And here we are. A week after primaries, and there’s jostling between South Jersey progressives about what progressive moral responsibilities are in terms of party, ideology, and values. I’ve been writing about this balance — between pushing the Democratic party towards better, progressive policies and the wider context of weakening the party’s opposition to Trump — but with progressive challenges to the Democratic Party in Cherry Hill, Collingswood and Camden, the issue is getting a lot of attention. I’m going to continue to touch on this over the next few weeks, and I’ll start doing so by examining Collingswood progressive Chris Barrett’s frustrating and problematic shade at fellow progressives in Cherry Hill.
Before I do so, some background. In the run-up to the election, quite a few progressives were trying to find the appropriate outlet for their post-November frustrations. The Trump presidency led to spontaneous action (I was with many friends in Philadelphia Airport protesting the night that the travel ban hit) and an outpouring of participation at meetings (I was also with many friends in the parking lot of the Collingswood library — where a few hundred of us couldn’t get into the packed library and instead attended an impromptu meeting in the parking lot).
At another such meeting — Our Revolution Camden County, a local affiliate of Bernie Sander’s organization — a theory of change was proposed: run progressive candidates in Democratic Primaries as a way of pushing a surprisingly conservative South Jersey Democratic Party to be more progressive. To my knowledge, only two slates were born that night: one in Collingswood and one in Cherry Hill.
The two groups of progressives took dramatically different approaches. In Collingswood, the candidates came to a deal with the existing representatives and a number of their candidates were included on the Democratic Party committee slate (Column 6) — meaning there was no contested election. In Cherry Hill, the candidates ran their own slate of candidates (on Column 7), including committee members, city council, and county-wide free-holders. They lost, essentially 2-1, in an election with quite high turnout.
Yesterday, one of the Collingswood progressive candidates who joined the Democratic slate co-authored this piece with Collingswood Mayor James Maley and Democratic Committee member Sandi Kelly — criticizing Democrats who ran for office in the primaries. Here’s an excerpt:
If every new voter energized to “get involved” adds more contention to this already hostile political climate, it will ultimately encourage even more people to swear off any political involvement at all. The fight has become reflexive and irrational. The pent-up, deep-seated emotion on all sides is making us unable to hear and understand the questions we face, much less conceive the appropriate answers.
All of this inability to cooperate and get things done has descended to politics at the local level. Democrats across the country recently engaged in widespread primaries, where newly involved candidates challenged neighbors at the most local level, as an attempt to bring down the “establishment party”. Dedicated Democrats who have served in the party for decades are resisting and fighting those whom they see as “radical” newcomers. The struggle is exhausting for the participants and, we believe, detrimental to any chance Democrats have of reclaiming governing momentum.
Before I dive into the problems with the piece, I want to lay out my own thoughts about the strategies in Collingswood and Cherry Hill. I appreciate the progress made in Collingswood and think it’s great there are new, progressive voices in office. I also appreciate that compromises such as this are sometimes made possible by the more aggressive and threatening movement — think of it as the Malcolm and Martin dynamic. That the already-quite-progressive Collingswood was a natural place for a deal may be linked to Cherry Hill’s relative steadfastness in not compromising — and just because a deal was on the table in Collingswood doesn’t mean it was in Cherry Hill. The best frame for activism is often an eco-system in which there are interrelated parts. Within that eco-system, there is room for multiple simultaneous strategies to pursue a progressive agenda.
All that said, while I have no objections to the strategic choice Barrett and others made in Collingswood, I have serious reservations about the ideas put forth in this op-ed.
Starting with the most obvious: the theory of change here is all confused. Barrett and his co-authors argue: “When an inspired group of Collingswood voters were motivated and anxious to get involved after this past Presidential election, they were urged by national activist organizations to run against whomever was on their local political committee.” The shade towards Our Revolution here is baffling — the article acknowledges that the deal was made possible by people organizing to run for office. To then turn around and criticize others for doing the same is deeply contradictory. There is no counterfactual, so we’ll never know if progressive newcomers would have been invited to be on the committee without organizing and representing competition in the election, but we do know what did happen. Collingswood progressives organized, gathered petitions to run for office, then reached a deal. Running for office was a critical part of the process to adding new progressives to the Collingswood Democratic Committee.
The second troubling aspect of this article is the way it pins blame on progressives in the name of “unity”. I, for one, was glad to hear of a local Democratic committee that was willing to incorporate new progressive voices, and similarly glad to see those progressives willing to compromise. To me, an article calling for both the Democratic Party and progressive movements to compromise and work together would be a welcome thing. Instead, the article specifically targets newcomers as vitriolic (“If every new voter energized to ‘get involved’ adds more contention to this already hostile political climate, it will ultimately encourage even more people to swear off any political involvement at all.”) while praising the party (“Democratic county political committees are the workhorses for our political party. They are the people who work very hard to sign people up to vote and to get Democrats elected to office. They are the strident political believers of our party. They are also the hardest working, least glamorous participants in the process.”).
These are tired tropes, and suffice to say that for many of us South Jersey progressives, this does not match our experience. I’ve personally had members of the SJ Dem power structure curse out my colleages at work, tell me that I could not be involved with the party if I publicly questioned Democratic policies, and even call my workplace to try to have my blog removed from the Rutgers server, all because I had the gall to promote progressive policies that were adopted almost uniformly by this year’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates (local control for schools, limits to large tax subsidies for corporations, etc). While I’m pleased that Barrett had a different experience, I have plenty of progressive friends who would beg to differ with his characterization of progressives and party regulars in Camden County. Call for both sides to meet at the table? Fine. Blast progressives as contentious for running against the nice party people? Less fine.
Lastly, I would just argue that the premise of this article — that primary challenges from progressives are bad for the party, or as Barrett writes “the struggle is exhausting for the participants and, we believe, detrimental to any chance Democrats have of reclaiming governing momentum” — is profoundly untrue, and profoundly unprogressive. All we need do is contrast the New Jersey gubernatorial primary — which was settled by insiders before most voters knew who was in the race — with Virginia’s recent primary between Perrielo and Northam. While Jersey turnout was embarrassingly low (13%) and there are rumors the second place finisher (a high official in the Obama administration) will get blackballed from Jersey politics — Virginia’s Democratic turnout was quite high and the second-place finisher there is now a national name and well-positioned to add to the Democratic bench. In Virginia, the winner is heavily favored in a swing state because enthusiasm and turnout was so much higher than Republican turnout. In other words — a competitive primary helped the party.
This is a fundamental progressive value; that open, fair elections between those with different values and policy positions help the party in the long-term. It’s distressing to see a progressive receive power, immediately prioritize “unity” over a progressive value like elections, then put the onus on progressives to compromise by not challenging the party. Think of it this way: after winning office as a progressive, Chris Barrett made his first act to publicly criticize other progressives for running for office. Unity is important, primary campaigns which focus solely on us v. them are problematic, and it is critical to balance pushing progressive policies with national strategy and power. But when unity means Democrats demand support no matter how conservative the policy then blame progressives for divisiveness when they demure, when unity means publicly blasting other progressives as “irrational” for having the audacity to run for office in their own community, and when unity is calling progressives “radicals” to undercut new progressives’ influence when they get involved, that’s when unity is counterproductive.