As Democrats choose the new chair of the Democratic National Committee this weekend, the worst thing they could do is claim credit for the resignation of former general Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser and the withdrawal of Hardee's honcho Andy Puzder as secretary of labor nominee. It will make them underestimate their own weakness, which was painfully apparent at a recent party forum in Baltimore.
The forum—the last before 447 party faithful vote for a new chair in Atlanta on February 26—was held in the same Baltimore Convention Center as a car show, and it had the same atmosphere. Each candidate for party office had a table in the hallway where volunteers presented their candidate as the shiny new model of Democrat. And like car buffs refusing to acknowledge their dependence on a nonrenewable resource and the corresponding need to maintain a murderous petro-empire, most everyone at this DNC Future Forum refused to recognize that they were dead. They fluttered around with futile hope, as if everything were ultimately the same.
The scene was Woodstock for necrophiliacs. Everyone had taken the brown acid.
"What we have seen in these few short weeks is carnage and chaos," said establishment front-runner and former secretary of labor Tom Perez. "We see it every single day, the assault on our democracy."
For all of them, it seemed, the answer was to rebuild the party.
But what will that look like? Democrats have no hope in 2018, when they will defend twenty-five Senate seats, only twelve of which seem safe; eight Republicans are up for re-election—and only two of those seats are truly vulnerable. And while they may win a few House seats, there is no possibility of regaining control.
We all need to recognize that America is a single-party state. Whoever takes hold of the Democratic Party on February 26 must find nonelectoral ways to use the party to help save our democratic institutions. Otherwise, the party will cease to function, even as a ghost.
Most of those vying for leadership positions spoke about "resisting Trump" and drawing energy from anti-Trump protests around the country.
U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the favorite of the Sanders faction and the first Muslim elected to Congress, spoke with a passion and charisma noticeably lacking in many other candidates, who seemed to have trained at the John Kerry school of longwinded and indirect answers. Ellison recognized a "climate of dis-ease among Democrats" and understood the need to "engage all citizens-turned-activists moving in on this new movement."
Though he was vastly superior to Perez, the engagement Ellison spoke of easily slips into vampiric attempts to suck the energy from a movement that has grown in spite of him and his party.
When hundreds of protesters showed up a few weeks earlier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, former Maryland governor, presidential candidate, and perennial hack Martin O'Malley showed up to grandstand in front of the crowd, as did U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings. The often-grandstanding, pharma-shilling New Jersey senator Cory Booker and five House representatives from Maryland and Virginia did a little better and went to Dulles International Airport—where they might have made a difference—and demanded to see people being detained by Customs and Border Protection agents. But they left long before the lawyers who did the real fighting.
The people running for DNC chair have been slow to catch on, too. On the day of the Women's March, as millions of Americans moved forward without them, the candidates attended yet another fundraising forum on the future of the party. Only Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had the sense to skip the intraparty event and march with the people of his city. (Ellison and Perez only stuck around part of the time.)
Listening to the candidates, I kept thinking that the question is not what can the country do for Democrats, but what Democrats can do for the country.
At the very moment that the DNC chair candidates discussed the future of the party in Baltimore, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers had racked up more than six hundred arrests in a single week in raids that seemed to target sanctuary cities around the country.
"The raids on immigrants are things that tear my heart apart," Perez said.
What if the Democrats stopped worrying so much about rebuilding their party and started to think about defending American institutions? Instead of debating in a convention center, they could physically put themselves between those enforcing Trump's policies and those most affected by them. They could be out on the streets in Latinx neighborhoods, ready to provide legal aid, witnesses, and, if necessary, people to be arrested.
When Flynn resigned amid allegations that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador while Barack Obama was still president, filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted, "We demand that the weak & spineless Democrats bring Congress 2 a halt until investigative hearings are held & impeachment charges are filed."
And he is right. Democrats' fatal mistake is acting like they will maintain our respect by playing it cool. You lost to Donald Trump. You can't play it cool.
All of the Democrats who boycotted the inauguration after Trump insulted Representative John Lewis did so, in part, because of the courage Lewis showed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge half a century ago.
President Johnson may have stepped in to propose legislation after cops smashed Lewis's head on Bloody Sunday, but Lewis did not wait for LBJ. What if all the candidates for DNC chair went to stand with the the water protectors at Standing Rock?
Precisely because the Democrats lack political power, they have the potential to become a great moral force if they are willing to be beaten and teargassed and arrested. Instead, they are all blinded by the possibility of regaining power, like underworld shades still pining for their previous lives.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Democrats in the Afterlife"