A crowd listens to then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, in Philadelphia last summer. (Los Angeles Times)
Last Friday evening, a diverse crowd gathered in an airless Los Angeles church for a Democratic National Committee “Resistance Summer” rally. The plan was simple: to invigorate the base with speeches, then run a phone bank to oppose the Republican healthcare bill.
Less than five minutes into DNC Deputy Chair Keith Ellison’s introductory remarks, a group of people stood up and chanted vehemently, “Single payer now!” They unfurled a banner across an entire pew, and heckled the speakers so freely that an older woman made the sign of the cross, as if warding off their revolutionary spirits, and said, “Shame on you.” Ellison’s remarks about party unification were nearly inaudible because two attendees were standing and screaming at each other. California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman simply stopped speaking. Halfway through the rally, two-dozen single-payer healthcare demonstrators — a fifth of the attendees — walked out, using a bullhorn to stage their own press conference on the sidewalk nearby.
Once again, the Democratic Party found itself unprepared to respond to its vocal left flank. Democratic Party handlers poked the demonstrators and begged them to sit, but the five-member security detail on hand stood at the back of the church, hands clasped. Their decision not to expel or otherwise silence the demonstrators was the right one.
Those who demonstrated represented a variety of movements and political ideologies. One was a registered Democrat with the #RecallRendon movement, which has sought to push California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) out of office since he shelved Senate Bill 562, the state’s single-payer bill, in June. Another was a political independent with Our Revolution, a movement that seeks to continue the goals of Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy. Another was a self-described “revolutionary communist” with ResistFascism.org. And yet these demonstrators, who had organized themselves on Facebook, had a clear, singular message that dominated the event.
The Democratic Party speakers, who rhetorically wandered through a variety of issues, including women’s rights and the 1st Amendment, did not.
Many party speakers noted, in response to the demonstrators, that they’d been vocal supporters of single-payer healthcare, and in some cases had co-sponsored bills to enact it. But they were ad-libbing on the defensive, instead of setting the agenda for their own meeting, or sharing a vision for how to make a unified push for single-payer healthcare. Demonstrators didn’t come to see legislators talk about their collective helplessness — they wanted a plan of action.
The event came on the heels of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to release a series of slogans that sunk like a lead balloon with many in the base. While none were particularly inspired, one rankled the most: "Democrats 2018: I mean, have you seen the other guys?" The slogan made it abundantly clear that, after a bruising loss in November, Democrats wouldn’t be presenting new ideas or deeply examining their policy stances. Instead, they were doubling down on a visionless strategy of vanilla centrism, selling themselves as better than the worst dude.
Single-payer demonstrators weren’t the only attendees who hungered for the party to shift to the left. Polo Morales, a 40-year-old immigration advocate from Whittier, noted that the event platform said nothing about immigration — at a rally in a state with the United States’ largest immigrant population. Morales said that if the Democratic Party tries to swing to the center to win in 2018 without examining the root causes of its previous failures, then it’s going to have a “really difficult time” turning out the vote.
In an interview after the event, Ellison, who has supported single-payer healthcare, noted “social justice is often achieved through disruption. So that’s why I’m not out of joint about how the meeting went.”
Ellison said Democrats don’t need to go to the left, right or center; they need to go down, to the nail shops on the block, the college campuses and the union halls.
But while rhetorically compelling, Ellison’s argument is a straw man. No progressives or leftists I’ve met see their vision as incompatible with grassroots organizing.
Ellison says he’s keen on rebuilding trust between the Democratic Party and those it represents. “Look, how do you build a trust relationship?” Ellison asked. “You listen to me, I listen to you. When you count on me, when you call on me, you can count on me. But what have we had with the Democratic Party? Sometime around election time we call you and ask you to vote for us. Maybe we ask you for money and then you don’t see us again until we need more votes and more money.” One of the goals of the Resistance Summer events is to put the party in contact with the people it represents outside of an election year — a good and necessary idea.
So why wouldn’t Democrats, who could have easily seen these demonstrators were counter-organizing before the event, anticipate the concerns of the room and begin by directly addressing the single-payer advocates? The most radical course of action articulated that evening was to impeach Trump and put Vice President Mike Pence in office, a message that felt terribly lackluster for a crisis moment — that “better than the worst dude” vision again.
Demonstrators, on the other hand, came with a compelling vision — which made the Democratic Party’s pressing need for one all the more obvious.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her @velvetmelvis on Twitter.