It is time for Florida Democrats to be true progressives – explaining why “moderates” control much of the party

Democrats-new-logo-01April 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.

25 comments

  1. This.
    “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.”

  2. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    While I disagree with your attacks in moderates your reasoning and analysis of the problems are sound and on the money. Well argued.

  3. old guy on the bench · · Reply

    Are we the party of the “Big Tent?” Where we find effective ways to reach across divides and unite with a host of competing ideas and causes.; We do not need a ideological purity test, a check list if you will. We need to unite on a couple of major issues and sweep aside the minor divisive points that cleave people into small little self contained camps. We must reach out to everyone with in the orbit of our party and bring everyone into the tent. We need to drop the artificial divisive labels and welcome everyone home.

    1. The Big Tent confuses voters. If Democrats take every side of every issue in the name of “big tent,” the voters don’t have a clue who we are, so they aren’t motivated to vote for us. We’ve lost our core and it’s time to get it back.

  4. The future · · Reply

    So good this piece!

    It’s like a progressive manifesto!

  5. Living in a bubble · · Reply

    Are you talking about yourself Kartik?
    “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.”

  6. Really good article.

    I also agree that Broward and Palm Beach counties are far worse than the rest of the state.

    This having been stated you will soon be compromised as your wife is making the rounds about running. As you state she works for a conservative republican and would be a moderate.

    But she’ll fight right in the consultant money culture of Broward county and you will have to bite your tounge.

    It will be a tragedy if your voice is muted.

  7. Tampa Bay Demo · · Reply

    Really good except for the part about FDP malcontents. Did you throw that in just to get the party off your back?

  8. Nailed it!

    This article needs to get around. So on the $$$.

  9. $$$ drives this and the consultants profit off moderate candidates with corporate connections and the ability to hire so-called friends.

  10. To be honest, TL;DR for right now but this sentence about Broward (and Palm Beach) needed to be addressed: “Everyone locally, even activists want to be a campaign operative of some sort and monetize working on candidate campaigns.”

    This is absolutely false. There are dozens of incredible campaign volunteers who knock on doors, hold phone banks, etc for good candidates. I think of people like Alan Ehrlich, Ken Evans, Maggie Davidson, Joanne Goodwin, Grace Carrington, Roy Trachtenberg, etc. I missed so many people, so I apologize. I only get paid when I offer legal counsel and I have knocked on literally hundreds if not thousands of doors for candidates that I support pro bono.

    Of course, there are some that will only work or provide their “volunteers” for money. I doubt this is just a Broward/Palm Beach problem.

    This broad swipe at Broward’s volunteer base is undeserved and should be retracted.

    1. Fair point Nick and we know the names you list are all hard-working Democrats. But Broward is a BIG part of the statewide problem. We’ve seen the delegation drift from being reliably liberal to being much more moderate as political consultants and other paid operatives have attached themselves to Democrats in Broward and have helped get more centrist candidates nominated. We have seen lobbyists in Tallahassee exploit that “even legislators from Broward support this pro-business legislation,” using it make opposition to business interests look so marginal that it cannot be sustained.

      Broward County IS A BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM. Look around at the county and some of the people we both know (and don’t per se like but we both know them) and don’t tell me it is the same everywhere. In the other large counties Democrats don’t have as much power or money or are as cozy with business interests/ political insiders.

    2. So part of it is that Broward which has the perception of being the most progressive place in the state has an obligation to elect more progressive people to office. Instead what happens is political consultants and activists get cozy with those who aren’t progressive enough for political reasons and that in turn leads to the cycle I am talking about.

    3. You are right too broad a swipe and it’s been edited to reflect a more realistic view.

      1. Why did you give in to that troll??? Seriously, the original language was fine because it is TRUE.

      2. First off, I’m not a troll. Second off, he “gave in” because I was right. There are countless of dedicated Broward Democrats that knock on tons of doors, make phone calls, etc without expecting a penny.

        As for your other comments, I’m consistently bothered by votes by many of our legislators in Broward. Again, I didn’t challenge that assertion.

        Who knew I was so unpopular on this site? What else is knew?

  11. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    I agree 100% on palm beach county. Dirty Democrats who claim to be liberals.

  12. Jonathan · · Reply

    This is perhaps a bit over-the-top but closer to the truth than those in the party would like to believe. This needs to get around and people need to think about their own actions and associations. So many are in the clouds and are not owing up to their own actions instead claiming Kartik is a bad guy and taking unfair swipes. I think some introspection is needed across the board.

  13. Wow, anyone taking shots at Kartik is out there. He has real cred when it comes to being on the left and advocating for issues, women and minority candidates.

    The one part I would disagree here on is the false equvelency of FDP “malcontents” with Tallahassee lobbyists and Broward-Palm Beach Demo operatives. The FDP “malcontents” as they are called here are nothing but eager partisans and true progressives who want to see changes come. They have no similarity or relationship to those comfortable with our current status or cozy with being in the minority.

    1. Jonathan · · Reply

      In fairness while I think KK is right, some of those who are angry don’t realize they are guilty – they live in a political bubble and never really get out.

  14. When have we actually run as progressives? As TFS has pointed out in the past we continued to field conservative candidates in almost every election then say we need to be more moderate.

  15. Keeping it real in 16 · · Reply

    Kartik,

    You are so smug yet so right. So annoyingly self riotous yet so smart. So preachy yet so accurate in your reading of things.

    PLEASE keep preaching! The monied class needs to read this.

  16. Barbara DeVane · · Reply

    So proud of you Kartik. You said what needed to be said. Some of the so called Democrats in the legislature from Broward make me want to gag!!!

  17. […] outlined before, much of this reasoning is based on outdated theories about “moderates” and the need to appeal to “mainstream” voters.  However, it must be conceded that the numbers make sense in principle about Murphy’s […]

  18. […] about winning elections than ideology though as I have repeatedly pointed out most recently last week, the idea of running moderates statewide has been the default Florida Democratic playbook for […]

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