In Search of the Democratic Soul

05/29/2015 01:10 am ET | Updated May 28, 2016

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A Google search for the phrase "soul of the Democratic Party" yields thousands of hits, because the struggle for that soul has been a perennial subject of debate. I've probably used the phrase myself.

But after a week spent tracking the independent left's political progress, I've become even more convinced that politicians should seek the soul of the country instead. Tap into that, and the rest will follow.

Still, the debate over the Democratic soul continues. Political strategist Robert Creamer said this week that progressives have already won it. He dismisses the notion of a split between the party's "Hillary Clinton" and "Elizabeth Warren" wings, and says Democrats now largely agree on economic problems and their solutions.

"There are still pro-Wall Street, corporatist -- and even socially conservative -- elements in the Democratic coalition," Creamer acknowledges. But, he says, "it's hard to tell the difference between a Clinton speech and a Warren speech when it comes to most economic questions -- and particularly ... the overarching narrative."

Is he right?

Much of his argument rings true. It's true that voters are embracing progressive ideas, and that economic populism has become the dominant tone in Democratic politics. That's a striking victory for the left, as well as a major boost for the party. It was a watershed moment, for example, when virtually all Senate Democrats supported the Social Security expansion proposal introduced by Warren and Sen. Joe Manchin. And it's true that Clinton has adopted economic rhetoric which is Warren-like, at least in tone.

The difference lies in policy specifics, especially on critical economic issues: Warren offers them. So far, Clinton hasn't. Clinton has yet to indicate, for example, whether she supports or opposes the fast-track bill. Or Sen. Bernie Sanders' bill to break up the big banks. Or the proposal to provide four years of publicly-funded higher education. (She does support Obama's tuition-free community college plan.)

Secretary Clinton isn't alone. Many other prominent Democrats are keeping silent on these vital issues. Some continue to push for more military spending. Some supported the "Citigroup amendment" slipped into last December's budget measure, a move which benefited only the biggest banks. Others have joined with Republicans to push economy-killing austerity measures.

The progressive victories are welcome. But as long as these disappointments continue, more Democratic soul-searching is presumably needed.

What isn't needed are more disingenuous, partisan op-eds like Republican Peter Wehner's "Have Democrats Pulled Too Far Left?" Wehner cherry-picked polling data and policies to conclude, rather unsurprisingly, that they have.

He's missing the point. What matters most isn't how people label themselves, or whether they say they "trust" one party more in any given area. The issues matter most. On that score, polls show that Democrats haven't moved far enough to the left.

Large majorities, across the political spectrum, want to expand Social Security, end pro-corporate trade deals, crack down on Wall Street, and raise taxes for corporations and the wealthy. (See for more.)

Who will speak for these voters? To win them, or even get them to the polls at all, Democrats will need to do better on the issues that matter.

Wall Street? Yes, President Obama backed the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. But he failed to prosecute bailed-out bankers, even after the worst white-collar crime spree in modern memory -- a spree which continues to this day.

Corporate trade? The president is aggressively pushing a deal which would undermine key Dodd-Frank provisions -- and is disliked by voters from left to right. The president claims it's a "progressive" measure that would improve the lives of workers worldwide. But he's relying on Rep. Paul Ryan to block an anti-slavery amendment, something which wouldn't be needed in a genuinely worker-friendly agreement. And it's another NAFTA-esque job-killer.

Thirteen Democrats voted for fast-track last week. Democrats risk being tarred with this lousy deal for a generation.

And more battles are coming. Where will these Dems stand on the investment needed to repair our crumbling infrastructure -- and the taxes on the wealthy to pay for it?

Where will they stand on the fight over climate change, which will determine the fate of the planet?

Where will they stand on adequate funding for public schools?

Where will they stand on systemic racism and the crisis of our cities?

Where will they stand on our runaway military budget and NSA spying? Remember, Barack Obama was elected as an antiwar candidate.

And where will they stand on overturning Citizens United and ending the legalized corruption which is destroying our democracy?

Voters are looking for politicians who will stand with them -- with action and commitment, not vague rhetorical nostrums. And they're angry, so Elizabeth Warren's anger resonates with them.

Progressive Democrats are often advised not to challenge their party's leaders too firmly, because the Republican alternative is so terrible. "It is vital (for) Dems to figure out how to maintain maximum unity," writes Ed Kilgore, "even as they disagree." Similarly, independent progressives are often told it would be "irresponsible" not to vote for Democrats, even those of the Wall Street variety.

Democrats should be wooing progressives, not scolding them. By appealing to left-wing voters, Democrats will also be winning over the many Republicans and independents who agree with them on a broad range of issues.

The best way to find the soul of the Democratic Party is by seeking out the small-d "democratic" soul instead -- that voice of the majority which so often goes unheard in today's money-driven politics.

It can be found by speaking, in an unwavering voice, for the millions of voters who seek concrete solutions to their problems: stagnating wages, unaffordable education, a disappearing middle-class, racism, war, and crumbling roads and bridges. It can be found by speaking to their needs, their hopes, their idealism -- and yes, their anger.

Democrats who do that will surely find the soul of their party. And they just might find their own.