Clash of namesakes

There is growing mutiny in the ranks of the Democratic Party, at least here in Wisconsin.

This is a long overdue and welcome development. The party’s foot soldiers are increasingly refusing to take marching orders from the top Democratic brass, and careful observers could detect it at the Democrats’ recently concluded state convention. But the full measure of the rebellion has been on more prominent display in recent weeks and months in cafes, bowling alleys, church basements, public libraries and other such gathering places in Baraboo, Richland Center, Mineral Point, Granton, Rhinelander, Delavan, Chippewa Falls and countless other locales.

For a very long time now, the party’s commanders could count on the enlisted personnel to rubber stamp and dutifully carry out their battle plans and troop deployments, even though they led to one crushing defeat after another. It appears the grunts have finally had enough. They are defying the higher-ups and taking the fight into their own hands.

One peculiar dimension of this escalating battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is that, up to this point anyway, it has been a clash of namesakes. Strangely, both the old guard and the mutineers call themselves the same thing.

Supporters of the establishment favorites for state party chair as well as the change candidates were telling each other before the voting they are all “good progressives.” Defenders of urban interests hoping to commandeer the party’s “rural caucus” took pains to assure everyone they were good progressives. The architects of miserable election strategies from 2010 through 2014 are said to be good progressives.

Consultants who coach Democratic office seekers to avoid being pinned down on issues, to stand for as little as possible and just focus on raising money are considered good progressives by an astonishing number of people in Democratic circles. These are what authors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the “Mark Hanna Democrats” in their book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Modern-day Hanna Democrats are epitomized by Rahm Emanuel, who once told staffers: “The first third of your campaign is money, money, money. The second third is money, money and press. And the last third is votes, press and money.” As Hacker and Pierson observe: “For those of you keeping score at home, that’s money 6, votes 1.”

Corporate Democrats get the “good progressive” stamp of approval. So do the party’s populists. Hillary Clinton and her supporters are called good progressives. So are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and theirs.


When a word loses descriptive power it ceases to have meaning relevant to the current moment. I’m afraid the word “progressive” has suffered such a fate. If the Mark Hanna Democrats can wear the same progressive badge as the party’s grassroots activists, then the word means pitifully little anymore.

Those aiming to transform the Democratic Party are going to have to decide how best to honor the original Progressives. They can do as the Progressives did, namely throw off old labels and call themselves something brand new. Or they can keep sharing the name with the ones who have been lording over them.