Progressives must fight with — and in — the Democratic Party

The last thing we need are fresh examples of powerful politicians opting for self-serving actions over democratic principles.

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After defying the odds and defeating corporate opponents on Tuesday, the strong progressives Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones are headed to Congress from New York — and there’s no way it would be happening if they hadn’t been willing and able to put up a fight in Democratic primaries. The same was true in 2018 with the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley as they beat the party establishment.

After three decades of contributing mightily to the blight of congressional militarism, Rep. Eliot Engel couldn’t be rescued by the high-profile endorsements of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Nor could Engel be saved by the eleventh-hour support of Hillary Clinton.

Other Democratic incumbents are being challenged by progressives in difficult and inspiring campaigns: intent on doing what, according to conventional political wisdom, can’t be done.

While the Republican Party has given “faith” a bad name, Barack Obama did the same for “audacity” and “hope.” Being an ally of the military-industrial complex and corporate power isn’t audacious or particularly hopeful. But progressives need plenty of audacious hope and insistence that political organizing must include insurgent election campaigns.

The obstacles are enormous. That’s usually true of social change worth fighting for.

In the electoral arena, the goal is not only about winning elections. It’s also about replacing the top-down weight of entrenched politicians with the bottom-up power of grassroots activism. A current example is the effort by progressive activists in California to make Congressman Ro Khanna the chair of the state’s delegation for the Democratic National Convention, instead of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

That would be appropriate. Khanna was a national co-chair for the 2020 campaign of Bernie Sanders, who won the state’s presidential primary by a margin of 8 percent over Joe Biden.

If raw political power is the metric, Newsom has a clear advantage in the lead-up to a decisive statewide “virtual meeting” of national-convention delegates set for Sunday. But in recent days, 130 Sanders delegates (including me) from congressional districts across the state — 90 percent of all such Sanders delegates — have signed a statement calling for Khanna to be the delegation chair.

The statement pointed out that “Ro Khanna has been a national champion on issues supported by California Democrats — health care for all, national budget priorities based on human needs and opposing Trump on huge increases in military spending and endless wars, criminal justice reform, and a path to citizenship for immigrants.”

If Newsom allows a democratic process, Khanna could win. From all indications, Newsom doesn’t want to take the chance.

California Democratic Party rules are vague, saying only that “the Delegation Chair will be selected by the National Convention Delegates” on June 28. There’s plenty of room for top party officials to short-circuit actual democracy by refusing to allow a proper election process. The anticipated plan is to offer the delegates one big omnibus package that includes designating Newsom as chair.

Suspicion of the Democratic Party’s power structure has run deep among Bernie supporters. If the Democratic governor of the largest state is perceived as blocking a democratic process in order to strong-arm his way into becoming delegation chair, the ripple effects could extend throughout the country — including the dozen swing states, where a robust turnout from progressive voters will be vital this fall.

At the moment, national polls are rosy for Biden. We’ve been here before, with media depicting Trump on the ropes. Few political pundits saw the demagogue’s prospects as anything but dim against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Four years later, razor-thin margins in swing states could tip the balance, notwithstanding the nationwide popular vote.

Politicians are not known for humility, and few are inclined to bypass a beckoning limelight. California’s delegation chair is apt to draw appreciable media attention in mid-August when Democrats convene a virtual convention. Newsom could do his party and his country a greater service by yielding that particular spotlight rather than basking in it.

Especially after events of 2016, when facts emerged showing that the Democratic National Committee put anti-Sanders thumbs on the scales, many progressives have become acutely sensitive to shortages of fairness in party proceedings. The last thing we need are fresh examples of powerful politicians opting for self-serving actions over democratic principles.

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