of backroom deals since the late Fifties. Undoubtedly, he was the choice for the nod, but Senator George McGovern of South Dakota wrecked that plan.

The purported candidate of Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion, McGovern was an unapologetic liberal who spoke softly and refused to apologize for towing ideological lines. When he opposed the Vietnam War, much like Sanders stood up in the face of the Invasion of Iraq, he called into question the very soul of his country. As a candidate he marshaled the power of a new class of voters, the young college students who flocked to his rallies and volunteered in record numbers, much like Howard Dean’s “Perfect Storm” that flooded Iowa in the Winter of 2004. And when he eventually overtook Muskie for the nomination, the DNC actively sought to undermine the legitimacy of their primary process and attempted to steal the ’72 Convention with a series of parliamentary procedures.

McGovern won, but ultimately failed. In the general election he was destroyed by Nixon to the tune of 49 states to one, a bloodbath of historic proportions made possible by a series of mishandlings and a total lack of DNC support. The party turning their back on their insurgent nominee should’ve been the death of the movement itself, but the betrayal was so potent and unabashed that, forty-some years later, the bruises still linger.

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Bill Clinton is many things, but undeniably he is one of the best person-to-person campaigners in the history of retail politics. Though he has gone on to be a globe-trotting iconoclast for one of the most successful and globally-active foundations in the history of the world, he began life as a good ol’ boy from Hope, Arkansas, and cultivated a personal charm that has raised tens of billions of dollars, won him the governorship of his home state and two terms as one of the most important presidents of the 20th Century, cemented a legacy of import and persuasion, and solidified an establishment that effectively evolved the party around him.

These things are inarguable, but just as the world is getting smaller via the Internet, it’s also changing the landscape of what politics is. In the past it was a handshake, a look in the eyes, an assurance that Politician X understood you, that Politician X had your best interests at heart. The truth of the 21st Century, with readily-available stimulation and rampant social-media is that the eye-to-eye matters less than ever. What candidates need now is foundation and machinery, a platform that both raises funds and plays to the expectations of a class of people more concerned with what their support of a politician says about them than what the politician intends to do.

This revolution has its roots in Joe Trippi, the mastermind of the Dean Campaign who pioneered the social-networking approach we all know today. It’s the reason why Democrats have succeeded so wildly on the national level and why Barack Obama won two terms in the White House despite enjoying some of the most paltry approval numbers of any modern president. The money he raised and the turnout he achieved made both elections afterthoughts as the real battle was never at the ballot but at the keyboard.

The reason Hillary lost to Obama had less to do with policy or debate performance or even state-by-state machinery, but instead because Obama embraced the language of the Internet. People sharing statuses, pictures of themselves at rallies, pinning stickers to their walls or Pinterest boards is about personality politics, about self-identification, and Clinton has never been able to establish herself as a presence on that plane. It’s a generational divide the Clintons, who are solidly Baby Boomers, cannot fully understand.

The Democratic Party knows this well and first extended an olive branch by bringing Howard Dean in as their chair in early 2005. The decision to embrace Dean led to the strategy that would eventually make Obama the first African-American president and more than likely ensure at least three consecutive terms going forward. It’s a strategy that effectively cut the Republicans at the knees because the GOP, much like the baby boom establishment, has been slow to understand the possibilities of Internet campaigning and has been thus vulnerable.

The rift in the DNC, which could reach fever pitch in the next few weeks as the issue gains momentum and Joe Biden, who’s been able to straddle sides as both an establishment candidate and Obama’s heir, mulls a run. Biden’s decision will rely on which direction the winds of change are pointing and whether he can somehow make room between the divisions and poach supporters from Sanders and Clinton alike. Meanwhile, Wasserman Schultz could possibly keep her position but lose all power as the Internet liberal community has already turned to Sanders and effectively eschewed Clinton. Following the debate Tuesday night, which most pundits awarded to Clinton, Bernie lapped her in social-media follows, mentions, and memes, a growing batch of statistics that might have more to do with outcomes than any poll in the field.

There’s no denying there’s a revolution coming, that it’s always been coming, it’s simply a matter of how long it takes to get here and who’s left standing when it does.

Photo: Bernie Sanders for President by Phil Roeder

About The Author

Jared Yates Sexton

A born and bred Hoosier, Jared Yates Sexton is the author of An End to All Things (2012, Atticus Books), The Hook and the Haymaker (2015, Split Lip Press), and Bring Me the Head of Yorkie Goodman (2015, New Pulp Press). He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.