Retrospective on the 2016 elections and beyond in the era of Trump

My year in the Democratic Party

Up until 2016, I had been a lifelong leftist independent. I was radicalized by the anti–Vietnam War movement in late 1970 while studying to be a social worker at WSU in Pullman where I grew up.

Two years later, I was married and living in Boston where I joined the youth group of the Spartacist League, a Trotskyist offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party. Although I left the organization after a few years it would be decades before I felt any real passion to return to any form of political activism.

I was involved briefly with the effort to establish a US Labor Party in the late 1990’s after moving to Olympia in 1997. But that fizzled out. Then in 2000 I helped form the local Green Party (GP) to get behind the Nader campaign. I stayed in the Green Party for 8 years but left demoralized and without hope in 2008 after the state GP coordinating council voted to dissolve the party for a year. As the saying goes: “It’s not easy being Green.”

Then came the Justice Party and the campaign of Rocky Anderson in 2012. That was another misguided and failed effort and left me rudderless politically.

So it was 2016 when I got the spark back so to speak and joined the local Bernie movement.

It was then that I was encouraged to join the ‘Blue Hole’, the local Democratic Party. I was apprehensive but joined, then became a Precinct Committee Officer (PCO) and attended all the main meetings thru the primary: the precinct caucus, the legislative disctrict caucus (LD), the county convention, the congressional district caucus (CD) and finally the state party convention in June.

I started working my precinct for Bernie and coordinated 9 other precincts near where I lived in Lacey. I was elected to be a Bernie delegate at the LD caucus at the county convention. Following the state party convention I went with my friend Jeff to Philly for the Democratic National Convention joining the protests and rallies on the outside in union with the Bernie delegates on the inside.

When Bernie endorsed Hillary on July 12th, two weeks before what everyone thought would be a ‘contested convention’ that action felt like a betrayal to the vast numbers of Bernie supporters and the Bernie delegates booed him en masse at the convention when he tried to sell them the bill of goods.

I had joined the ‘Bernie or Bust’ group online which numbered in the ten’s of thousands and that movement did an immediate turn either in the direction of the Green Party’s candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, or the write in Bernie campaign. I went from a few dozen to 5000 friends on Facebook in the course of the election cycle.

Jill Stein had offered Bernie to be at the top of the GP ticket but he never responded to her offer. In many minds that would have been a historic race against Hillary and Trump and the beginning of an enlarged independent progressive party and movement.

Many argued that Bernie or his family had been threatened before the Philly convention to endorse Hillary or else but the truth was that he had promised the DP establishment he would support the winning candidate if he didn’t win the primary. He did so because he didn’t want to have a Trump victory as his legacy so he was playing it safe. He urged all his remaining supporters to continue to work inside the Democratic Party to transform it into a progressive party free from the corporate donors that had come to define most establishment politicians whose policies increasingly bent towards the donors lobbyists.

Unfortunately for the Bernie movement, Bernie’s endorsement of Hillary and subsequent ‘sheepdogging’ for the Democratic nominee deflated his movement to a large degree, loosing millions who had believed in him up to that point.

Meanwhile, those who followed Bernie’s lead and stayed in the DP fold have been organizing to take over the party and have succeeded to a certain extent—nobody knows for sure how much yet. In Thurston County, the ‘Berniecrats’ have taken over the party and been elected to all the offices in the party from the top (chair) down, including the state committee man/woman.

They achieved this by the diligent work of several highly competent progressive individuals with a history in the Democratic Party. They managed to recruit Bernie supporters to become a super majority of PCO’s in the 282 precincts in Thurston County. The PCO’s, along with paid members, get to vote on party officers and policies. In short, the Berniecrats have taken over the Thurston Democratic Party as of December 2016.

But on the other side of political power, that of elected officials, there is as yet not one true Berniecrat in a local county or state office, although several jumped in to run for office after the Bernie’s primary bid ended.

And of all the elected or appointed Democratic Party electeds at all levels, only a small percentage backed Sanders in the primary. And almost all of those voted for Hillary over Trump in the general election for fear of a Trump victory.

Meanwhile, following the shocking presidential election results, Jill Stein led an effort for the recount in three states that Hillary had lost by razor thin margins and raised nearly $7 million, mostly from Hillary supporters, which was several times the amount she had raised during her entire campaign.

A storm of criticism followed which included many of her previous supporters. But the outcome of the recount proved beyond a shadow of a doubt (to those that followed it thru to the end) that elections in those states were ‘rigged’ in any number of ways to assure a Trump victory (see Greg Palast on the 2016 voter roll ‘cross checking’ by the Republicans). For the big picture on election fraud follow groups like Election JusticeUSA, Black Box Voting, FairVote, Sane Progressive and others.

On the other hand, the Wikileaks revelations that came out just before the Democratic National Convention showed that key members of the Democratic National Committee had been illegally and unethically working ‘secretly’ to undermine Sanders campaign in favor of Hillary. Many on the Sanders team are convinced that if Bernie had been the nominee he would have beat Trump handily in the general election. We’ll never know because the nomination was rigged for Hillary from the start.

Following the general election the Democratic Party establishment—along with a few Republicans who don’t like Trump—have been pushing the tale that the Russians were the ones who leaked the hacked DNC emails, as a tactic to hide their own responsibility for the outcome.

And in a Stanford research study of the 2016 primary there is also convincing evidence that Bernie would have won an additional 13 states had the primary not been ‘rigged’ by those who backed Clinton. The study concluded that if Sanders had won even a portion of the those 13 states—and without using the ‘unpledged’ Super Delegate pre convention ‘preferences’, which went largely to Clinton and were prominently used by the mainstream media outlets to tilt voter views during the primary—Sanders would have gone into the national convention with the majority of ‘pledged’ state delegates which could have led to him becoming the nominee.

But still, the Super Delegates (top elected officials and top party officers, past presidents etc) get to vote come time of the national convention, they could still have tilted it to Hillary although that would have led to a major rebellion and total disunity in the party leading into the general election season.

As it were, the vast majority of Bernie delegates, most of whom had joined or rejoined the party only because of Bernie’s campaign messages against establishment politics, booed Bernie when he spoke before them at the national convention in Philadelphia. And many walked out of the convention after protesting the deliberations inside. Thousands of others protested outside during the convention. I was one of them.

While many Sanders activists left the Democratic Party (DemExited) after Bernie endorsed Hillary on July 12th, many decided to stay inside to fight for a change of party leadership and reform the party from the bottom up as Bernie was encouraging them to do.

The outcome of the election, however, while it shocked almost everyone in the Democratic Party camp, did not totally wipe out the Sanders insurgency. Many Sanders activists formed groups to carry on the ‘political revolution’ that Bernie had called for throughout the primary with an eye to take over the party from the local (county) level and up. This phenomenon is still in process.

Locally, even before the Thurston Democratic Party ‘reorganization’ elections in December, two Bernie orgs have been formed nationally to continue the fight for social, economic, environmental and racial justice that Bernie’s campaign highlighted.

There is Brand New Congress (BNC) which seeks to contest over 400 congressional seats in 2018 (R’s and D’s alike) which has been busily vetting candidates around the country and raised over $250,000 towards setting up the prerequisite staffs to further that goal. They are a national group and so far have vetted somewhere around 60-70 candidates for the 2018 congressional elections that will challenge establishment Democrats as well as Republicans.

More recently, in early January, a local chapter of Bernie’s signature group ‘Our Revolution’ was formed.

And in mid-January the group ‘Justice Democrats’ was formed by Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and the host of ‘Secular Talk Radio’ Kyle Kulinski. In one month they have raised close to $500,000 and have teamed up with the Brand New Congress org in a common cause: to elect progressive candidates who vow not to accept corporate or Super Pac donations, instead relying on small donors and ‘people power’ at the grassroots level, modeled after Bernie’s campaign.

In addition to these Berniecrat groups, there is also ‘Indivisible’ which was formed by Democratic Party staffers after the election with the aim to resist the Trump’s administrations actions from day one. They model themselves as the Democratic Party equivalent of the Tea Party.

Locally, the Thurston County Progressives formed in August to keep the Bernie movement intact following the outcome of the primary race in Hillary’s favor. This is the only organization locally that is bridge building beyond the DP, although many in the leadership are still focused on funneling energy into the Democratic Party reform movement.

All of the above groups are largely focused on taking over the Democratic Party to steer it in a more progressive direction by getting rid of establishment politicians that rely on corporate donations and replacing them with real progressive that do not take corporate donations.

And by February 25th we will know who the Democratic National Committee—the 447 member committee of DP establishment VIP’s who get to vote—has elected as the next chair.

At the time of this writing, it looks to be between Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, the head of the DP Progressive Caucus—endorsed by Bernie Sanders—or Thomas Perez, the former Secretary of Labor under Obama—endorsed by Joe Biden. The outcome will be telling of the extent to which the Bernie movement has had an impact on the top party leadership that went all in for Clinton last year.

In any case, for those who remain committed to the principles of the ‘political revolution’ from within the Democratic Party—that stuggle will continue to unfold in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, what has happened to the ‘left’ and independent groups and voices who have opted to carry on the fight for fundamental political change from outside the Democratic Party?

The most prominent groups are the Green Party, Socialist Alternative, the Progressive Independent Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, and many other preexisting or new movement groups such as FairVote and Election Justice USA.

And most recently, Nick Brana, former national outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign announced an effort to ‘Draft Bernie for a People’s Party’ independent of the Democrats. But almost immediately after he started this effort, Bernie came on CNN and said he was focused on working inside the DP which undercut Brana’s effort. Still Brana believes that Bernie will eventually come to lead an independent party. Time will tell, but I am not hopeful given Bernie’s history of working side by side with the Democrats for the last 25 years since being elected to congress.

The Green Party candidate received 1.2 million votes or approximately 1.2 % of the total vote with Jill Stein’s campaign but failed to get the requisite 5%. Nevertheless, they have filed a case in federal court to overturn or change the rules of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) which keeps all minor parties out of the national debates—effectively keeping them out of the running—with a requirement that they must poll an average of 15% in at least five major media polls to get in the debates.

A federal court recently ruled that the CPD must change their process for allowing candidates in the debates but it remains to be seen what if any reforms are instituted by the courts that force the CPD’s hands to allow qualified minor parties in future presidential debates.

How would things be different if the Green Party and Libertarian Party were up there debating on the national media stage with Hillary and Trump? Both parties likely would have cleared the 5% threshold in the fall elections and been placed on equal legal footing with the two major parties for upcoming elections. In which case, the minor parties would not have to fight for ballot access in all 50 states and would get substantial federal funding for their national campaigns in the next presidential election cycle.

My year in the ‘blue hole’ of the Democratic Party ended with the expiration of my membership (dues) on January 31st just as my role as a PCO ended after I recently moved to another precinct. So I am now finally DemExited and back with the Green Party for the time being.

Most of my Bernie movement friends have been absorbed into the local Democratic Party fold, working the ‘inside’ angle for progressive political change. A few came over to the Green Party to continue the struggle from the ‘outside’. These local trends are reflected nationally in differing proportions, state by state, city by city.

Bernie’s primary campaign movement—the movement for a ‘political revolution’—that grabbed the attention of millions of American was only the latest challenge to the Democratic Party establishement.

Whether it’s remaining active adherents, now splintered into several competing organizations, can come together and take over a significant portion of the party will only be answered over the next several years leading up to the 2020 elections.

The coming years will be yet another testing of the thesis purported by those who have watched these efforts come and go to no avail which is whether or not “The Democratic Party is where progressives go to die.”

Perhaps this time, things will turn out differently. We shall see.

Chris Stegman is a local activist with the Green Party and a member of Thurston Progressives. He can be reached at cstegman007@gmail.com if you want to comment on this article. He welcomes all feedback, good, bad or indifferent.