If Republicans seem hysterical for bemoaning their imminent doom despite controlling the House of Representatives, what are we to make of Democrats, fresh from re-electing President Obama, debating "How to Save the Democratic Party?" That's what a group of writers are doing in the current issue of The Nation. The discussion is led by the pseudonymous "L.R. Runner," who charges into the topic by telling progressives: "The Democratic Party, as now constituted, is no longer an agency for realizing their ideals." The party that controls the White House and the Senate "has shown itself to be incapable of providing the moral imperatives, policy ideas, broad popular support or elected officials necessary to lead the nation" out of an economic crisis for which Democrats' own complicity is "only somewhat less than that of Republicans."
"Runner" makes the usual progressive arguments: Democrats are too willing to accommodate and compromise; they're in thrall to wealthy donors; they don't really believe in the good old New Deal and Great Society principles anymore. All true, of course, but what is to be done? Runner says "the time has come for a showdown -- if necessary, even a parting of the ways -- between the reformist and accommodationist wings of the Democratic party." This showdown should result in "a real second party representing authentic interests, as befits a democracy." This would be "an unapologetically partisan Democratic Party committed to adapting the populist, progressive, and liberal principles of the New Deal and Great Society." I'm not sure whether "populist" is a neat fit with "progressive" and "liberal," -- populism tends to be an excluding frame of mind -- but you get the idea. This "transformed" Democratic party would be committed to much of what The Nation already supports, believing quite admirably that "The overriding purpose of government of, by and for the people is to assure all citizens not an equal but a fair opportunity (since there is no equality of birth, circumstances or ability) to realize their hopes and potential....Whenever and wherever the private sector does not provide these basic human rights, a truly representative democratic government must do so."
Our mystery writer differs from recent Nation writers who've argued that the way to push Democrats in the right (that is, "left") direction is through activist pressure from the grassroots. While Runner praises grassroots movements for their inspirational effect, "they cannot play the necessary role" in transforming the Democratic party. "In a country as vast and diverse as the United States, and in the American political system, only a nationwide party -- again, not an ineffectual third party but an effective second one -- can mobilize the support to elect a president and Congress needed for transformational change." Activism from the outside won't suffice; the Democratic party must be seized and occupied. In Runner's opinion, that is the only option. The so-called "democratic wing of the Democratic party," says Runner, "must liberate itself by occupying and transforming the Democratic Party, as insurgents have done in other co-opted parties that have outlived their historical mission -- even if this means bipartisan Democrats leaving to become Republicans or go into the third-party wilderness."
We see here how far Runner will go, and it isn't far enough. The writer's contempt for third parties on principle is plain enough. Runner is willing to risk driving "Blue Dogs" and other unprogressive Democrats out of the party, but is not willing to take a chance on a progressive exodus from an unreconstructed Democracy. In Runner's imagination there can't be a "real second party" in a multi-party system. Readers may infer that a progressive bolt must not happen no matter how often progressives fail to take control of the party. Runner, at least, wants nothing to do with the "wilderness," even if he does implicitly accept the risk of throwing some elections to Republicans by driving moderates into the GOP embrace. If that happens, Runner would be able to blame the moderates, but Runner may be unwilling to accept blame from moderate Democrats for causing the party's defeat by bolting. In any event, the options presented boil down to victory or submission, which is where progressive Democrats have been for the last generation. The only real step forward, no matter how scary, is a step away from the Democratic party. If that isn't an option, or a threat, then Runner's recommendations are worthless. Anyone who identifies as a progressive first and a Democrat second should think less about "How to Save the Democratic Party" than about saving themselves and their country.