A bitter fight for leadership of the California Democratic Party won’t shake the foundations of the party. The future of Democrats in California, let alone nationally, won’t depend on whether a gruff Angeleno named Eric Bauman or a Bay Area outsider named Kimberly Ellis has the role of chief party functionary in the state.
Bauman defeated Ellis by a slim margin at the party convention in May, and Ellis and her backers have been disputing the outcome ever since. “I’m skeptical that this fight means anything outside the proverbial insiders,” said former Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “This is the post-traumatic stress of having lost the unlosable election.”
Democrats may have lost an unlosable race to an unthinkable president, but they still dominate in California, controlling every statewide elective office and both chambers of the legislature. Yet the leadership battle in the de facto capital of Democratic America could nonetheless have a corrosive effect.
The story told by the losing side — at least so far — of the California Democratic leadership contest has markers that are bound to resonate with certain activists and voters. “Ineligible Votes Swung Democratic Party Chair Election to Bauman,” states a June press release on Ellis’s Facebook page.
I have no capacity to judge whether Ellis’s collection of accusations — “1 vote from a proxy residing outside the district of his assigning delegate” — add up to a coup in the state party. But the shape of the story matters, especially because we’ve heard it all before: The fix was in. The wrong people held sway. The impersonal, moneyed powers-that-be crushed the authentic voice of the people.
It’s the same story many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders told themselves when Sanders lost the 2016 presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton. Sanders would’ve won but for the nefarious influence of the establishment or unfair rules designed to punish insurgents or improper vote counting that didn’t project what the vote would have been had it been something different from what it was.
There is, of course, some truth running through such refrains. There is something like an establishment, and it is allied with wealthy Democrats. But the policy aims of the establishment are not vastly different from those pursued by Sanders supporters. What differentiates the establishment from the Sanders crowd is experience, capacity and realism as much as wealth.
To use that as the basis of a persecution tale is only one step removed from Donald Trump’s lies about millions of illegal votes padding his opponent’s total and his warnings, back when he thought he would lose, about a “rigged” election engineered by elites to deny his voters the satisfaction of showering comeuppance and contempt on their deserving targets.
Stories leave tracks. Trump built his tale of American carnage on the Tea Party’s ennobling prequel, a story of liberty and tyranny, in which white men play all the heroic parts against dusky freeloaders and pesky women.
Kimberly Ellis, who supported Clinton in 2016, is one of many Democrats sledding in the narrative groove laid down by Sanders’s 2016 campaign. The senator from Vermont is a problem for Democrats not because he is a lefty, but because he is a serial sower of fantasy and discord. An intra-party fight over single-payer health care, which some Sanders acolytes are determined to wage, is a horrible misallocation of Democratic capital when democracy and decency are under assault from the White House and Obamacare is still at risk from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Likewise, some Sanders supporters have looked at the Republican agenda to strip resources from the poor and transfer them to the wealthy, and concluded that they should train their ire on first-term Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Winnie Wong, a co-founder of “People for Bernie,” told Mic.com that Harris is the “preferred candidate” of the party’s rich and out-of-touch donors. “These donors will line her coffers ahead of 2020, and she will have the next two years to craft a message of broad appeal to a rapidly changing electorate.”
The specter of a well-funded liberal candidate capable of a “broad appeal to a rapidly changing electorate” is apparently more than some Sanders supporters can tolerate.
Democrats are unlikely to be drawn too far off course by goofy politics. Every party is tempted by false leads when it’s out of power. But the influence of the left is growing, and, as a matter of proportion, if nothing else, it probably should be. The left has been shut out of Democratic power for decades and out of American power even longer.
Yet “the left” is no more definitive a label than “Democrat.” Sanders is only one component, even as he seeks to dominate the space and expand it, along with the risk of toxic effects.
In Washington we see the product of reckless policy promises and bogus narratives, of resentment and unreality and cries of “rigged!” The Democrats will be of multiple minds until they choose a presidential candidate. But one thing should be clear early on: The antidote to Trump isn’t Bernie.
—-Read View: Optimism Is the Third Rail of U.S. Politics on ThinkAdvisor.