The Left’s Relationship to the Democratic Party Proper

Over at Digby’s place, David O. Atkins has one of the exceedingly rare pieces of seriously confused thinking that can be found in the archives there. In a think piece on what we here on the left can – or should – take away from Eric Cantor’s stunning upset, Atkins conflates two very different problems within the Democratic party proper:

  1. Democrats reliably vote in presidential elections, but tend to skip voting in midterms and are practically electoral truants in mid-cycle primaries.”
  2. Left-leaning voters disaffected with the Democratic Party tend to eschew the organization altogether. The more activist among them usually join issue advocacy organizations that are often directly and intentionally in conflict with the party and competing for the same resources.

Both these statements are true enough, but as I’ll show in a minute, Atkins twists them together in what appears to be an attempt to blame progressives for…I’m not sure, exactly. Not doing the things Atkins would like to see done? Or blame-shifting Democratic setbacks onto the actions of insufficiently party-oriented progressives? It’s a bit hard to tell. Atkins’ goal – or his prescription for victory – appears to be that “the way to win is to mobilize and organize not only outside of the Democratic Party, but within it as well.” I don’t even disagree with that sentiment, that more – and more focused – activism would be salutary to progressive goals. In fact, as exhortations go, “we need to organize more on all levels” is sufficiently anodyne to be one of the few “plans” that would offend almost nobody (and, sadly, will likely inspire an equivalent number).

Here’s where I disagree with Atkins, though: after (again, correctly) noting that many frustrated progressives who voted for Nader in 2000 believed that “if the Democratic Party wanted their vote…the party should have taken more progressive stances,” Atkins follows up with this: “The thinking here goes that if voters on the left abandon the party by not voting or by voting for third parties, then the Democratic Party will have to chase them left.”

No. Those are two different issues. Some progressives have – and continue to – vote for “fringe” or third-party candidates out of frustration with the choices given them by the DCCC or other party machinery. And Democrats do have a problem with turnout in non-Presidential election years. But that doesn’t mean the people who aren’t voting are disgruntled progressives sitting out elections on purpose to punish Democrats.

I can’t be sure what David Atkins’ exact purpose was in this column, because it reads very logically conflicted internally. But it appears as if Atkins’ suggestion that it is progressive activists who stay home in large numbers on primary election days as some sort of protest is an attempt to solve a paradox Atkins seems to realize on some level is present in his argument. For example, Atkins observes that, to the extent Nader voting progressives are trying to force the Democratic party leftward, the strategy hasn’t worked. The Democratic party is noticeably more conservative than it was at the beginning of the Reagan years in most key ways that aren’t simply due to cultural awakening (like increasing acceptance of marriage equality), and Democratic electoral losses only seem to engender further rightward shifts.

Unfortunately for Atkins’ argument, if the only thing progressive activists are doing in response to this inexorable rightward drift is sometimes voting for fringe or third party candidates, this poses a dilemma. Namely, how unlikely it would be for activists’ protest votes for third parties or fringe candidates to be so weak that they don’t even compel the Democrats to move leftward in response, but so strong they cause the kind of staggering losses to the GOP in the general election that we saw in 2010. Atkins seems (to me, anyway) to sense the contradiction there: either the progressive activists’ protest votes are a powerful force in electoral terms, or they’re not. If it’s the former, the Democratic party looks stupid indeed for ignoring the values and wishes of their base and suffering severe setbacks as a result . But if it’s the latter, if progressive activists’ protest votes are irrelevant, then surely those few inconsequential protest votes for third parties don’t account for the losses of 2010, either. That’s why I think Atkins suggests that progressive activists not only cast protest votes for fringe or third party candidates, but also intentionally sit out non-Presidential elections in huge numbers as a protest.

First, let’s restate some facts here. Are, as Atkins suggests, progressive activists unwilling to work within the party structure? Are they given only to either sitting on their hands or protest votes as vehicles for their activism? The single largest donation machine on the progressive end of the political spectrum (outside of unions) is currently Howie Klein’s Act Blue – and it has been for years. Act Blue’s entire MISSION is to raise small-dollar funds to elect BETTER (not just MORE) Democrats. That, along with Act Blue’s demonstrated track record of success at collecting those small-dollar donations should serve to demonstrate that, if given a choice in primaries between true progressives and corporatist conserva-dems, liberals will not only vote for but will work for the candidate that genuinely exhibits progressive values.

The Democratic party does indeed face the problem of voters drifting away and not voting in non-Presidential years (and even more so in primaries). But not in significant numbers among its progressive activists – disgruntled or otherwise. In fact, perhaps the ONLY trait that unites activists on the left side of the political spectrum – heck, might even unite all activists – is that they are highly engaged politically. They read. They vote. They organize. Some small percentage of activist progressives might believe (rightly or wrongly) that if they deny those they see as “establishment” candidates their votes, the party will eventually have to follow them left. They may even get weary enough with the thirty-year continued rightward drift of the Democratic party (which Atkins mentions) that they vote for third parties in the general election as a means of trying to bring that about…but as this DailyKos forensic on the 2010 results shows quite clearly, very, very few “switched on” progressive activists consciously adopted a strategy of LESS (or non-) participation (including voting) as a means of bringing about their political goals. In overwhelming numbers, liberals voted (moreover, most of them did wind up voting for the Democrat on the ballot after all!).

Instead, the drop-off in voting in non-Presidential years (and in primaries), as this old Ezra Klein column (also from 2010) showed at the time, occurred among young people: people new to voting, with varied and often quite busy schedules. People who may get discouraged more easily. People who may not yet have absorbed the importance of turning up every single time to vote. Even – perhaps especially – in primaries…like activists and older voters have learned:


I usually find myself nodding in agreement when reading David Atkins’ posts, both at Hullabaloo and at Daily Kos, but this one struck me as both some of his worst writing, and also his most-confused thinking.