State Representative Solomon Goldstein-Rose of Amherst has decided to leave the Democratic Party and become an unenrolled voter and state legislator. Interestingly, he indicated that the move will not impact his commitment to the values of the Democratic Party or his willingness to work and vote with the Democrats just as he has while a member of the party.
So…what’s the point? Sadly, the point appears to be that the 24 year old first term state representative doesn’t understand the function of political parties in our political system. His misunderstanding was likely reinforced by that exhibited so boldly by Bernie Sanders, who we should remember joined the Democratic Party to run for president in 2016, then cost the Democratic Party the White House, and then promptly left the party to return to his “independent” status as a U.S. Senator from Vermont.
The bottom line is this: American democracy is a team sport and folks like Senator Sanders and State Representative Goldstein-Rose are not team players.
By leaving the Democratic Party, Goldstein-Rose is showing (albeit unintentionally I’m sure) disrespect for American democracy. Does that sound too harsh?Think about it. When folks leave a political party because that party hasn’t satisfied their political and policy ambitions they are making a statement. No doubt, both Messers Sanders and Goldstein-Rose believe their statement is that the Democratic Party is ignoring its policy principles as well as the views and interests of its “rank-in-file” members (i.e. the majority of its members) who want the party to be much more progressive both tactically and on policy. If this were true, then leaving the party would be consistent enough with democratic (and Democratic) values and principles, but it would still be misguided, especially in the present polarized partisan electoral environment.
However, it simply is not true! Neither the national Democratic Party, nor the Massachusetts Democratic Party is out of sync with the majority of their members on political strategy or on policy. While the voters Pew calls “solid liberals” are the most active and most likely to vote, the majority of Democrats are not “solid liberals.” According to the latest Pew data solid liberals (i.e. socially and economically progressive voters) make up only 19% of the Democratic Party’s membership. This means that just like the so-called Tea Partiers in the GOP, Sandersistas in the Democratic Party are numerous enough to justify serious attention and influence WITHIN the party, but not numerous enough to justify alienating the actual majority of party members.
The impulse that leads principled folks to reject what they see as unprincipled partisanship is understandable, but is ultimately reflective of a misunderstanding of American-style democracy that reveals itself in a narrow-minded distain for the art of democratic politics in the United States. Intra-party debate between policy activists and political operatives is as old as the parties themselves and can be a healthy way for political parties to remain attentive to the twin goals of a political party, namely to win and maintain control of the public policy making process and to enact public policies consistent with the party’s philosophical and programmatic preferences. Obviously, folks like young Mr. Goldstein-Rose believe that the Democratic Party has lost its way; that it has over-valued winning elections and under-valued progressive policy priorities, or more pointedly, that it has failed to understand that greater progressive policy purity would bring greater electoral success. It’s an easy argument to understand, and it’s even easy to see why so many progressives are compelled to believe it. BUT, (and it’s a big but) this argument is mostly wrong and, maybe more importantly, attempts to advance this argument by abandoning the party label are completely wrongheaded and at present more counter-productive than I could possibly convey in this space.
What every anti-party politician and activist doesn’t get is that American elections are not won by anyone’s version of the most persuasive policy argument. They are won by mobilizing voters united by broad values, NOT rigid ideologies, precise policy preferences, or even economic interests! Every successful American politician who has achieved the distinction of being thought a productive statesmen has understood that when it comes to progress in our democratic political system “the Devil is in the details!” [Ironically, Bernie Sanders clearly appreciated this wisdom on the presidential campaign trail where the details of his revolutionary proposals were assiduously avoided in order to maximize his appeal.] American democracy is not designed to produce what Sanders and his democratic socialists or the Tea Party are trying to sell. Desires for rapid and/or comprehensive policy change and the impatience that accompanies the moral fervor of extremists, left and right, cannot be allowed to overwhelm the widespread acceptance and understanding of that sentiment Alexis de Tocquevillefamously associated with Americans. “Self-interest, rightly understood” is neither pure politics nor pure principle. It is a crucial political principle, the vibrancy of which is essential to the functionality of American Democracy.
Despite the fact that political parties are nowhere mentioned in the famous handiwork of our Constitutional Framers, the two-party system that their efforts made necessary remains vital to the continued viability of America’s democratic experiment. If the capture of the GOP by right wing extremists over the past decade hasn’t made folks hungry for a “progressive revolution” more sensitive to the dangers of their ambitions, then for God’s sake, progressive activists should at least wake up to the reality that the present control of the entire federal government by a radicalized Republican Party is a serious enough threat to American Democracy that a suspension of intramural conflict among Democrats is required.