Will Rogers once famously stated, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” I wish that Will Rogers were more like my magic 8-ball. It’s wrong a lot. Instead he struck the chord which has resonated within the Democratic Party since its earliest days. At various times the Democrats have been an amalgam of farmers and industrial workers, anti-imperialists and bankers, Southerners and union agitators, and segregationists and progressive reformers. Today’s incarnation of the Democratic Party is an ad hoc coalition of causes ranging from environmentalists to gay rights activists to Christian pacifists all attached to Roosevelt’s progressive populism with bubblegum and bailing wire.
Perhaps it is the realistic view of politics held by the Democrats that makes it such an eclectic group. Politics is not about two titanic sets of ideals fighting for supremacy, but rather about radically diverse regions and special interest groups jockeying for each others’ money and influence. Republicans do a good job of jockeying collectively, getting their strange coalition of wealthy corporate interests and traditionalist social values voters, or Greed and God, good seats at the bargaining table. (Granted, upon arrival Greed usually starts cutting into God’s share of the spoils, but that’s beside the point.) Democrats, on the other hand, fail to comprehend the “team play” aspect of this game. Our loyalties are all too frequently to our causes over our party so much that we forget that in order to control the agenda we need to support and strengthen our party first.
This election cycle is rife with examples of this. In Connecticut, as you are all probably aware, Senator Joe Lieberman lost his Democratic Primary to Ned Lamont, a wealthy entrepreneur running on an anti-war platform. Despite his loss, Lieberman simply filed to run as an independent, hoping that conservative voters and Republicans fearful of a more liberal senator would carry him to office. Those committed enough to the party’s agenda and goals to call themselves Democrats on the day of primary elections voted for Ned Lamont, but Lieberman’s tactic effectively allows him to ignore the wishes of Democrats, win with a hodgepodge of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents and continue calling himself a Democrat. Does it disenfranchise his district? No, certainly not. Does it damage his party? Yes, not only by pushing their major anti-war sentiment out of the picture but by deepening fissures within a party that already has problems with unity.
Here in Tennessee we face similar issues. In the 9th District (covering Memphis and some of Shelby County), Democratic Nominee Steve Cohen faces opposition in the general election by Jake Ford, an independent who claims to be a Democrat. Jake Ford, who happens to be brother to incumbent and Senate hopeful Harold Ford Jr., seems to be running on the platform that the seat should be held by an African American, and while that platform may be valid, it is not good for either the party or the district. Creating a racial schism in the fervently egalitarian Democratic Party is hardly the wisest course of action, jeopardizing both the party’s long term structure and the chances of Harold Ford Jr. in his Senate bid. Furthermore, Jake is not his brother, though he is banking on the family name. Unlike the well-educated and seasoned Harold, Jake Ford has not graduated high school or college, and has never held government office. In contrast Harold Ford Jr. graduated from the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, the first-tier University of Michigan Law School, has served in numerous staff positions in government, and has been a sitting Congressman for ten years. Does it seem that coat-tail riding is in fashion this election season?
Despite his reputation, Ford’s bid for Congress is not what offends me. In fact, Jake Ford does not offend me at all, because he filed as an independent. It is the tacit support of his brother who refuses to endorse the Democratic nominee but expects (and is receiving) the support of the Democratic Party that is so infuriating. Harold Ford Jr. and his ally, Gov. Phil Bredesen are the core of the Democratic Coordinated Campaign in Tennessee. Between them they have raised approximately fifteen million dollars for their combined efforts statewide. They have included Rep. John Tanner and a handful of other candidates in their push, but Cohen and 7th District nominee Bill Morrison remain conspicuously absent from their efforts. Why? When I asked Morrison he stated: “They wanted fifty thousand dollars to join. This is a grassroots campaign. We don’t have that.” Cohen’s staff never received such a straightforward answer.
Frankly the reasons for Democratic officials to fail in their support of fellow Democrats do not matter. The strength of the Democratic Party lies in its diversity and commitment to the common good, collective justice, and equality. Powerful political dynasties, coordinated campaign slush funds, and personal agendas do not bolster any of these strengths, the Democratic Party, or those many causes hanging on with bubblegum and bailing wire.