The CA Dem Party: What Is It Good for?

By David Swanson

I’ve followed the struggles of progressives within the California Democratic Party from the opposite coast and admired their achievements but wondered about their limitations. They’re the first to pass resolutions opposing wars, but for the most part their members in Congress vote to fund the wars just the same. I’d rather have a party that “supported” wars but didn’t fund them, if that option were available. I’d rather have a brand new party, if that were possible. But, given the dominance of the Democratic Party, passing progressive resolutions and working to someday elect progressive representatives looks like an admirable project, and — at least from afar — one imagines that it must be having an impact in Sacramento if not yet in Washington.

Brad Parker is a California Democratic Party (CDP) Progressive who has published a book about his intra-party struggles called “Left Turn Only,” and I recommend it for a number of reasons. For one thing, Parker is a fabulous writer. His critiques of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are wonderful. His vision of a progressive political platform is strong and pointed. His use of details and historical references enriches his writing. Much of the book reads like rally speeches and some of it is. It’s a collection of blog posts, speeches, articles, and resolutions dating from 2005 through 2009.

Absent from the book is any argument for working within the Democratic Party. Good arguments can be made for it, but Parker doesn’t attempt one, he just assumes it. Instead he provides repeated accounts of the behavior of Democratic insiders as so loathsome that he writes of his need to “take many showers to get the foul stench of this process off me.” And yet, ever the cheerful optimist, Parker jumps right back into the foul stench time and again, with the best intentions of disinfecting it at close range. This book seems as likely to drive people out of the Democratic Party as to pull them in, but what might pull them in is the example of Parker and his colleagues, their vision, their dedication, and their marginal successes.

I know a lot of the people Parker mentions and others he doesn’t who have been involved in building the Progressive Caucus in the CDP, and they are all well-intentioned and inspiring. And so is Parker’s book if one focuses on his vision and hopefulness. His recounting of party platform and resolution fights, on the other hand, doesn’t do a lot for me. “California is the conscience of the nation,” Parker said in April 2005 in successfully urging the CDP to pass a resolution against the Iraq War, and other state parties did follow. But California Democratic congress members went right on funding war.

Parker’s next chapter heading reads “Progressives Embraced by the CDP,” but were they embraced or mugged or groped? Their positions were adopted and their candidates brutally rejected. Parties are very disciplined institutions, but they enforce the will of the leaders of the party who control the purse strings, not the will of the positions articulated in party platforms or resolutions. Following an unsuccessful effort in 2006 to move the CDP to endorse Marcy Winograd’s electoral challenge to Congresswoman Jane Harman, Parker swore he would have nothing to do with endorsements again, a strange and clearly untenable conclusion. But by the next chapter Parker is arguing with all his might for an endorsement of Howard Dean’s candidacy for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, fully aware of Dean’s flaws.

Then it’s back to more resolutions, including one to censure Senator Dianne Feinstein, who of course continues to perform her duties as atrociously as ever. And eventually it’s on to the struggle to insert some semi-progressive platitudes into the 2008 national Democratic Party Platform, none of which are guiding decisions in Washington now.

It’s easy to suggest that if Parker and his allies all abandoned ship and began a new party it would be a force to reckon with. But it’s just as easy to recognize that if everyone already overboard climbed onto Parker’s ship they could steer it in a much more progressive direction. What I think would help motivate more people to get involved within the CDP would be a focus on candidates over resolutions. And I want to be clear what I mean by that. I want issues to be front and center. I want endorsements to be based on hard policy positions, not personalities or cronyism, height, looks, or fundraising prowess. But I’d like to see more activism focused on electing the people who make the right policy commitments, and even more on rewarding and punishing elected officials once they are in office. This need not be at the expense of passing resolutions, but I think it should be far-and-away the top priority.

I suspect Parker might agree with me at the moment, given the candidacy of Marcy Winograd again this year working to knock Jane Harman out of her seat in Congress. That the progressives in the CDP have come this close to replacing someone like Harman with one of their own is the example they can hold up to the rest of us. And if passing resolutions within the state party against everything the party works for nationally has helped to inspire and engage the people now knocking on doors for Marcy, then it has been well worth all the effort.

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