April fools jokes about Jeb Bush aside, we at TFS pride ourselves on being a voice for true liberalism within the ranks of Florida Democrats. We have been struck here by the insistence by many insiders that the party’s messaging become more moderate. During the last four months, many leading Democrats in Florida have openly talked of the need to “engage moderate voters,” in the wake of poor electoral performances in 2014. No question exists that moderates have a role to play, particularly in rural areas where the party has seen a complete collapse in support since the mid/late 1990’s. But it would be foolish to believe that the Democratic message in this state has been more liberal than centrist. It would also be naive to believe that these considerations are driven by anything other than money in the political process.
Thomas Jefferson once said that we needed a revolution every 20 years. He was right. Not an armed rebellion but a refresher in ideas and ideals. Radicalism is what did things. We’ve had the equivalent of political revolutions every 20 years or so since the Great Depression. In 1932, 1952, 1974, 1994 and 2010 elections radically changed the direction of the country. The 1932 election victory by the Democrats was the most important in American history since the Republicans had won the Presidency in 1860 –
Barry Goldwater said at the 1964 Republican Convention “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” While Goldwater lost that election he ushered in an era of conservative dominance where the GOP controlled Presidential politics from 1968 until 1988 and conservative coalitions of Republicans and right-leaning Democrats generally ruled Capitol Hill from 1966 until 1986 (with the exception of 1974 to 1980) even though the Democrats generally held majorities during this time. Today, Democrats on the left need a similar rallying cry.
I am quite frankly tired of hearing that various Democratic politicians are “progressive” or “liberal” enough because they support marriage equality or women’s reproductive rights. Democrats who vote poorly on economic issues and do not advocate forcefully the causes of economic justice are NOT liberals or progressives. They are more often than not transactional politicians who might simply be Democrats because of the part of the state they run from and the advantages being a Democrat gives in urban and many suburban areas. In time, so-called progressive activists become tied to these politicians whose personal convictions on issues beyond the easy social ones are not that hardened and often influenced by campaign cash and lobbyists.
The reality is social justice is not mutually exclusive from economic justice- you cannot be a good social liberal without being an economic one. In today’s society being progressive on social issues is easier than ever given the changing attitudes of millennials towards issues like LGBT rights, race and reproductive rights (though data indicates this particular view may not endure). But what is far more difficult is resisting the temptation for elected officials and candidates to raise money from vested economic/corporate interests who seeks to exploit and profit of influence in government. It is also a temptation which those who claim to be political activists on the left find hard to resist.
Hired guns and those who hope to be hired or part of an “in” crowd advocate moderate / establishment candidates, neutral views on economic issues and ultimately a Democratic Party that checks ideological purity at the door in the interest of “winning.” The problem is this formula has done little to actually bring success in elections, as the Florida Democrats record of losing 17 of the last 18 races for state office and 19 of the last 20 statewide elections without Bill Nelson can attest.
Broward and Palm Beach counties, ostensibly the most liberal counties in the state are worse for this sort of thinking than any other place in Florida. Since both are places where being a Democrat is politically useful, the Democrats are less ideological and more transactional. (EDITED 11:30 AM 4/2) Many locally, even some activists want to monetize working on candidate campaigns. Thus the true activism of some locally becomes muted and eventually non-existent as inter-party conflicts mostly revolving around personalities and not any sort of issue position become what motivates so many. Some “activists” In Broward and Palm Beach are tied directly to lobbyists/political consultants and simply work for candidates that hire the “correct” consultant.
Anti-FDP malcontents also are prominent throughout urban counties and many of these people are also looking to make money and cash in on political connections. Some are self claimed progressives who use the party and party contacts as a way of making $$$. These politicos in many cases don’t really know the heavy lifting working families go through and thus aren’t as empathetic as they need to be. In numerous cases, these folks hardly leave the safety and sanctity of a political bubble and thus engage in what can only be regarded as comfortable group think. They don’t know the state well but engage in criticism of the Florida Democratic Party without any real cause – not that the FDP is operating well, but the arguments from some seem based on financial or regional consideration rather than anything truly relevant.
Then we have “Democratic” lobbyists and political operatives in Tallahassee, the group I not so subtly referred to in my April Fools Joke about Jeb Bush. This group has a vested interest in maintaining something resembling the status quo, where Democrats are reliant on corporate or dirty money (like sugar or developer cash) and seeing “moderate” candidates tied to the corporate wing of the party nominated and ultimately elected to the legislature. They are able to exploit the competitive Democratic primaries in southeast Florida and the desire of political activists to become “operatives” to play in primaries and ultimately prevail with more conservative candidates in heavily Democratic areas. Following Buddy MacKay’s defeat in the 1998 Governor’s race where many of this group defected they became more and more powerful. In time, they drove support to Bush Republicans while playing in Democratic Primaries for State Legislature. Today, this group has a major influence on the money raised by Democrats who run in competitive party primaries in safe D seats.
These operatives and lobbyists then theorize we need “electable” candidates for statewide office and push the people time and again using dated theories or experiences from inter-party primaries with low turnout in base Democratic counties. These personality-based contests have little if anything in common with the hard work of general elections and motivating a base of ideological voters to turnout.
The idea of “swing voters,” someone who consciously splits their tickets or tries to balance some issues against others, is a distinctly dated concept. In the 1990s these voters existed en masse especially here in Florida, but today with few exceptions people who turn out do so to vote down the line for the party that better represents their values.
Voters these days are driven by emotion on one or two big issues. Even if they describe themselves as “moderates,” in polling,chances are very good they vote based on one or two issues where they are either clearly conservative or clearly liberal. This is particularly true in midterm elections. Lower voter turnout in midterm elections among Democrats from my vantage point can be traced largely if not wholly to a party brand that does not identify with the values it campaigns on during Presidential years. The party’s messaging also has consistently failed to mirror the voices of leading progressive groups. This is a problem as well on the national level, where the corporate bent of the Democratic Party is worse than it is here in Florida.
If Florida Democrats were winning this diatribe wouldn’t be necessary. But they aren’t winning and yet continue to come up with creative excuses for why they lose. Political candidates and operatives continue to find ways to be employed and make money despite giving losing advice and engaging in unhealthy group-think time and again. The legislative delegations from base Democratic counties continue to drift further and further away from the left thanks to the inter-party primary process which rewards personalities over ideology.
More importantly political consultants and those who want to play political consultant continue to find ways to profit off the process, especially in south Florida despite having little idea of how to alter the balance of the state politically. I haven’t been immune in my long political career from the same behaviors described above, but in time have come to realize the problem is too widespread and serious to be solved without some serious introspection.
Therefore, progressives must begin to really ferret out what truly matters. Is political access more important personally than electoral success or the advancement of social and economic justice? If so, then today’s Democratic setup suits you perfectly. But if you want something better, we need to have the conversation and it can start right here.