Public Comment

Reforming the Democratic Party?

By Harry Brill
Thursday December 10, 2009 - 09:28:00 AM

It is already apparent that any health bill approved by Congress will provide fewer benefits at a higher cost than health systems in any other industrialized nation. Although it is clear that the considerable clout of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries frustrate our ability to achieve a progressive health care law, we nevertheless need to know more about how political power intervenes to the advantage of corporations. Keep in mind that the health care issue serves as only one example of the high success rate achieved by business. But though we cannot stop corporations from trying, we can influence the conduct of legislative bodies. In crafting a political strategy also keep in mind that gains are made not only after we achieve our objectives. Working toward what we seek to accomplish begins the process of reshaping our social and political environment.  

Direct action strategies, although very important, will not generally succeed unless they set in motion a process that reforms how Congress conducts its business and creates a political atmosphere favorable to electing a substantial number of progressive candidates It is important to understand that the Democratic Party is the majority party only nominally. There is another more significant majority that has political clout. In the House, it is made up of a coalition of Republicans, who vote as a block, plus conservative Democrats—so called “blue dogs”—which make up over 20 percent of the Democrats.  

The blame for this abysmal state of affairs rests in part on the Obama Administration. The conservative Rahm Emanuel, who President Obama awarded the important post as Chief of Staff, identified, recruited, and funded conservative candidates seeking congressional seats.  

In contrast, Bill Durston, a liberal congressional candidate in California, who supports single payer, received no campaign funds from the Democratic Party except a miserly $2100 on Nov. 3, just a day before election. Durston ran against a right wing Republican in what was predicted as a very close election. But clearly, Rahm Emmanuel and other conservative leaders in the Democratic Party preferred a reactionary Republican to a very liberal Democrat.  

We can learn something from Franklin D. Roosevelt who believed that unlike the Republicans the Democratic Party should be a party of liberals. FDR really meant it. In the 1938 congressional election, Roosevelt actively campaigned against five conservative Democrats. He was vilified in the press for attempting to conduct a “purge.” Unlike President Obama, he was not afraid of making enemies in high places. There is no way around this. After complaining in a speech about the danger of government by organized money, he stated, “They are unanimous in their hate of me—and I welcome their hatred”  

Still, we should go one step further than Roosevelt and quite a few more than Obama. To defeat conservatives in the Democratic or Republican party, we should nurture and support candidates that are not affiliated with either party, whether they run as independents or third party candidates. Failing to do that robs us of any leverage because the party leadership realizes we have nowhere else to go. The proposal being made here is not to permanently desert the Democratic Party. Rather, our commitment should be conditional to assure that the Party pays more attention to progressives than to the corporate community.  

In the Bay Area there are several Democratic Party clubs doing very useful work on issues and in supporting progressive candidates in the primaries. But there is a serious shortcoming. If a local Democratic Party organization supports a non-Democrat over a Democratic Party candidate, its charter could be revoked. So Goliath continues to enjoy an important advantage because David is deprived of a sling shot. But there is nothing to stop members of Democratic Party clubs from working outside their clubs on behalf of progressive candidates. We also have to figure out how to undermine the institutional bribery that influences voting patterns in the House and Senate. The Washington D.C. based institute, Public Citizen, found that since 1998, 43 percent of all members of Congress who left office returned as lobbyists.  

The current laws on the books prohibit members of congress and staff from taking lobbying jobs immediately after they leave Congress. But as the record shows, these weak laws have been easily circumvented. Vigorous efforts have to be made to continually expose the problem to the public. It is imperative that we undertake a major educational campaign that challenges the immoral and outrageous conduct of legislators. Second, we must demand an air tight law that is legally binding which prohibits ex-members of Congress from accepting lobbying jobs. Meanwhile, any candidate running for office should in exchange for our support be willing to make such a pledge. This may all seem very stringent. But remember, we’re talking about building a democracy and not securing jobs for public officials at the expense of the public. We have to demand much more than we do now. Let us not succumb to a poverty of low expectations. 


Harry Brill is an El Cerrito resident.