On Saturday afternoon, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez defeated Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to become the new chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Ellison, an early and vocal supporter of Sanders throughout the primary, declared his candidacy in early December and, for lack of opposition, became the forerunner. He was endorsed by left-leaning figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and even received the blessing of a number of senior Democratic leaders who had stood by Clinton in the primary (most notably, outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid and his successor, Chuck Schumer (D-NY)). To many, this seemed to be a concession from the leadership to the Sanders wing of the party in the wake of the disastrous Clinton campaign.
It was under these circumstances that Perez entered the race after Ellison, seemingly recruited by former Obama administration officials wary of this shift. Indeed, Perez quickly became the favorite of the Democratic establishment. Powerful Democrats like Joe Biden endorsed him and Obama himself all but did so, calling him “one of the best secretaries of labor in our history.”
Though seen by many as a rehash of last year’s Democratic primary, the analogy is not entirely perfect: Perez and Ellison are closer to each other ideologically than Clinton and Sanders were, and Perez’s final margin of victory (35 votes out of a total of 435 party electors) reflects this to an extent. Moreover Perez graciously named Ellison vice-chair of the party in an immediate gesture of party unity. Still, the race was as much about symbolism as it was about the actual office of chairperson. In selecting Perez, the electors have consciously chosen not to align the party with the groundswell of popular support, especially youth support, for a more progressive party. By rejecting the energy and issues that young people care about most, Democrats have risked losing what momentum has been generated in the wake of the November result.
For liberals who take recent elections as an indication that relying on the system will not get them into office (over the last 8 years, Democrats have lost ground in every branch of government), Perez’s shortcomings — not to mention the message sent by his election — are frustrating because they put the establishment’s blindness on flagrant display. Saturday’s results are driving some Democrats to re-register as independents or cease voting in primary races, believing that the party is out of touch with their concerns.
Clearly, however, the solution is not to disengage from political activism altogether, especially now when a broad popular front is needed. So before choosing a course of action, think carefully. Perhaps by leaving, you send a powerful message of disapproval to the party; recognize also that in doing so you sacrifice the ability to reshape it from the inside. Your vote is a tactical choice to attain your political objectives, rather than an untainted incarnation of your full participation in Democracy.
By that token, you can and must pursue goals outside of going to a ballot box once every few years; it is the totality of these actions that matter and speak to who you are, not just which lever you pull. It doesn’t make sense to emotionally marry your personal identity to that of a party, as many liberals seem to have done, and then reject it on the basis of impurity. In practical terms, this means accepting that within our political system, it is sometimes imperative to vote for what one thinks the “lesser of two evils,” lest the greater evil triumph, as it did this election season (the American right has long understood this, while the left has not). When progress can be made within existing party structures, it should be done ungrudgingly; when it must be done beyond the party, sentimental loyalty should not stand in the way. The stakes are simply too high for immature moral absolutism and tribal mentality to prevail.
As his majority became apparent, Perez declared that “With hard work and a hell of a lot of organizing, we will turn this party around.” So many calls from Congressional Democrats to #Resist have already rung hollow, though, as they turned around and voted for Trump’s nominees. Hopefully, the Democratic establishment is willing and able to deliver on Perez’s promise — but we cannot afford to wait for them.