In the October 20 “Willie’s World,” Willie Brown’s often surprisingly informative and entertaining San Francisco Chronicle column, the former mayor and state Assembly speaker tells us that, “Democratic socialists are not Democrats. They run under the Democratic banner, but they have contempt for traditional Democrats. They just don’t have nerve to run as a third party. Just like Bernie Sanders, they want the benefit of the traditional Democratic vote without going to the effort of building a party infrastructure.”
Couple of things here, your honor. True, some democratic socialists are not Democrats. You’d actually have to check the registration on each. What prompted Brown to take up this topic was “the race in Assembly District 15, which includes Richmond, Berkeley, Piedmont and parts of Oakland [where] Berniecrat democratic socialist Jovanka Beckles is running against a progressive, Barack Obama-type Democrat, Buffy Wicks.” Jovanka Beckles is not only a Democrat, but she’s served as a Richmond City Council member since 2010 and vice mayor since 2016, in contrast to Wicks who has never held elective office but is viewed as the legitimate Democrat by Brown.
Fortunately, Brown’s interest in limiting his party to his kind of Democrats is not likely to loom large in voter consideration. What may be a factor is the policy differences between the two – most notably, Beckles supports Proposition 10 which would repeal the Costa Hawkins Act that currently limits local government’s ability to enact protections for tenants; Wicks does not.
But it is true that some democratic socialists are not Democrats – Bernie Sanders, most obviously, much to hizzoner’s great annoyance. But could Brown actually name anyone who has done a better job these past two years in rallying voters (in great measure Democrats) against the Trump agenda and in promoting a counter legislative agenda (legislation in many cases filed by Democrats) than Sanders? And if he really thinks Bernie should just go away and build his own party, what does he make of the fact that so many of the Democrats whom he does regard as legit, like his old friend Kamala Harris, are now hitting notes from Bernie’s song, such as Medicare for all and free college tuition – issues that they were not advocating before Sanders demonstrated their popularity?
Unfortunately, Brown has his mirror image among some on the left who also believe that the Democratic Party belongs to those with Brown’s views and that the rest of us need to go start our own party where we wouldn’t have to deal with the corporate types. At a recent East Bay program sponsored by one of the state’s “third parties,” for instance, a representative of that party asked a speaker advocating a within-the-Democratic-Party approach what it would take to convince him that this strategy was mistaken.
He was answered instead by another of that party’s members, who had broken with the third party strategy and supported Sanders and who now pointed out that his question had it backwards – given the fact that the vote amassed by Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries surpassed that of all previous socialist presidential candidates combined! Likewise, on the congressional level, while there have been the occasional independent successes – most notably Sanders – the currently existing “third parties” have yet to elect a single member to Congress, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ran in a Democratic primary, will be sworn in next January.
Some, it seems, mistake their preference for a parliamentary system for reality. Were there actually such a system in the US, the democratic socialists and the Willie Browns would indeed campaign against each other. Afterwards, if neither won a majority but the combined strength of the two groups did constitute one, they would most likely start negotiating to form a coalition government, since both would likely easily recognize the other as preferable to Trump and the Republicans. But there is no parliamentary system in the US, so we have to do it the messy way, all under one big tent. San Francisco is actually an excellent example of how that works, as the left and the center have vied for control of the city’s Democratic Party for years, and neither side thinks of walking out. There were actually “third party” office holders in the city just a few years back, but they thought the better of it.
So, no Willie, we ain’t going nowhere. And if you really think someone’s got to go, how about you go? Maybe you could start up a Corporate Democrats of America or something.
Tom Gallagher is chair of the San Francisco chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and author of “The Primary Route: How the 99 percent take on the military-industrialcomplex.”