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Progressives Have Won the Battle for the Soul for the Democratic Party, But We Must Up Our Game to Turn Progressive Values Into Public Policy

05/26/2015 07:46 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

There has been a flurry of recent commentary about the "battle" between the Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren wings of the Democratic Party -- a supposed contest for the party's soul.

But by and large, the battle for control for the ideological center of the Democratic Party has been settled -- and it is likely that Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren were never the real protagonists.

There are still pro-Wall Street, corporatist -- and even socially conservative -- elements in the Democratic coalition. But the center of the Party has consolidated around progressive principles as never before with respect to economic, social and foreign policy.

There may be some differences in style and emphasis, but it's hard to tell the difference between a Clinton speech and a Warren speech when it comes to most economic questions -- and particularly when it comes to the overarching narrative.

There is increasing consensus in the Democratic Party leadership and rank and file with respect to the reasons why the incomes of ordinary Americans have flat-lined even though the economy has grown.

And there is increasing consensus in the Democratic Party with respect to the solutions.

You might summarize the emerging Democratic economic consensus something like this:

Since the disastrous Great Recession, our economy has been going in the right direction under President Obama's leadership, but we need to make sure that average Americans benefit when it grows.

That means that we have to reform government so that it works for average Americans, not wealthy special interests.

Too many politicians have given in to the power of lobbyists for big business and the wealthy, and changed the rules to make it easier for companies to lay off workers, get rid of unions, raid pension funds, ship jobs overseas, and keep wages low.

Corporate CEOs and billionaires keep getting new tax breaks, while average Americans struggle to provide for their families. Ordinary people have seen their incomes flat-line because politicians have stacked the deck against middle class people in favor of the rich. As a result CEOs who used to make 20 times what they paid their workers and not make almost 300 times what they pay their workers. And the Wall Street bankers and speculators continue to get bigger and bigger bonuses -- even though the recklessness of the big Wall Street banks wrecked the economy and caused the Great Recession.

Instead, our government we should focus on improving the incomes of average Americans, not creating loopholes and subsidies for big corporations. If you work hard and play by the rules in this country, you should be paid enough to live on and support your family, and retire securely. A thriving middle class isn't just the result of a strong economy -- it builds a strong economy. When average people have money in their pockets, we are able to support local businesses and the economy grows.

We should use tax dollars to build roads and create jobs, instead of tax breaks for millionaires.

And we should get big money out of politics -- government should help level the playing field, not rig the system for the powerful.

That's a powerful narrative and it isn't just supported by most Democrats -- it is resonant with most Americans.

The same goes for social policy. Twenty years ago issues like immigration reform, reproductive choice, gay marriage -- even civil rights -- were wedge issues inside the Democratic Party. No longer.

Today banners supporting immigration reform, abortion rights, gay marriage and voting rights are proudly displayed at Democratic Conventions. Instead these issues are all wedge issues inside the Republican Party.

And the same can be said for foreign policy. No serious leader of the Democratic Party supports another ground war in the Middle East. There is virtual unanimity that the Iraq War was a horrible mistake that kicked over the sectarian hornets' nest and created the conditions leading to the problems we have today -- especially the rise of ISIL.

The only area of major policy division in the Democratic Party today is trade, and even there most of the Democratic Party has united around a consensus position that is very skeptical of trade deals that increase the power of large corporations and drag down the wages of American workers.

In fact, in the last 30 years, we have rarely seen such consensus on policy inside the Democratic Party -- and the progressive coalition at its core. One reason is that most Americans when asked agree with virtually all of these positions.

The Democratic economic narrative outpolls the Republican narrative almost two to one. The same is true for virtually every one of these positions.

But if that's true, why do Republicans control both Houses of Congress? Why is the Presidential race still a contest in 2016?

The answer is that while Democrats clearly reflect the positions of most of the American electorate, Republicans have three critical structural advantages.

To take back Congress, win the presidency and create the progressive future that is supported by most Americans, Democrats must first minimize or eliminate each of those structural advantages over the next two years -- and the next 10 years.

The Big Three

1). Turn Out. Republicans have a distinct structural advantage when it comes to turnout. Republican base voters are generally more upscale economically than base Democratic voters. That makes them more likely to turn out to the polls -- especially in Mid-Terms.

A portion of that advantage has been neutralized by far superior Democratic field operations - especially in Presidential years.

Part of the advantage will also be overcome by demographics. GOP base voters skew older, whiter and less urban. Younger millennial voters are substantially more prone to vote Democratic than older voters. The same is true of non-white and urban voters as a whole.

These groups -- and especially Hispanics and other recent immigrant groups -- are growing every year as a percentage of the population while GOP base voter cohorts are shrinking.

But in the end, Democrats must focus on energizing and motivating these base voters. There is no more important task for ensuring that the progressive consensus is actually converted into progressive policy.

2). Redistricting. From 2000 on, Republicans did a much better job than Democrats addressing the nuts and bolts of redistricting.

They focused in on winning key state legislative contests and the governor's mansions of important swing states. As a result, by 2012 in many states substantially more voters supported Democratic candidates for Congress, but the shape of the newly-drawn Congressional Districts gave many more seats to Republicans than Democrats.

Democrats can't afford to let this happen again. That's why former Congressman Mark Schauer has been appointed to what amounts to redistricting Czar of the Democratic Party to muster all of our resources and focus our energies on preparing for the next redistricting battle following the 2020 census.

In the meantime we must challenge unfair districts in court -- especially pursuing civil rights claims. And we must press for passage of an improved Voting Rights Act that can help undo some of the damage done by unfairly drawn Congressional and legislative maps.

3). Big Money. The Supreme Court's Citizens United Decision gives a huge structural advantage to the .001%'s attempts to prevent the enactment of progressive policies and move America back to the Gilded Age.

That in turn mightily benefits the GOP.

Ending this structural advantage will ultimately require one of two developments:

  • Passage of a Constitutional Amendment of the sort endorsed by Hillary Clinton, or;
  • Appointment of new Supreme Court justices that will reverse Citizens United.
Until one of these two things occurs, Democrats must take action to ameliorate and offset this critical GOP structural advantage.

The continued development of robust on-line small donor fundraising operations is the most important means available. Almost three-fourths of the Obama Campaign's billion dollar budget came from small on-line donors.

Passage of a bill to amplify small donations with federal matching for candidates that eschew large donor fundraising would also massively change the playing field.

Finally, the cultivation of progressive large donor fundraising -- work that is going on through the Democracy Alliance and Committee on the States -- is crucial.

At the same time Democrats work to neutralize and limit the impact of the big three GOP structural advantages, our most powerful weapon is the fact that most Americans agree with Democratic values and policy priorities. And the last thing we need to do is back away from them, or "moderate" our positions.

Progressive Democratic priorities are the priorities of most ordinary Americans.

Standing up straight for those progressive principles -- and passionately advocating them -- is also the best way to mobilize our voters to go out and vote. And we have to remember that in discussing those principles we must always talk about our values -- not mainly policies and programs but right and wrong.

And of course we have to remember that voters ultimately cast their ballots for people -- real flesh and blood candidates, not policies and programs -- not even progressive principles.

Democrats need to support, cultivate and encourage great candidates for office at every level -- by developing and backing strong candidates for state and local office. And by recruiting great candidates at the Federal level.

In 2016 we are likely to be blessed with the opportunity to elect the first woman President of the United States. That will ignite women voters -- and young voters, the same way that the opportunity to elect the first African American President ignited African American and young voters in 2008 and 2012.

And in the end, when those candidates actually take office, we have to help them deliver -- to get stuff done. Voters don't just want talk. They want action. And if they don't get it from Democrats many will try the other side.

That's why it is so important that even though many Progressives disagree with the President on his trade proposals, we work like crazy to support President Obama's Executive Actions on the many issues where we have consensus -- like overtime pay, sentencing reform, family and medical leave, immigration reform, policing, climate change, the minimum wage for Federal Contractors, and the Iran nuclear deal.

There are obstacles in the road. But fundamentally, we have arrived at a potentially progressive moment in America -- a moment when a true progressive consensus has begun to form in the Democratic Party and among the voters. If we take advantage of that moment, we could look back at 2016 not as some showdown between wings of the Democratic coalition, but as a progressive tipping point in American history.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.