If you’re like me, you’re incredibly concerned for the future of our nation.
That’s how Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez begins his personalized “Dear John” letter introducing the Official 2019 Democratic Party Survey. I’m not a card-carrying party member but my father John Sr. was — the Survey form even includes his DNC membership number in the upper left corner — and I still get mail meant for him even though he passed away nearly five years ago.
If you’re like me — pulling the empathy string; incredibly concerned — heightening the affect; our nation — invoking tribal identification and ownership. The future — not the present, which is already a source of concern; not the past, as in “make America great again.” The future is, presumably, a code word for progressive.
I’m not accustomed to posting on political topics here on Ficticities. But the future is fictional, a temporal vector that exists only in the imagination. Not just thinking about, worrying about, and predicting the future but actively attempting to shape an alternative future according to policy specifications — that’s a kind of Ficticity, the attempt to craft a future ecosystem whose reality depends not solely on material conditions and forces but also on collective imagining. So I’m curious about the contours of this ficticitous future that’s purportedly being shaped by DNC operatives and Party members.
The Survey consists of ten structured questionnaire items, followed by a short free-form space in which you, the respondent, are invited to share your ideas on how the DNC and Democratic candidates can win in future elections. The survey wraps up with an appeal for financial contribution — A gift of $25 would be a tremendous help!.
But back to the top. What sorts of future-oriented question are posed in this survey? Most interestingly to me, do the questions reflect the futuristic concerns and plans animating the progressive wing of the Party? I used to write questionnaires for a living so I know that, by posing questions about certain topics while simply ignoring other topics, a survey can bias the results even without cheating on data collection and analysis. Each question in the Party Survey follows a similar format: Which of the following items is most important to you, do you find most troubling, etc.? Respondents have about 10 options for each question to choose from, with the opportunity to check up to 3 or 4 options for each question. So the general impression is that it’s a fairly comprehensive and open-ended instrument for polling the Party membership. But I’m particularly interested in options that aren’t included in the checklists — options that are either ignored or suppressed in an attempt to mold the Party platform.
First question: Which domestic issues are most important to you? Okay, without looking at the options, what are the domestic issues of particular importance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Here are a few off the top of my head:
- Achieve universal healthcare via Medicare for all or some other single-payer system.
- Reduce climate change via rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
- Reduce economic stratification and increase equality by raising taxes on the ultra-high income brackets and/or on the ultra-wealthy.
- Reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
- Open borders for immigrants.
- Make college education free.
- Establish guaranteed universal income.
No doubt there are more progressive planks, but that ought to do for present purposes. Also, these seven issues are merely progressive, modifying the status quo incrementally. They’re not radical agenda items in the sense of overhauling the political or economic system, not full-on socialistic or communistic or direct-democracy anarchistic.
Now let’s look at the actual response options listed in that first survey question about domestic issues. How well do the options address my sample menu of seven left-wing concerns?
Universal healthcare and single-payer. There are two relevant Survey response options. The first, Securing universal health care and reducing prescription drug costs, goes partway, but it stops short of the single-payer idea. Universal healthcare could be achieved via patchwork changes in the status quo combination of private sector employer-financed insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket. It could be argued that universal health care is a concern whereas single-payer is a specific policy intervention for addressing that concern. Maybe so, but reducing prescription drug costs is a specific intervention, and it’s bundled into the Survey response. The second Survey response relevant to universal healthcare, Protecting Medicare from privatization, again reinforces the status quo rather than calling for systemic redesign.
Climate change. Relevant Survey response option: Combating climate change, building a clean energy economy, and securing environmental justice. Okay, that’s pretty good, though something like “averting imminent climate change disaster” might be more reflective of being incredibly concerned for the future. What about building a clean energy economy: does that mean creating government jobs in wind and solar, or extending subsidies and low-cost government loans to for-profit energy companies? Probably the latter. And what is environmental justice?
Redistribute wealth. The Survey item says Raising wages and restoring economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s not a progressive position.
Equal opportunity. Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is okay. No mention is made of women or race.
Open borders. The offered response — Fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring families aren’t separated at the border — is decidedly middle-of-the-road.
Free college education. Relevant Survey item: making debt-free college a reality. It’s gesturing in the right direction, though debt-free isn’t the same thing as free-free
Guaranteed universal income. This is an issue that’s not addressed in the Survey responses.
What other issues are addressed in the Survey response options? Voting rights, gun laws, reproductive rights, Social Security, public schools, criminal justice and incarceration — mostly these are calls for securing prior gains while extending them incrementally. To be fair, there is room at the bottom called Other, which is fill-in-the-blank rather than checkbox. But the blank space is big enough to write in maybe half a dozen words.
I’ll not continue with the rest of the Survey questions and response items. The general tenor is clear: the Democratic Party road to the future will be built largely from middle-of-the-road planks, with limited gestures directed toward the left wing. I wish I’d kept last year’s Survey so I could compare response options to see if there’s been any discernible leftward tilt. My recollection though is that the 2018 Survey was pretty similar to the 2019 edition.
Clearly the DMC’s main agenda is getting Democratic candidates elected. The 2018 elections saw a swing to a Democratic majority in the House. While some progressives won, they did so in districts that were already strongly progressive; for the most part the shift in balance of power was achieved through nominating and electing moderates. Trump’s popularity remains strong among his core constituents, but it has declined across the board since he took office. For the most part Trump won by taking states that nearly always vote Republican in presidential elections, while taking enough swing states — WI, MI, PA — to achieve Electoral College majority. Given Trump’s declining popularity, the DNC probably figures that it can recapture those key swing states, plus a few more, merely by riding along with popular disenchantment with Trump and his cronies. There’s no need to champion a radically more progressive agenda when the moderate platform is likely to turn the trick. Trot out a few media-savvy and attractive progressives who can placate the left wing of the Party, keeping them from splintering off into third-party territory. Find at least one presidential candidate who conveys a modicum of charismatic appeal. But the Party’s tacit expectation is that the future is going to look a lot like the present and the past. Based on recent trends it’ll likely be the Dems’ turn next time around. Play it safe, hit the swing states with moderation, and start planning the inaugural gala.