During the 2016 primary, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders. When he threw his weight behind Hillary Clinton’s bid in the general election, he did so while also calling for the formation of a new progressive party to take up Sanders’ cause after the election. In the wake of Democrats’ humiliating defeat in November – not just for the presidency, but in a number of Congressional races – the UC Berkeley professor and co-founder of Inequality Media says the Democratic Party must be rebuilt from the ground up, and he has some ideas about how it ought to be done.
It won’t be easy, he says. “We are facing something far worse than many people would like to admit. This is not a normal transition of power, and Donald Trump will not be a normal president,” Reich told Rolling Stone one week after the election. “I think a lot of people are in denial about how bad this all is or could be or will be. A lot of people want to normalize this. It is not normal.”
“This requires a completely different kind of politics in response, and the Democratic Party needs to think at a much, much larger and more ambitious level than a lot of the Democrats I’ve been talking to over the last week have been.”
Here’s Reich’s blueprint for the future of the party.
1. Overhaul the DNC
“Organizations don’t change unless they feel compelled to. And although the 2016 election … certainly is a repudiation of the Democratic Party as it is organized, too many people have too many entrenched interests in keeping their power.
“What’s needed is not just a good person at the helm of the DNC. The entire organization has to be reinvented from the ground up. The Democratic Party has become irrelevant to the lives of most people. It’s nothing but a giant fundraising machine. …
“Without a fundamental reinvention of the Democratic Party, these names [being floated for DNC chair, like Keith Ellison and Howard Dean] mean very little. … Whoever it is has got to create a new organization. That, to me, is the most important criteria: whether they see and understand this.”
2. Embrace populism
“We are now in a populist era. The real struggle and the real question is: Will progressive populism prevail over authoritarian right-wing populism? One of the strongest and most powerful forces out there is a rejection of the status quo, a repudiation of politics as usual and a deep and profound distrust of elites, including the power structure of America. A new Democratic Party needs to lead on progressive populism.
“I spent a lot of time in red states and red cities in September and October of 2015, and what I encountered over and over again were people who were trying to decide between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. When I first encountered them, it didn’t make sense to me, but it has made more and more sense to me because these were people who had given up on politics as usual and wanted fundamental change.
“They’re going to discover that Donald Trump and the Republicans will not deliver the kind of change that they want. And I’m talking about not just lower-middle-class and working-class, but also part of the middle-class as well and many of the poor. It’s wrong to assume that this is only a white, male, working-class phenomenon, that Donald Trump is nothing more than the last desperate cries of a white, male working-class. It goes much deeper and it’s much broader than that.
“Some people are looking at exit polls from last week and are saying, Well, a lot of Trump supporters were not all that working-class. Their incomes were more middle-class. They’re missing the essence of the problem. Supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump alike have one big thing in common, and that is they are losing ground. Whatever their nominal incomes are, they are lower, adjusted for inflation, than they were 15, 16 years ago. And it’s that – that sense of losing ground, of being on a downward escalator – that has brought out these two faces of populism.
“The first [thing the party has to do] is to agree that for most people the economy has not been working. And also that the power structure – and I’m talking about big corporations, Wall Street, wealthy individuals – the power structure of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, have failed. [Then we have] to diligently set out to establish countervailing power – to rebuild trade unions and other forms of organization that give people more voice and more power.
“I think it’s also very important to take on the corruption that is now rampant in Washington. And when I say corruption, I’m talking about the fact that every major industry, trade association, every major corporation, every major Wall Street bank is making the laws and rules by which we live and they’re doing it every day and there’s no countervailing power whatsoever.
“We’ve never in my lifetime had a situation as lopsided as this. And if the Democratic Party is going to be speaking to the reality that people live in, they’ve got to not only acknowledge that corruption, but become fighters to get big money out of politics because that’s the only way our democratic system can ever begin to come up with policies that respond to the powerlessness, economic powerlessness, of so many people.”
3. Mobilize, energize and educate the base
“If there is going to be a Democratic Party that’s relevant for the future, it’s got to turn itself into an organization capable of mobilizing, energizing and providing information and leadership to millions of people who at this moment don’t know what to do. [The new] Democratic Party has got to, number one, turn millions of people into an activist army to peacefully resist what’s about to happen [by] providing them with daily explanations of what is occurring in a Trump presidency backed by a Republican Congress, along with specific tasks that individuals and groups can do to stop or mitigate the harmful effects of these actions.”
4. Expose Trump as a fraud
“I think that Republicans over the next couple of years are going to reveal themselves to be on the side of big money. Donald Trump is not really a populist. He’s a fake populist. His entire transition team is now being run by representatives of big industries. … He wants to get rid of Dodd-Frank.
“This new Democratic Party has got to show very vividly that Donald Trump … is fraudulent. And expose that fraud. And offer people the real thing, rather than the fake variety. People will know it pretty soon. The policies that start streaming out of Washington … [from] Paul Ryan’s attempt to turn Medicare into a set of vouchers [to] the crackdown on labor unions [are] going to have some consequence. People are going to wake up and discover that instead of better jobs and a better economy, they’re worse off.”
“If the Democratic Party fails to do what it must do, then there’s going to be a gigantic void on the progressive side of this great tide of populism.”
5. Focus on 2018 now
“Those primaries start in a little bit more than a year from now, which means that some of this groundwork needs to be done in the next months. … Unless the Democratic Party taps into this giant wellspring of concern and resistance [now], it’s not going to win back the Senate. In fact, given the number of Senate seats that are going to be up for grabs in 2018 – most of the ones that are going to be up for grabs are Democratic incumbents, and in the House the challenge is even greater, given the gerrymandering. So we’ve got to get up to speed very, very fast. …
“Democrats have a very good chance to win those seats [that flipped Republican in 2010] back, particularly given the hatefulness of the Trump administration and … the public’s [expected] loss of confidence. … [But] this can’t be business as usual in terms of every local politician looking at his or her career as a set of logical sequences, moving up, getting more and more power in a normal Democratic power system. … There’s got to be an effort to recruit people who understand what is happening and who also have an understanding of why a national mobilization against it is so important.”
6. Look to the state and local level
“We have six states that have Democratic governors and Democratic legislators: California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware and Rhode Island. The six big states on the West Coast could be a sort of light in the wilderness in terms of taking on such issues as reversing climate change and coming up with innovations on climate change, and expanding health care.
“I fear that the Trump administration, along with Paul Ryan, are going to not only repeal the Affordable Care Act, but repeal Medicare or substitute a voucher system, and the states need to pick up the slack. Even outside these six states, we need a political party, a progressive, new Democratic Party that’s going to be organizing in every state. And not only for the state elections, but also organizing grassroots groups that are active on specific issues right now in many, many states – including many of the groups that worked for Bernie Sanders – that need to be connected.”
7. Protect groups threatened by Trump
“The new Democratic Party has got to also protect vulnerable populations from harassment and exclusion on a daily basis at the local level. This progressive organization has got to be an active force for making sure that people of color and undocumented young people or recent immigrants and women and Muslims are not targeted and bullied, and be a voice against intolerance and bullying and harassment at the local, state and federal levels.
“We need more sanctuary cities, for example. We need a louder voice insisting on the prosecution of hate crimes. We’ve got to make sure that reporters know about what hate crimes are occurring and what groups are actually behind them. … We need to go beyond what individuals can do. We need to have a national voice embodied in progressive ideals and principals to stand up to this degree of intolerance.”
8. Failing all else, look outside the party
“If the Democratic Party fails to do what it must do, then there’s going to be a gigantic void on the progressive side of this great tide of populism. What then? Well, I’m not an advocate for a third party, because I think historically we know that third parties tend to hurt the dominant party closest to it, ideologically. But there may be an organization that grows up outside of the Democratic Party that pushes the Democrats, not unlike the Tea Party. The original Tea Party organization pushed the Republicans in a totally different direction.
“All I can tell you at this point in time is that millions of people are afraid of what’s to come. They want to know what to do. They want to be engaged and involved. They want to be part of a peaceful resistance army, with regard to what they expect to happen over the next months or years. And that expectation it is, it seems to me, justified and realistic. The Democrats would be wise to take advantage of this upsurge in public concern, and this desire to be directly involved. …
“There are many organizations at the local level and at the state level and the regional level that are doing important work and have been doing important work for years, but there is no national organization to use this energy constructively and to put up a fight. That’s what’s needed: a determined national resistance. It’s a huge opportunity for the Democrats, but if the Democrats don’t see it, and don’t take the opportunity, and don’t reorganize themselves in such a way that they become that organization – that peaceful resistance army, that progressive populist party – then they will be increasingly irrelevant.”