What is Party Unity?

During this election cycle, a common catchphrase that has been thrown around is “party unity.”  What does party unity actually mean?  Who decides what party unity is?  Is it blindly supporting a candidate no matter what?  Is it being a cheerleader for the party, ignoring the issues?  Does party unity mean acknowledging the problems and being willing to look for solutions?  The issues in Iowa offer a small window into the issues with the national party, in particular, the DNC.

The Iowa Democratic caucus was a hotly contested event.  Less than one percentage point separated Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton.  Age was the biggest divide between Clinton and Sanders.  Millennials and younger Gen Xers supported Sanders by a large margin.  Nationally more millennials voted for Sanders than for both Trump and Hillary combined.  Many of these supporters were people getting involved for the first time.  Some of the participants had never been registered with a political party before.  The caucus process in some of the larger counties did not go smoothly.  Events in both Polk County and Story County showed the first cracks in party unity.

Many of the Sanders supporters were accused of not being “real Democrats” because Bernie’s campaign was anything but a mainstream campaign.  He didn’t accept Super PAC money and bluntly spoke about economic issues facing America.  Many of the Clinton supporters felt disrespected and derogatorily referred to as the “establishment.”  Many of them had spent decades fighting for issues such as reproductive rights and marriage equality.  Both sides were equally suspicious of each other.  Clinton supporters felt just as strongly as Bernie supporters that their candidate was the best one.

More than 100 Sanders delegates were either unable or chose not to attend the state convention. Many were expecting the convention would last into the early hours of the following morning, and some rural Iowans could not afford to take additional time off work or pay for travel and overnight lodging.  This fed the narrative that these delegates were just a bunch of young kids who expected quick results and didn’t want to put in the work.  Then something happened.  As the day went on, Clinton supporters started leaving early.  When the finer points of the platform were being debated, Sanders supporters realized that the earlier numerical disadvantage had flipped.  They now had the majority and were able to pass most of the resolutions and planks they supported.  They managed to get language opposing superdelegates into the platform.  They fought off a last-minute Hail Mary from Clinton delegates to strike that plank from the platform.  The final result was the most progressive platform in state history.

As more states held their caucuses and primaries, it became clear that Hillary Clinton was going to be the nominee.  Calls for party unity became more and more amplified.  For Sanders delegates, the message seemed to be “fall in line.”  Little time was to be given for mourning what had been a very contentious primary season.  For some, this was similar the 2008 PUMA movement, where Clinton supporters initially refused to support Obama after she lost the nomination.  Sanders supporters felt the DNC never gave Bernie a fair shot.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz was the target of their anger.  Then the first Wikileaks dump happened.  While these leaks did not produce any direct evidence of fraud, the optics were terrible.  Several DNC staffers resigned in disgrace.  An argument that where there is smoke there is fire could be made.  Clinton embraced Debbie Wasserman Schultz the day after she resigned.  That was an extremely tone-deaf move which brought the ire of many progressives.

In Iowa, the calls for unity seem to be more along the lines of being a cheerleader.  If you criticize the way things are done, you are accused of “pointing fingers.”  Some have suggested that if you aren’t passionately supporting Hillary, you should be “purged” from the party.  Any criticism of Hillary Clinton is seen as a right-wing attack.  No credence is given to the fact that there are legitimate criticisms of her that aren’t right-wing attacks.  Progressives are upset that she is silent on Standing Rock.  They are upset that she chose an anti-union, pro-pipeline running mate. This felt like a slap in the face.

It would be unfair not to mention that behavior by some Sanders supporters has hurt party unity.  Clinton supporters who have been fighting for civil rights since the 1960s have been told they are the establishment.  They have been told that a true progressive would never support Hillary Clinton.  Clearly, this isn’t the case.  Some subgroups of Sanders supporters have been outright hostile to Sanders delegates who voted or intend to vote for Clinton in the general election.  I will disclose that I voted for Hillary Clinton.  I don’t think that makes me any less of a progressive.  I’ve spoken with several Clinton supporters who have expressed discomfort about actively supporting her online due to fear that they will be verbally attacked.

Party unity is a two-way street.  It cannot be about being a cheerleader for the party.  Tough conversations must be had.  Iowa is turning red and we are not bringing our message to all corners of the state.  We are not contesting every single race.  Die-hard Clinton supporters need to come around to the realization that there are some legitimate criticisms of Hillary Clinton and her campaign.  This would be true about any candidate.  They need to understand that there are people like me, who are proud Democrats, voted for her but aren’t enthralled with her as a candidate.  They need to understand there are Democrats who can’t bring themselves to vote for her but are working their butts off to help elect down-ballot Democrats.  Die-hard Sanders supporters need to understand that there are people out there who are just as progressive as they are, who feel Hillary Clinton is the best candidate.  They need to understand that she has been the victim of right-wing attacks for more than 20 years, thus they must examine the sources of these criticisms.  They need to understand that there are Clinton supporters who are just as outraged as they are about Standing Rock, fracking, income inequality, flaws in the ACA, etc.

If we are going to be a big-tent party, it is imperative that we look past our differences and not put each other through political purity tests.  Accusations of who is a “real progressive” or who is a “real Democrat” are silly and do nothing to support unity.  As a party we have issues.  We need to have open and respectful dialogue to fix this.  Sweeping these issues under the rug will only continue to widen the divide.

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About Jason Frerichs

Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Progressive Caucus