are the progressive democrats possible?
Some weeks ago, I spoke on a panel organized by the local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). The event was meant as a post-election pep rally and the beginning of discussion of “what’s next”. John Dean of Watergate fame was the keynote speaker, and panelists included local elected officials, campaign staffers and grassroots activists. It was a good event. My thanks to the PDA for putting it on and getting the ball rolling on an important discussion.
My panel, focusing on citizen participation included a guy named Brad Parker, a lead activist with Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles. He is an articulate, if sometimes demagogic advocate for moving the party to the left. However, his comments on this occasion were somewhat disturbing, and pointed to some deep problems with the PDA’s approach to Party politics.
In his opening remarks, Parker explained, quite forcefully, why pundits and politicos are wrong when they insist on characterizing the Democratic victory last month as a triumph of the “center”. He went on, however, to excoriate Blacks and Latinos for “listening to their churches and opposing civil rights for women and gays and lesbians.” Holding the line on choice and gay marriage is commendable, but singling out blacks and latinos, two groups which once again handed the Democratic Party the overwhelming bulk of their support is somewhat strange. Framing the complexities of religious commitment and progressive values as a choice between one’s church and progressive politics is counterproductive to the extreme.
The event was attended by (I counted) three people of color, including myself. While there are many reasons for this fact, the kind of rhetoric employed by Parker is certainly no help. If white progressives insist on a cultural or theological litmus test for participation in their crusade, it is bound to fail. It’s also just inaccurate. While abortion and gay marriage are not popular among latinos, blacks, native Americans and other minorities, those are not the issues on which these communities base their voting decisions. The Republicans have tried desperately to force a realignment along “social” issues, but it has failed. On November 7th, it failed completely. I’m pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and about as progressive as you can get on a whole range of “social” questions, but Parker’s bizarre attack made me feel pretty damned unwelcome in the Democratic Party.
I was busy trying to figure out how to respond, when a question from the audience elicited another bizarre and divisive tirade from Parker. Someone asked why proposition 89, the somewhat sloppily constructed campaign finance proposal went down to defeat so dramatically in the election. I responded that the opposition was highly effective in painting it as a tax on businesses to go to a “slush fund for politicians”, and that the coalition necessary to pass radical campaign reform was simply not put together.
Parker blamed, and I quote, the “union bosses”, citing opposition by the California Teacher’s Association. The union bosses, according the Parker’s worldview, didn’t want to give up their corrupt power over the political process. While I had held my tongue after his vaguely racist outburst earlier, I did respond to this bit of ridiculousness. We can disagree with the decisions that unions make, but to use the rhetoric of the right, or to reify the myth that labor is a corrupting force in the political process is poisonous and counterproductive. It actually got worse from there, as Parker insisted that the problem with the “old” unions is that they don’t recognize that politics should be about free individuals with equal votes. A worse understanding of the circumstances labor finds itself in I have yet to hear.
I don’t quite get what folks like Parker think a progressive majority would look like. Apparently, it doesn’t involve actually existing black folks, latinos or labor, only imaginary, perfect and pristinely “progressive” versions of these vital constituencies. This is a typical and tragic failure by many white, middle-class progressives. They have a revelatory truth around which people should rally.
The PDA is currently working on a statewide push to elect progressive delegates to the next California Democratic Party convention. It’s a wonderful initiative, and I am excited that any organization is taking party work seriously enough to launch such an effort. However, if their plan is to build a progressive party by attacking labor and people of color, you can count me out.