Democratic Autopsy: One Year Later


In October 2017, a team of progressive researchers published “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis,” which probed the causes of the disastrous 2016 election defeat. The report came in the wake of the party leadership’s failure to do its own autopsy. In a cover story for The Nation, William Greider wrote that the “Autopsy” is “an unemotional dissection of why the Democrats failed so miserably, and it warns that the party must change profoundly or else remain a loser.”

Now, “Democratic Autopsy: One Year Later” evaluates how well the Democratic Party has done in charting a new course since the autumn of 2017. This report rates developments in each of the seven categories that the original report assessed.

The upsurge of progressive activism and electoral victories during the last year has created momentum that could lead to historic breakthroughs in the midterm elections and far beyond. Realizing such potential will require transforming and energizing the Democratic Party.

Corporate Power and the Party

Somewhat worse

The Democratic Party has implemented modest reforms, but corporate power continues to dominate the party. In 2017 and early summer 2018, the Democratic National Committee voted to refuse donations from a handful of toxic industries that contradict the party’s platform—though the ban on fossil-fuel money was effectively repealed in August 2018. Meanwhile, the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continue to freely take big corporate donations.

A test for Democrats on Capitol Hill came this year when the GOP successfully worked with powerful bank lobbyists to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act (under the guise of helping small community banks). More than one-third of Senate Democrats joined the effort; many were recipients of significant banking donations. In the House, 33 Democrats joined most Republicans to pass the measure; journalist David Dayen reported that nearly all of the 33 identify as corporate “New Democrats.”

In September, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi preemptively boxed in any potential left-populist agenda on Capitol Hill by backing reinstatement of a “pay-go” rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts. A former legislative director for three Democrats in Congress, Justin Talbot-Zorn, responded with an article for The Nation pointing out that “bold progressivism and ‘pay-go’ fiscal conservatism are mutually exclusive.” He added: “The existential challenge of climate change demands that we fully overhaul our energy and transportation infrastructure in a short period of time. The issues of America’s rising inequality and frayed social contract—including stagnant wages, unaffordable college, and exorbitant health care can only be fixed with major new investments.”

After writing a recent analysis for The Guardian that looked at how Democratic leaders act on economic issues in states (from California to Connecticut) that they politically control, David Sirota put his conclusions in a tweet: Democrats in blue states “have used their power to block single payer & a public option, enrich Wall St, subsidize corporations, slash pensions, lay off teachers, promote fracking & engage in pay to play corruption.”

For the Democratic Party, a crucial disconnect remains between rhetoric about corporate influence and subservience to it.

Race and the Party

Mixed developments

In the summer of 2018, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told a predominantly black audience: “We lost elections not only in November 2016, but we lost elections in the run-up because we stopped organizing.… We took too many people for granted, and African Americans—our most loyal constituency—we all too frequently took for granted. That is a shame on us, folks, and for that I apologize. And for that I say, it will never happen again!”

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