The Problem with (Most) Democrats

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For any left-of-center observer in Connecticut, following politics has become quite a maddening experience. The past few weeks have seen a steady stream of landmark Supreme Court cases attacking many of our core values. The conservative majority issued rulings that weakened the federal government’s authority to fight global warming, dramatically blurred the separation of church and state, eliminated gun control measures, put hard limits on public health policies, and all but eliminated the constitutional right of individuals to have a say about their own bodies during pregnancy.

This endless parade of bad news has only been made worse by the persistent incompetence of congressional Democrats since Biden was elected. Despite having an activist, emboldened, antidemocratic, and increasingly unpopular Supreme Court issuing opinions one after another on legislation at the core of the party’s values, they have done next to nothing to push back. The ambitious climate change agenda included in the “Build Back Better” bill has fallen by the wayside. Attempts to codify reproductive rights by law have gone nowhere. The pandemic response has become so anemic that Congress even failed to pass additional funding for vaccine boosters this fall.

More than the predictable Congressional gridlock, however, the truly frustrating part of this whole mess has been how Democratic leaders in Washington have convinced themselves that they are truly, completely, totally powerless. After each court ruling, they issued the political equivalent of a sternly worded letter to the manager (if they even bothered to go that far), read a poem (if they were feeling lyrical), and… not much else. They were disappointed enough to send a fundraising email or two, maybe, and then plead voters across the country to go out and vote really, really hard in the upcoming midterms. Pretty, pretty, please.

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Well, we did vote, in droves, in the past two elections. Democrats happen to control both houses of Congress and the White House because left-of-center Americans did care about the things Democrats said they care about (minimum wage, paid family leave, climate change, abortion, gun control, stopping an authoritarian madman from staging a coup) and went to the polls, hoping they would do something ith all that political power. What they got, instead, is what amounts to the world’s most expensive political speed bump, doing little to slow down anything.

The Democratic staring-into-the-void strategy, however, is not shared by the whole party. If we look at Connecticut politics for the past three and a half years, we have seen a democratic majority that have wielded their power to raise the minimum wage, pass paid family leave, address climate change, and protect abortion rights, and the lack of action of gun control only due to already strong legislation in the books in our state.

Some might say we have gotten all this because Connecticut is a left-of-center state to begin with, but this is not the whole story. Many Democrats in Connecticut did not want to do any of this seven or eight years ago — it took the work and effort of many, many, many left-of-center organizers, activists, community leaders, and volunteers to get them to this point.

Take paid family and medical leave, one of the most important pieces of legislation signed by Governor Lamont during his first term in office. Ten years ago, lawmakers could not even get the votes to pass a bill to study how to put together a paid family leave system in Connecticut. In the years that followed, many, many, many left-of-center folks and activists came together and worked to convince elected officials about the need for legislation for working families. They worked to recruit and elect candidates that supported it. They made enough noise to ensure that everyone running for office in the state in 2018 was asked if they would support the legislation, and extracted firm commitments from then-candidate Lamont and a large voting block at the Capitol to pass it. In 2019, two of those legislators (State Sen. Julie Kushner and State Rep. Robyn Porter of the Labor Committee) guided the bill through the Capitol and sent it to the Governor’s desk.

Sure, voting mattered, and being a left-of-center state helped, but it was not enough. It took a lot of work and effort to ensure that we elected Democrats that cared about their constituents and wanted to make a difference. They saw a problem, they understood it, and they acted accordingly.

Building the infrastructure required to elect candidates that can both win elections and govern is not easy. We have put a lot of effort into this, and God knows that despite our many successes, there is a lot of work to be done in Connecticut. Inequality is rampant, housing is way too expensive, we have too many people without healthcare, economic and racial segregation is widespread, and our tax system is upside down. It is fairly clear that even with its many failings, Democrats here have been pushed by their voters and communities to govern, fix things, and react to what is happening in our country. We will vote in November, that is for sure. If we want to make Congressional Democrats an effective party, however, we will need to do quite a bit more than that to get it done.