The hole at the heart of the Democratic Party

Billionaire funders demanding cabinet jobs, clueless bloggers advising party bigwigs… the hollowed-out, ill-disciplined Democratic Party looks set to be overrun by opportunistic gatecrashers.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Books

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The knock-down, drag-out primary contest for the Democratic presidential nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has exposed serious divisions within the party. And the longer it has continued, the worse it has got.

In recent weeks, it has become personal: the campaigning has descended into identity-baiting and petty name-calling. People associated with either candidate – from activists to voters – are now more likely to say they won’t vote for the other come November. Not long ago the party establishment appeared to be behind Clinton, but the Washington elite has steadily abandoned her, causing bitter internal rows (1). The battle may run on to the party convention in late August, where it could get even uglier.

Of course, all is not bleak for the Democrats. The primaries have seen an increase in turnout at the polls, holding out the prospect of encouraging new voter support in the general election. And there’s still a good chance that, whoever the candidate, the Democrat will defeat Republican candidate John McCain in November.

But the fact that the Democrats won’t walk it is itself quite amazing: six months ago, who would have given the Republicans – with President George W Bush’s opinion ratings in the tank, and no evident candidate able to unite the party – any decent shot of winning? This turn of events alone illustrates the Democrats’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

All the sound and fury is enough to make you wonder: what the hell is going on inside the Democratic Party? Thankfully we have some help: Matt Bai, a reporter for the New York Times Magazine, has written a useful behind-the-scenes guide to the changing players and dynamics within the party. His book, The Argument, focuses on the new forces that have emerged within the party in recent years – from hands-on billionaire donors to internet-based grassroots activists – and their battles with the party establishment. In the process, he reveals an organisation in deep discord, and thus he anticipates the current infighting. But the bigger problem facing the Democrats, according to Bai, is that they lack a big idea, or an ‘argument’, for how to govern.

If you think the primary shows the Democrats in a bad light, just read this book: it leads to the conclusion that, even if the Democrats were to manage to win, their troubles would be far from over.

The strongest parts of Bai’s book are the profiles of the key people in the newly influential groups, often referred to as ‘progressives’ (to indicate being more radical than typical party liberals). He travels around the country, obtaining access to meetings and parties few reporters have. Although not totally unsympathetic to the characters he hangs out with, his sceptical eye and recognition of awkward moments results in hardly any of his subjects coming out unscathed.

Bai begins his journey with the story of the ‘billionaires’ – financiers, hi-tech entrepreneurs and philanthropists. These individuals had collectively amassed a record amount of funds for John Kerry’s bid for the presidency in 2004, and his loss was a big blow. Kerry’s defeat coincided with a swathe of Democrat leaders leaving the stage, and into this vacuum the entrepreneurs rushed. Inspired by a ‘killer slide show’ that did the rounds, they were convinced that they needed to emulate the Republicans’ network of think tanks and media outlets.

Most of all, these ‘billionaires’ believed that the thing the Democrats needed was them – they believed that politicians were not the brightest people, and only their expertise could save the party. Forming a group called the Democracy Alliance, they were going to run the party like a business, producing a better ‘product’ for the ‘customers’.

Underlying this move to intervene directly into the operations (something the Republican donors did not do) was a deep elitism and disdain for the public. Bai tells how George Soros, the legendary investor, drew the conclusion from the 2004 result that it was ‘the American people, and not their figurehead, who were misguided’, being fed lies by TV and talk radio.

Many Wall Street and Hollywood celebrities had, bizarrely, come to see themselves as the oppressed: ‘They knew they were right about what was best for the country, and if the voters didn’t see that as clearly as they did, then it could only be explained by some nefarious conservative plot. They imagined themselves to be victimized and powerless, kept down, somehow, by the Man’, writes Bai. At a party, one billionaire announced, to great applause: ‘We are so tired of being disenfranchised!’

In encounters with the party bureaucrats, however, the billionaires often don’t seem all that clever. Steven Gluckstern, venture capitalist and one-time chairman of the Democracy Alliance, tells Bai how he first got involved in party politics in the late 1990s (many of them are political novices). He wanted to meet President Bill Clinton before making a large donation; that is arranged quickly for him, in a group setting. Gluckstern is impressed that Clinton really listens to his ideas over lunch, to the point that the president scolds an aide who interrupts to say it’s time to leave. Bai doesn’t have the heart to tell Gluckstern that Clinton’s move is one of the oldest in the book. Gluckstern goes on to say that, because of his large donations, he had hoped to have been named education secretary in Kerry’s cabinet! Bai is amazed at how the entrepreneurs, who held the politicians in low regard, could be so easily duped and fleeced by them.

In other arenas, however, the party establishment does not come out on top when confronted by the newly-activated moneybags. At a 2006 meeting of the Democracy Alliance, for instance, a member, lawyer Guy Saperstein, challenged Bill Clinton following his speech to the gathering, on the issue of his and Hillary’s support for the Iraq invasion. Clinton responded with an angry tirade, leaving the room embarrassingly silent. ‘Who was Bill Clinton to point fingers and yell at people who had helped him and his wife get elected?’ writes Bai, summing up the audience’s response. He adds, presciently anticipating Clinton’s explosions on the campaign trail: ‘Was that his strategy for 2008 – to run around berating Hillary’s detractors until they realized the errors of their ways?’ Clinton later apologised, and then Saperstein, in an act of airing dirty laundry, published the apology along with his own further criticisms – thus demonstrating how, while the politicians needed the billionaires’ money, their new-found activism unleashed some loose cannons.

At the other end of the income spectrum from the billionaires are the internet-based grassroots activists, or ‘netroots’. Bai profiles, one of the most influential groups to emerge. MoveOn was founded in 1998 by Wes Boyd, the rich inventor of the once-ubiquitous flying toasters screensaver. Boyd, a political novice at the time (this is a theme), set up a website with a petition for congress to ‘move on’ past the Clinton impeachment hearings, and thousands signed up, providing a valuable list. Later, in 2001, a recent graduate, Eli Pariser, also emailed out a petition following the 9/11 attacks, calling on world leaders to respond with restraint. He too received thousands of names, and Boyd convinced him to join forces.

From its almost accidental origins, MoveOn today boasts over three million members and an annual budget of more than $25 million, mainly based on small donations. Its appeal is not complicated; its website is mainly a call for funds, with little need to waste words on argumentation. Its main theme, as Bai notes, is that Republicans are ‘evil, arrogant and corrupt’ – that seems to be enough.

MoveOn organises house parties to bring together otherwise isolated people whose only connection is via the internet. Bai attended one in 2005, in a well-to-do neighbourhood in Virginia. The party’s host, an ad executive named Chuck Fazio, tells Bai that he decided to get involved to spite a neighbour he refers to as ‘that asshole’, an elderly right-wing ideologue named Brent Bozell – even though Fazio has never even spoken to him.

Fazio tells Bai he contemplated peeing in Bozell’s pool, but decided to host a MoveOn party instead. From Bai we learn that many of the internet-linked activists are not twentysomethings, but rather middle-aged people (the average age of a MoveOn member is 50), often from the largely Republican ‘red states’ of Middle America. We also learn that these netroots are often nutcases.

Despite its disparate and sometimes eccentric membership, MoveOn has, in a short time, effectively become part of the party establishment: Bai tells how Tom Matzzie, MoveOn’s Washington organiser, had become a constant presence in the back rooms: ‘Hardly a day went by now when [Democratic leader Harry] Reid’s Senate staff didn’t confer with Tom about strategy or message, understanding that MoveOn was the best way for them to get their message out and raise money among disaffected liberal voters.’

Bai visits the young head of MoveOn, Eli Pariser, in his Brooklyn apartment above a 99-cents store. Eli lives like many other recent college grads, in a messy apartment with wet clothes hanging on a rack and a few academic texts on bookshelves. But, unlike others his age, Pariser had just received a call from Chuck Schumer, the New York senator who was in charge of funding the party’s 2006 Senate campaign, asking for money. Eli tells Schumer he will just have to wait.

In a similar vein, Bai traces the rise of the blogger-activists. These first emerged into public recognition in 2004, as supporters of Howard Dean’s meteoric rise-and-fall attempt to obtain the Democratic presidential nomination. Many bloggers entered politics a few years before, say in 1998, during the impeachment hearings, or 2000, when Bush supposedly ‘stole’ the election from Al Gore. Bai writes that ‘one of the hallmarks of the netroots culture was a complete disconnect from history – meaning, basically anything that happened before 1998…. It wasn’t just that bloggers didn’t know much about the political world before impeachment; it was that they didn’t want to know, either.’ Their views are fairly simplistic: they generally believe, according to Bai, ‘that Bush was tilting towards dictatorship’ and that supporters of Clinton-style compromises are ‘Vichy Democrats’.

In particular, Bai spends time with Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (‘Kos’), founder of the most influential blog, the Daily Kos, and Jerome Armstrong, an adviser to politicians on internet strategy (also referred to as ‘Blogfather’). They both come across in Bai’s account as confused lightweights. Kos, who does not seem to have read many books, says he is anti-centrist, but then argues for winning at all costs, which involves finding electable candidates. Armstrong becomes an adviser for Mark Warner’s campaign for president, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Warner, as one-time governor of Virginia, was a centrist linked to the Democratic Leadership Council and a frequent collaborator with Republicans while in office.

Like MoveOn, the bloggers believe they can ‘take back the party’. The party machine believes it would be insanity to have ‘kids with computers’ running things, but the bloggers’ influence has grown. They certainly have some successes to speak of. In 2006, bloggers spearheaded the campaign to deny Joe Lieberman, Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, the nomination for Senator from Connecticut, on the grounds that he was too pro-Bush and pro-Iraq war. Lieberman seemed blind-sided by the netroots’ efforts; his wife expressed their frustration: ‘We don’t understand these people. They’re from another world.’ By the November 2006 general election, Lieberman won the seat running as an independent, but the activists’ message had been sent.

The current presidential election campaign has shown the candidates and party apparatus kow-towing to the blogger-activists. All of the main candidates appeared last summer at the ‘Yearly Kos’ convention. Obama, in particular, seems to have garnered their support – even though his main message is bipartisanship, a blogger sin. MoveOn has also endorsed Obama. Hillary Clinton has had a much more rocky relationship, especially since many bloggers associate her and her husband with, in Kos’ words, ‘failed corporatist bullshit’. Hillary has tried at different times to extend peace offerings, but with little success.

How did the Democratic Party leadership allow all these renegade groups to wield influence, to the point of seeming to get pulled into chaotic battles for control? To answer that question, you would need to understand the leadership’s perspective. Unfortunately, Bai’s focus on the newer, outsider groups is at the expense of examining the party insiders in much detail. As a result, it is hard to feel confident that his account tells the whole story.

Nevertheless, it is possible to glean from Bai (and others) roughly what has happened. The Democratic Party has endured a long-term decline in active membership. In electoral terms, this decline arguably began in 1964 when civil rights legislation signed by President Lyndon B Johnson led to the exodus of Southern conservatives from the party’s coalition. The ‘Reagan revolution’ of the 1980s also led to years of Democratic defensiveness and retreat. This was not reversed by the ascendancy of Bill Clinton to the presidency in the 1990s, as his regime did not address the crumbling foundation of the party organisation. In fact, in a number of ways, Clinton accelerated the deactivation of what remained of the party’s base, including by the outsourcing of canvassing to professionals (2). From Bai we learn that there are many parts of the country, especially in the South and West, where there is no Democratic Party that one can join.

As the party has gradually hollowed out, the party hierarchy has lost coherence and control of the apparatus, and has difficulty responding to these latest challenges. As Bai describes, a true sign of a lack of firm hand at the top is evidenced by how Howard Dean, the bloggers’ hero, was able to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2004, to the horror of the Beltway elite. Further, the demise of the traditional machine has led to a lack of discipline, as evidenced this year by Florida and Michigan’s decisions to buck the party’s rules and hold early primaries (it’s still not clear whether their delegates will be seated at the convention). And as the 2008 nomination campaign heads to a deadlocked convention, with the prospect of ‘super delegates’ deciding the outcome, many expect party elders to intervene in a ‘backroom’ deal. However, the problem is, as one observer put it, ‘You don’t have the obvious party elders these days.’ (3)

Most importantly, what has truly undermined the Democrats is not their organisational shortcomings per se but rather their lack of ideas and sense of purpose. And this is a theme that Bai consistently extends through his narrative. The Democratic party leaders of today, he writes, ‘had inherited from their parents and grandparents the vessel of a once dominant political party…and in a few short decades, they had managed to run it aground on the shoals of neglect.’ Rather than face up to today’s challenges, the party harks back to the good old days of the New Deal of the 1930s. Under Bill Clinton, the party claimed to address ‘modernisation’, but his pragmatic (critics would say opportunistic) approach of ‘triangulation’ meant that the Democrats never set out a distinct outlook that could survive beyond the end of his presidency.

One of the best points Bai makes is that all sides of Democratic Party politics are now focused on tactics at the expense of vision and ideas. The gate-crashers from outside – that is, the billionaires, the bloggers, Howard Dean – are obsessed with money and electability, but have no sense of transforming the politics by means of ideas. And in that very important regard, they are one with the party’s insiders, who do not look beyond the next contested seat.

Again, Bai anticipates the lack of political substance in this year’s primary contest. He ridicules Hillary’s ‘I’m in it to win’ slogan (‘as if getting to the White House was a noble goal in itself’), as well as Obama’s call for ‘hope’ (‘whatever that meant’). Both downplay ideas, referring voters to the fine print to be found on their websites. Moreover, the lack of a true political party, with intermediaries that establish ties between party members and candidates, has led to voters being unsure of the candidates, lending the race an unpredictable and unstable character.

In November 2006, the Democrats won back control of both houses of Congress. To many of the party’s leadership, this was a major sign that the country had turned in the Democrats’ direction. However, as Bai notes, this was more of a rejection of Bush than an expression of confidence in the Democrats. And not long after the Democrats took control, their do-little approach led to poor approval ratings. The turn against them seemed to vindicate Bai’s verdict following the 2006 congressional win: ‘What voters had not done was to endorse any Democratic argument – because, of course, there wasn’t one.’

The same will be true if the Democrats capture the White House in November 2008 – it won’t be an endorsement of their ideas, because they haven’t put forward any. The only argument they’re left with is that they are not the Republicans, which is not exactly one to get excited about.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics, by Matt Bai is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Washington elite lead Clinton backlash,, 29 January 2008

(2) See Treating voters as instruments, spiked review of books, 23 August 2007

(3) The vanishing establishment, New York Times, 10 February 2008

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