Pelosi recently eulogized billionaire Peter G. Peterson, a leading voice for austerity economics and Social Security cuts, and for the deficit-fixated policies that have hamstrung progressives for decades. The desire to remember a friend is, of course, understandable. But Pelosi went further, saying of Peterson:
His prophetic voice on the importance of fiscal sustainability brought together generations of policy makers no matter their political background to find common ground and effect solutions … His legacy will endure in many ways but especially for his work at the Peterson Foundation which will continue to America’s fiscal and economic challenges now under the leadership of his son, Michael.
Words like these send a discouraging message to the progressive voters that comprise the bulk of the Democratic base. They suggest that the Democrats will remain the party of “austerity lite,” favoring budget cuts over bold programs to rebuild the economy along Rooseveltian and Western European lines.
Damned if They Do
On one level, at least, it’s possible to feel some sympathy for their position (except, perhaps, for the hypocrisy.) Democratic leaders feel they need big money to win races, a belief that has been borne out by experience. That belief has been reinforced by studies like this one, from political scientists Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgenson, and Jie Chen, on the dominant role money plays in electoral outcomes.
But the Democrats have a problem the Republicans don’t. The pursuit of big money drives establishment Democrats to adopt positions — and to nurture a political culture — that prevents them from winning their natural constituencies.
Republicans can run on a pro-corporate, pro-wealth agenda without much difficulty. But Democrats need to win white, black, brown, and young Americans who are lower-income and working-class, and must drum up enough enthusiasm to bring them to the polls on a regular basis. That’s hard to do with an agenda that is, in effect, a “kinder, gentler” variation on the Republicans’ view of government as a hamstrung, and sometimes nefarious, external force in American life.
It’s true that Democrats have a good chance of winning back the House year. But then what? Are they going to govern as they have governed in the past – by offering only limited possibilities in the present and low expectations for the future? If they do, they will lose again once voter disaffection sets in.
The Way Out
Fortunately, there’s a way out. As Thomas Ferguson told us in a recent, in-depth interview, the Sanders campaign showed Democrats how they can win without big-money donors. That campaign became a financial powerhouse by receiving millions of small-dollar contributions from a broad base of supporters.
It won’t be easy. The dynamics of congressional fundraising are very different than those of presidential races. An alternative model for activist, driven small-dollar congressional campaigns has yet to be perfected. But it can be done, and groups like Our Revolution are working on it.
Moreover, Democrats have no choice. They can’t win and hold power with the policies and political practices of the past.
Laura Moser got a boost when the DCCC attacked her. The party establishment’s reputation is so poor these days that one candidate was delighted when the DCCC endorsed… his opponent!
When the party machinery becomes a liability among its own voters, it is time for the party to change.