WHO STOLE THE SOUL: Defining the battle for the “soul of the party”


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It’s been said of Florida’s highest-profile 2016 Democratic primary races, that they’re battles for the soul of the party. It’s strange nomenclature, even if on the the face it seems clear cut. It’s not obvious what the party’s soul actually is, what it looks like, or how we’d know if was won or lost. Regardless of how vague and ambiguous it is, “The Battle For The Soul of the Party” (BFSP) is compelling. You don’t want to miss a moment of this action, which will continue on for the next eight months, and beyond.

There are certain assumptions that can’t be avoided in this scenario. Even though it’s not made explicit, it’s implied that there’s one candidate who represents The People (the soul) and one candidate who doesn’t. So the BFSP is an epic battle of the little guy trying to win against all odds against the forces of evil. It’s classic comic book stuff.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 12.30.18 PMPolitical campaigns speak the language of symbols, and the most basic of symbolic gestures is the binary opposition: good or bad, left or right. According to the BFSP metaphor we’ve added a new one: The People or The Party. Everyone wants you to think they represent The People and not the Powers That Be. Thankfully there are voting records and public statements to help us decipher who is on the side of The People and who isn’t.

Writing in The Nation, Eric Alterman observes that clearest version of BFSP is illustrated in the war between Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio:

“Cuomo is also a darling of the superrich who has forced through fiscal and financial policies that only a hedge-fund manager (or a campaign-finance chair) could love. To wit, he has capped property taxes, slashed the corporate tax rate, created tax-free zones for start-ups, and extracted concessions on wages and benefits from the state’s largest public-sector union—and that’s just for starters. If the future belongs to Cuomo, then the legacy of the New Deal (and, not incidentally, of his late father, Mario Cuomo) will finally become extinct. The Democrats, like the Republicans, will be a party of the wealthy for the wealthy—more specifically, the pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-immigration, and pro-science wealthy.

Alterman is saying that giving lip service to economic justice while delivering only identity politics is the highest form of cynicism.

Progressives pay a big price for steadfastly insisting that The People be treated fairly. Party leaders distance themselves from these champions. They forego easy money from big donors, and they’re taunted in the media as chasing unicorns. Alterman points out that “Centrists,” or more accurately, Corporatists, are willing to cut deals that will extinguish the New Deal. Some do it more quietly than others, but all will claim that they’re “the grown-ups” in the room for selling out the interests of the The People.

If cynicism and hypocrisy is the only route to office, then what’s the point of electing these guys? It’s the “Lie Agreed Upon,” that no one will rock the boat when those who sell themselves as Progressive actually vote as Corporatists. The extremes of economic inequality that are plaguing our state are quickly making identity politics and social liberalism luxuries of a bygone era.

What people need right now are fair wages so they can have a roof over their head and maybe see a doctor. Our unemployment rate is low. Workers are more productive than any time in history, and yet families still can’t make ends meet, take a sick day or have the assurance that a medical emergency won’t result in bankruptcy.

Alterman continues: “On the other side is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a social liberal, who has focused on tackling the city’s inequality crisis…he has passed paid-sick-leave legislation and a limited living-wage executive order; and is fighting for a $15 minimum wage in the city, among many other initiatives. But most of his plans have been frustrated by resistance in Albany. This is the case even when such measures would cost the state nothing.”

Progressives know that the battle for the soul of the party isn’t about a left/right binary measured solely on identity politics. It’s about a rich/poor binary — or, rich/middle class, if we’re using approved messaging. That’s why progressives put an emphasis on examining the actual candidates to determine if their actions are consistent with prioritizing the economic interests of everyone, and not just the super-wealthy. 

Progressive values are so ascendant in the culture now that even “Centrist” party candidates trade on the idea that a win for the soul implies a win for Progressives. Otherwise they wouldn’t send out fundraising emails claiming to offer “bold, progressive solutions,” and that they’ll win “with grassroots support from thousands of supporters…not just big donations from lobbyists and millionaires.” Which is to say, “this candidate’s base actually comprises lobbyists and millionaires, but won’t you kick in a few bucks so we can also claim to have grassroots support?”

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If being a Progressive is so beneficial for garnering votes and small-dollar donors, why don’t these politicians vote that once they’re way in office? If those votes given to Republican causes were so honorable, why not fundraise on them? Why not own your centrism? Elected officials either voted for corporate interests, school privatization and mandatory ultrasounds, or they didn’t. If these were such good votes, what’s the problem in selling yourself based on them?

Why not tell the truth?

The progressive base in Florida is stronger than it has ever been. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because people’s lives have reached a point where they’re looking for real solutions and people with backbone to fight for them. Maybe it’s because Progressives have gotten better at getting our message out. Maybe Floridians are just sick of losing all the time with Republican Lite candidates who promise and can’t deliver.

Whatever it is, no one is breaking out their old DLC t-shirts to head down to the campaign rally. Instead they’re wrapping themselves in rainbows and green signage, while downplaying all the votes that shifted economic burdens from corporations to working and middle class families. Or, required mandatory ultrasounds, or took money from public schools to line the pockets of private corporations.

If this election is for the soul of the party, we should at least define what’s meant by that. If cynicism is the only route to office, and “the grown-ups in the room” demand only lip service for issues that are matters of life and death to working families, then what’s the point?

This battle for the soul of party isn’t about symbols — we’re sick to death of symbols. It’s about whether or not anyone in the party actually has a soul.


  1. T. Herdway · ·

    Excellent metaphysical boiling down of what we’re seeing leading up to 2016. A fight for the “soul” of the party is a good metaphor for what’s going on.

    We’re also talking about good faith.

    Good faith means believing what you say, and saying what you believe. The “centrists” being so forcefully (and perhaps illegally) thrust upon us before the primaries have even begun don’t have this. They want us to say we are progressives, liberals; populists, but leave it that. Grab some of that populist thunder Bernie Sanders is riding, then drop it when it’s inconvenient.

    Why? Because some in our party don’t believe Democrats are actually *right* about things. Whether they literally fled the sinking GOP after the Tea Party takeover, or are left over from the Dixiecrat days, a chunk of our party doesn’t buy our populist, “equality for all” talk. They think it’s a marketing gimmick, and that’s the only use they have for it, or us. Now that they’re here, they put on Democratic values like a T-shirt, thrown on or off depending on who’s listening.

    They think words like “equal opportunity” boil down to whether someone has a sufficiently ethnic-sounding name. They think all we’re doing when we talk about “economic justice” or “the common good” is trying to get elected, because that’s all they’re trying to do. So it doesn’t matter if we play ball with Disney and the sugar industry or the evangelicals; it’s just a game, right?

    Except we can’t actually win that way. Not with a cynical, bad faith, approach or candidates who don’t know what party they want to be in or whether they’ll be selling out Planned Parenthood today or not. People can smell that insincerity miles away. If they want a friend of the banking industry or the phosphate mines, they will look for the “R” label every time.

    We can be real Democrats, who believe in the things people have always looked to us for, like Social Security, protecting the environment, education, fair wages, and equal opportunity, or we can go home. Warmed-over Republicans with mildly kinder social policy will lose, as we have seen over and again, no matter how much money their Chamber of Commerce sponsors throw their way.

    We are being asked to sell our collective soul as a party, along with our best shot at electoral success, for ashes.

    Shall we?


    1. Something I left out of the column is relevant to your thoughts here. Cuomo actually worked to ensure that Dems did not make significant gains in the NY Legislature. By all accounts he ran interference resulting in progressives losing elections. Whenever a progressive announces a run for an important seat, especially in Florida, Tallahassee pols cry foul — “ZOMG! You’re “tea partying” us!” When the fact is progressives win elections and it’s the Centrists who actually “tea party” the rest of us.


      1. T. Herdway · ·

        It sure feels like people antipathetic to Dems, liberals, and populists are trying their best to convince us our only way in the door is to be more like Republicans. Now, that part, they may actually believe, but I think they’re wrong. And, if I didn’t — if WE didn’t — why have a Democratic Party at all?

        The only way I can read all that is that we’re seeing a rationale that works for the easy sponsor money. “Dems are too mean to big business.” “Dems need to let the anti-abortion crazies have their way.” “Dems need to listen when Disney plants its big cartoon foot down and says workers can’t have sick leave.”

        So the question becomes, even if we do win with a Murphy or a Soto — if they’re going to vote with the Republicans anyway, what exactly *have* we won?


  2. Hank Porter · ·

    Pretty impressive use of straw men and false dichotomies that entirely miss the bigger point. The reality about the “soul of the party” is, in fact, the opposite. I’d encourage the writer and other commenters to declare themselves victorious and recognize how successful the “Left” has been at reorienting large aspects of the Democratic Party agenda.

    To their credit, progressives and liberals have pulled the party leftward steadily since the 2003-04 cycle. The Democratic Party is at its most economically progressive in 50 years. So much so that noted “centrist” Hillary Clinton is running on a platform to the left of Obama’s in 2008. Bernie Sanders success will only pull her farther left as the campaign wears on.

    In just the last four years, Warren, Sanders, Franken, Brown, et al., have largely succeeded in reorienting the economic conversation. Former Republican Charlie Crist ran the most openly progressive Democratic campaign for Governor since the 1970s. Even congressfolk like Gwen Graham and Patrick Murphy, the scourge of sites like this one, are far more conventional Democrats than the generation of Blue Dogs who preceded them in congress. On economics, foreign policy and social issues, the country is more progressive than it was 5, 10 or even 25 years ago. Bravo!!!

    I do not decry this move to the left. I think its an important dynamic and one the activists and progressives should continue to pursue. Framing it as an existential dilemma or in “us versus them” language is unfortunate, unnecessary and incorrect.


    1. Will Samson · ·

      “Straw men” my sweet Aunt Fanny.

      Fair enough that the country is moving left; but suggesting candidates like “Chain-gang” Charlie Crist are evidence the local Democratic party has fully caught up with that is a wild stretch at best.

      Or that Patrick Murphy, a Mitt Romney supporter who is also literally the Democrat who votes most often with Republicans in the entire state, is a “conventional Democrat.” I

      And while it’s likewise extremely arguable whether Hillary Clinton’s “platform” is actually leftward of Obama’s in 2008, let’s recall that in that race, the conservative wing of the party screamed at everyone that Obama was a fringe lefty who couldn’t possibly be elected.

      They were wrong then, and haven’t learned much since.

      As to whether the crisis is existential or not, if it isn’t, the attacks on progressives and progressive candidates sure seem designed to make it one.

      Whether it’s Murphy’s supporters spending days, nights, and weekends calling the press to try to make the “Grayson’s empty Cayman accounts are Somehow Sinister” story happen, or DEC chairs calling for the immediate dispersal of the Progressive Caucus, conservatives in the party certainly are building an existential crisis out of our differences.

      Scarcely a day goes by without another signal from above that progressives need to stand aside on the theory that real Democratic values can’t win at the polls. At the same time, when warmed-over Republican leftovers lose for us, we’re given to understand that only “voter turnout,” not policies indistinguishable from the opposition, must be to blame.

      I don’t decry the movement to the left either. So how about for a change the converted Republicans step aside, or at least permit a primary without resorting to dirty tactics and calls for the end of — how did Ms Bush put it — the progressive “experiment” for a change?


      1. Naoya6161 · ·

        And what is the basis for this theory that being super progressive will automatically win more elections for Democrats? Do you have any success stories to show this? Not every Democrat is a super liberal.


  3. Progressive/Soul/Politician. That’s what I call a true winning trifecta! With the exception of a few politicians that I truly respect, this movement to the extreme left is bothersome. I enjoy living in a free, democratic society! Look what’s happening in Greece. Is that what people want? If the democrats can’t put up a better candidate for the 2016 U.S. Senate, we are in trouble. For all the “progressives” with “soul”, watch the movie Fahrenheit 451! Better yet read the book! Great Column!


  4. […] in Florida are badly in need of developing a values based party that represents something beyond simple electoral and political “moderation”.  Right now we don’t have a clear set of values that drive us as a party collectively […]


  5. This is the best most cogent explanation I have ever read. I do consider myself centrist because I’m against more and more piles of concrete downtown while our elderly see taxes raised eighteen percent.

    Fiscally responsible means not handing our taxes to millionaires like Amway Rick Devos and school privatization lobbyist Jeb Bush and instead fixing our potholes and having smart policing. That is common sense.

    Sad in today’s environment it would even have to be considered progressive. Seems middle of the road. That has to be a measure of how out of touch officials are. People vote and oddly enough would like to expect representatives to represent them. And their spouses. Their children. And dear old Mom.


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