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Who’s Afraid of the DNC?

In a midtown bar, Tom Perez has little more to offer than free appetizers
Art for Who’s Afraid of the DNC?.


It took all of five minutes for Tom Perez to quote Hamilton. The DNC honcho was dispensing his stump speech—he had done about twenty of these events in the last couple weeks—to a gaggle of millennials at the DNC’s Young Professional Leadership Council Launch. The event’s aim was to tap into the organizing mojo (and cash reserves) of younger voters to rectify at least one enthusiasm gap afflicting the doddering 2016 campaign. The crowd of 250 tilted male, business casual, and was packed into the basement of Stout, a Manhattan chain bar of vaguely Irish sensibility. To the assembled faithful, Perez, his voice customarily hoarse, drew from his Hamiltonian reserves and shouted: “History has its eyes on us!”

Here in this bar? Probably not. But the audience members dutifully whooped back, their autonomic response having been triggered by the mention of the sacred text of latter day liberalism. These people had all paid at least $100 (and some, much more) to be here, so they might as well simulate excitement. Perez would be done with his speech soon, and then it would be back to the bar and the complimentary appetizers.

What is the new DNC’s message? What does it stand for?

Some politics, some booze, some free apps—it wasn’t a bad scene at Stout last Monday night, but it was hardly the stuff of political revolution, much less any coherent political movement. Many of the attendees I talked to seemed as concerned with networking as with rejuvenating our beleaguered body politic. There was a lot of what Baffler contributor Scott Beauchamp calls “teeth checking”—those appraising looks of “Should I know you? Do you matter?” as someone studies your face and name tag, while none too subtly scouting the room for someone more important to talk to.

Still, a palpable impatience could be detected among many attendees, a familiar post-2016 sense that we should do something. Why not this?

For Perez, it was a moment for “optimism,” he explained, citing the recent election wins by progressive candidates in Virginia, New Jersey, Montana, and elsewhere. “When we’re united, we’re at our best,” he said.

Indeed, a recurring point among the DNC speakers was the importance of fielding candidates in every election. It seems that the Democratic leadership has discovered the value of showing up. As Grace Meng, a Congresswoman from Queens who spoke before Perez, said, “Sure, some people keep asking what our message is, but in some places we didn’t even have a messenger.” Now the party plans to have messengers everywhere. “The new DNC is from the school board to the Oval Office,” Perez intoned.

But what is the new DNC’s message? What does it stand for? You could be forgiven for coming away from Monday night without the foggiest idea. TV screens around the room proclaimed, in a riot of clashing graphics, “Rebuild, Modernize, Organize, Win.” For which policies or on whose behalf, it wasn’t quite clear. Perez invoked some issues of leftish concern—climate change, women’s reproductive rights, public schools—without speaking in any depth.

There were other signs that this was the same bloated corpse of a political racket that had stumbled through the 2016 election amid a steady stream of embarrassing revelations about its top-down, self-dealing managerial ethos. One corner of the bar had been cordoned off with velvet rope, behind which Perez, before he ascended the stage, schmoozed and took selfies with donors of a certain tier. Once he did take the mic, Perez praised his DNC colleague Meng and then for some reason saw fit to tell the room, “She knows that the most important title she’ll have in her life is ‘mom.’” (Again, Meng is a member of Congress.)

It seems that the Democratic leadership has discovered the value of showing up.

Beyond diminishing the achievements of his female colleagues and quoting blandly from a Broadway musical, Perez was an enthusiastic if not very inspiring speaker. (Another one of the lead-in acts, Michael Blake, a state legislator from the Bronx, served up far more charisma.) Perez offered vague bromides about liberal issues, but his language had the plastic feel of PR-speak. He spoke of “constitutional policing,” not Black Lives Matter. He didn’t rail against the odiousness of Trump; he cited a “culture of corruption.” There was no mention of any foreign policy, nor of the forever wars that have been the collective background music to these young professionals’ lives.

A central portion of Perez’s speech revolved around an elaborate anecdote—culled, he said, from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein—of a “gyroscope” that affects all society. The telling was muddled, hopelessly so, but apparently this gyroscope acts as a healing or progressive force. For instance, “it was that gyroscope that ended our country’s original sin, slavery.” The gyroscope is responsible for all kinds of other positive developments. But what is the gyroscope? The “gyroscope is we,” Perez said—Democrats, the good guys.

If none of this adds up for you, if denatured TED talks served alongside $8 beers and bad pico de gallo don’t excite your political sensibilities, fear not. This is the new Democratic Party, the one whose congressional representatives recently voted to loosen regulations on payday lenders. They’re still figuring it out. “We’ve got a heckuva lot of work to do,” Perez admitted, a comment that could have applied as much to his fumbling remarks as to his party’s waning electoral power. But of this he was certain: “The Democratic Party is back, folks.”