This post first ran on April 11, 2012
By Matt Stoller, who writes for Salon and has contributed to Politico, Alternet, Salon, The Nation and Reuters. You can reach him at stoller (at) gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller
“I’m flabbergasted. I’m embarrassed. This is the biggest screw-up electorally that I’ve ever been involved in,” said one progressive activist still sorting through the wreckage.
“Delaney defeated state Sen. Rob Garagiola, 54 percent to 29 percent, in the Democratic primary. The result is notable since most people believe Democrats in Annapolis drew the district with Garagiola in mind and the legislator enjoyed support from organized labor, progressive groups, and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).”
At this point, even Moveon members won’t vote for self-proclaimed progressive candidates. And labor and DC liberals can’t deliver votes, but money can. Those are the lessons that insiders are drawing from two important but little noted Congressional primaries that happened late last month, one in Illinois and one in Maryland.
Politics is a game of proxy fights. In contested political conventions, for instance, the question of the party platform is often used to test political strength, so various factions know their strength when it comes to a later contest on party nominations. Party primaries are not political conventions, but the stakes are high. They are about which faction in the party is going to take the governing reigns. They are usually low-turnout affairs where only the party faithful shows up. They are hard to poll, because the voting universe is unpredictable, but in many ways, primaries are far more important elections than general elections. A primary can also be a proxy fight, something that other politicians watch to see if they have to watch their left or right flank when making policy.
The Illinois tenth saw such a proxy fight in late March, in a little watched Congressional primary in Illinois between a Democratic moderate, Brett Schneider, and a self-described progressive and former Obama campaign organizer, Ilya Sheyman. Schneider, backed by the party establishment and officials such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, defeated the 25 year old Sheyman, who had the backing of online liberal groups like DFA, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Moveon, and various labor unions. Ilya lost by eight points after what looked like a substantial double lead in the polls, in a 62% blue district.
A similar primary took place in Maryland, between a prominent state politician backed by progressive institutional support (including Moveon and labor), Sen. Rob Garagiola, facing a self-funding anti-labor financier John Delaney. Garagiola was utterly destroyed, by 25 points.
Both were brutal. I won’t speak to Maryland, because that race involved an opaque Maryland establishment. Illinois, though, is a little clearer, because the candidate originated from the “netroots”. Turnout in the IL-10 district was 30,000 total, roughly half of what liberal organizers expected. To give you a frame of reference, Moveon alone has 15,000 members in the district, which means that the online group simply could not turn out its own members to vote. The Communications Workers of America were also involved, as was the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and Democracy for America. The PCCC was cheekily named after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and was designed to replicate and surpass the establishment’s campaign infrastructure, but use it on behalf of progressives. DFA was an outgrowth of Howard Dean’s 2004 anti-war Presidential campaign, and Dean did endorse Sheyman. These groups have millions of members collectively, can raise reasonably large sums of money, generate press, make TV ads, engage in direct mail campaigns, and recruit and run candidates.
Up until the election, all public polling had shown Sheyman leading by double digits, and Sheyman had outraised and out-enthused Schneider. Sheyman had as his platform breaking up the banks, ending various wars, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and marriage equality. He had worked at Moveon, and he proudly called himself a progressive, while attacking Schneider as a closet Republican who had given money to the GOP and voted in Republican primaries. All of the talking points developed in the course of seven or eight years of internet Democratic politics – “bold progressive”, “people-power”, and “progressive” were on display. He lost badly.
Yet in a similar Illinois district, a candidate named David Gill backed by a much smaller and less glamorous group – the Progressive Democrats of America – faced a similar dynamic. He defeated the establishment candidate using a volunteer approach, and won his primary election.
This is an odd split – institutional DC self-described progressive groups with money and glitz – go straight into a buzz saw. Since the highwater point of 2006, when progressives were able to defeat Joe Lieberman in a primary race in Connecticut (losing in the general election), the trend has been almost entirely downhill. The outcome of their efforts to elect Obama, on a policy level, has been worse (and accelerating) inequality than that we saw under George W. Bush. Americans decided to vote for the people who claimed to be progressive, and they got mostly the same thing they got under Bush, maybe a little worse. In 2010, the swing against Democrats was severe. I was working for Rep. Alan Grayson, and he lost by double digits after the state of Florida turned through no turnout on the Democratic side into a mini-version of Texas.
Inequality is the core of any economic policy framework, and that the Obama policy framework is essentially the same or worse than Bush’s on this matter is worth noting. It impacts the electoral dynamic significantly, though it’s hard to figure out precisely how. What happened in any election is always a guess, but there are at least three take-aways from the loss of these two candidates.
One, the internet Democrats who emerged in the post-Bush era simply do not know how to turn out votes, and they need to acknowledge and deal with this weakness. It’s clear that there is a market for liberal-ish donors who want to support a political infrastructure that can compete in elections, and there is a media infrastructure available to communicate a message. But the current crop of organizers, while entrepreneurial in some cases (PCCC) and heirs to the work of other innovators (CWA, Moveon), has not cracked the code. There’s an operational element here. Many operational problems came from really bad targeting and messaging that did not work. Organizers need to acknowledge this, change leadership in some cases, and funders need to reorganize priorities around clear political accomplishments. Additionally, political reporters should stop relying on the word of DC internet groups as the voice of “the left”. If you can’t turn out your members to vote, then they aren’t really your members.
Two, the internet Democrats need to understand the basis of George Washington Plunkett politics, which is that votes come from getting voters turkeys at Christmas. Voters want stuff, information on how to live their lives, increased incomes, a better world, tax cuts, the trash picked up regularly, whatever – and if you can’t credibly get it to them, your message is unpersuasive. It’s not that your arguments don’t work, it’s that you aren’t a trusted messenger, and you can’t win in a low-trust fight because low trust channels are dominated by oligarchs. This is why the failure of the internet progressive space to focus on wages or foreclosures from 2006-2010 was so catastrophic. It’s why the fact that health care doesn’t kick in until 2014 carried significant political costs. There simply is no progressive advantage on economic arguments anymore. Sheyman laid out standard left-but-not-too-left policy prescriptions – reimplementing Glass-Steagall, lifting the Social Security cap on earnings, Medicare-for-All, gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan – and they didn’t work. Why would one really junior member of Congress without any substantive record of accomplishment really matter? Why would anyone trust the progressive brand on economics?
Three, internet-based Democrats have failed to find a way to introduce new ideas into the political process, but have been absorbed into the neoliberal policy apparatus. Stark and clear ideological arguments, like decriminalizing drugs, just were not a part of the dialogue in this race. That one serves a twofer, because it’s both a distinction of vision and something people can have from their politicians, ie. the right to do what they want with their bodies. Then there was the question of American empire, which also did not come up explicitly. Instead, Sheyman wrote a retrospective on the race in which he blamed his loss on a smear campaign by his opponent. His opponent, Sheyman claimed, smeared him, arguing that Sheyman does not support apartheid-like policies by a right-wing government in Israel, but in fact, Sheyman claims, he does. In other words, both candidates were stridently talking about how similar they were to each other. Politically, this crippled Sheyman, because while he could talk about how progressive he was in the race, so could his opponent. And there was no way to distinguish the two of them. Both sounded like the same type of mainstream Democrat on substance, with one arguing he was more partisan and the other arguing he was less partisan. New ideas are ways of creating distinctions, real frameworks by which to generate political power. There weren’t any new ideas or litmus tests here. So people, even Moveon members, picked the moderate sounding guy with a track record. Or they didn’t vote.
It’s not obvious that this would have made an electoral difference, but what’s the point of risking a brutal loss when the only purpose for running is to have a slightly more partisan standard Democrat in office? All in all, the version of progressivism built on anti-Bush feelings in the era from 2002-2008 just does yet not carry power, and its messaging is unpersuasive. This could change, if the behavior of the leadership of these groups change. If there is to be a counter to the drift towards radical inequality, it will not come from institutional DC-based progressives as long as these ostensibly groups support the politics of nothingness. They must eventually integrate politics and what politics can deliver, or risk complete irrelevance.
There is a stirring of interestingness on the electoral front, which I’ll hopefully go into tomorrow. It has to do with an unusual group of very local candidates working on foreclosure fraud.