Is Party Unity Even Possible Between Progressives and Corporate Democrats? Just Ask Iowa

Screenshot via C-SPAN

The modern-day progressive movement that is currently so active seems to have both adopted a new shape and then taken off quickly in 2003 in Iowa, when presidential candidate Gov. Howard Dean, the former Democratic governor of Vermont, spent much of that pre-election year rounding up support in the state. The progressive movement that coalesced around Dean, proudly wearing the label “Deaniac” (a reflection of its almost frenzied, maniacal support for Dean and his outspoken truth telling), had come from a mixture of anti-war voters, moderates from both parties, and, as Dean defined it, those who considered themselves to be socially tolerant and fiscally pragmatic.

This new incarnation of the progressive movement did not define itself as a top-down, corporate Democratic form of politics; rather, the Deaniacs were grassroots all the way, including their sources of funding. Dean for America, as the campaign organization was called, was largely financed through small individual contributions made by regular people who ate ramen for lunch and saved their pennies in order to contribute to the cause. It was the first time in presidential campaign history that a campaign had been financed online by the people.

These activists were a powerful force and simply would not fall in line with the John Kerry camp at the state convention in June 2004. As some Dean delegates saw it, the Iowa Democratic Party did its best to quash their enthusiasm and stifle their ability to participate, ultimately to disenfranchise them at state, which was par for the course at the time. This included not allowing the Dean, Dennis Kucinich, and undeclared delegates to caucus to discuss strategy, which could have led to an extra Dean delegate, and sending the Dean delegates out of the room and then voting without them. The Dean delegates were ignored and requests for information on procedure were withheld. (See Dave Inbody’s angry description of the state convention and additional comments from participants here.)

Some activists see a similar story playing out within the Democratic Party now. For example, Norman Solomon, a longtime media critic and anti-war activist, has argued that the Democratic National Committee’s current chairman, Tom Perez, is a pro-corporate Clintonite who’s all talk and no real action when it comes to uniting the progressives and the establishment.

After the 2016 presidential election left the party so divided, the DNC set up a Unity Reform Commission but did not follow through by getting the word out, leaving the grassroots out in the cold, and eventually, in December 2017, the commission came to an end. Some good suggestions were made, such as slashing the number of superdelegates who vote during a presidential election year, aiming instead for something closer to a one person, one vote policy. But before this can be adopted by the DNC, it has to pass through the powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee. Unfortunately for progressives, Perez purged several committees, including Rules, of Bernie Sanders supporters. For the suggested change to be enacted, the 400 voting members of the DNC would have to approve it in late fall of 2018.

“Serious problems require serious internal debate. But all too often, calls for ‘party unity’ are just a way to suppress that essential debate.”

At this point, it looks like the DNC is going to stick to its dysfunctional strategy of looking out for corporate interests to keep its funding, keeping its equally dysfunctional top-down form of organization, and trying to recruit Republicans to join the Democratic Party. The national Democrats seem to think that trying to pry voters away from the Republicans and being completely dismissive of a highly-activated progressive base inside their own party is actually a strategy that can work, even though it never has in the past.

Recently, the Informer spoke to Evan Burger, an occasional contributor and a political activist who worked as a senior staffer on the Bernie Sanders campaign and is currently a senior organizer at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and he roundly concurred.

“There’s no question that the Democratic Party is currently in dire straits,” said Burger. “We all know the statistics: Democrats have lost a thousand state legislative seats since 2009, have the fewest seats in the House since the 1940s, and somehow managed to lose the presidency to the least popular candidate in modern history.

“These are serious problems,” Burger continued. “Clearly, business-as-usual politics isn’t working — and serious problems require serious internal debate. But all too often, calls for ‘party unity’ are just a way to suppress that essential debate. I think having numerous competing visions and strategies is actually a sign of a healthy party, and should be encouraged.”

The current Iowa Democratic Party actually agrees with Burger’s statement. IDP Executive Director Kevin Geiken told the Informer recently that with every election that does not go well, the IDP typically does a post-mortem to figure out what went wrong. After the 2016 election, the IDP immediately got out into the field and set up a series of “listening tours” to get in touch with their base all across the state. They also partnered with Dave Loebsack, the only Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation, on a program called Building Blocks, visiting 23 cities to get feedback, building up county parties, and talking to activists.

Another focus at the IDP is the so-called big tent, and in a way that is far more than just lip service. A look at the party’s website shows the many areas that are included under the big tent, with leadership specializing in LGBTQ rights and ethnic diversity, where young people and activists are deliberately included, plus the IDP offers experienced leadership in community outreach, corporate social responsibility, employee health and safety, and environmental stewardship.

Since DNC Chairman Tom Perez is advocating the 50-state strategy, first made successful by former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, Iowa is wholeheartedly invested in a ground-up strategy as opposed to the usual top-down structure to help field candidates in every district. Geiken is also seeking help from progressive activist groups, such as Indivisible Iowa, to recommend and recruit local candidates. This appeals to Geiken, who got his start in Democratic politics as a volunteer activist in high school; he said he sees the value in harnessing that energy, enthusiasm, and local knowledge.

The IDP may be ahead of the curve in some areas already. Although the national party hasn’t supported single-payer healthcare or Medicare for all, state parties have been moving in that direction. In fact, in Iowa, supporting a universal governmental system of health insurance was written into the 2016 party platform, which Geiken called the “most progressive platform” the Iowa Democrats have ever created.

Linda Thieman
Linda Thieman lives in Sioux City and works as a freelance writer. She has an master’s in English linguistics, and she lived overseas for nine years, in France, Kuwait, and Japan, as an English teacher. She writes children’s books, feature articles on how to start a business, and assorted other topics, and served as an editor at Linda is also the co-founder and original editor of the Iowa progressive blog Blog for Iowa, which is still going strong after more than 13 years. The cause of her heart is a #FreePalestine. Email: politics24 [at] earthlink [dot] net.