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David Sirota
David Sirota
25 Sep 2015
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18 Sep 2015
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Environmental groups and Democratic legislators are pressuring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to say that General … Read More.

11 Sep 2015
Prosecution of White Collar Crime Hits 20-Year Low

Just a few years after the financial crisis, a new report tells an important story: Federal prosecution of white-… Read More.

Two 2016 Prospects Spotlight Democrats' Identity Crisis


Despite its success in recent elections, and despite the image of unity it projects, the Democratic Party is in the throes of an epic identity crisis pitting its corporate money against its stated principles. The recent actions of two of the party's rising stars — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — tell the deeper tale of that crisis. It is a microcosmic story, suggesting that the 2016 election may be a decisive turning point in the party's history.

The money side of the schism is embodied by Hickenlooper. As the new vice-chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, the former petroleum geologist and beer mogul represents a cabal of Democratic politicians whose brand couples moderate positions on social issues with hard-edged corporatism on economic ones.

Corporatism, of course, is a vague label - but in Democratic politics it typically refers to helping campaign contributors bust unions and dismantle environmental regulations, with the expectation that servile labor and environmental leaders will sit by as their movements are decimated.

Hickenlooper's actions this month show how the formula works.

On labor issues, after a summer of staging media events to thank firefighters for combating wildfires, the Colorado governor publicly threatened to veto legislation that would enshrine the right of those firefighters to choose to form a union. Of such basic legal protections, Hickenlooper flippantly declared that he does "not believe it is a matter of state interest."

On environmental issues, it is the same story. Hickenlooper this week testified against federal legislation that would compel energy companies to disclose what toxic chemicals they pump into the ground when fracking for natural gas. His testimony made headlines after he insinuated that fracking fluid is so harmless that Americans can safely drink it.

While Hickenlooper's claim was later debunked, few observers were surprised he would utter such a pernicious lie. After all, with Hickenlooper's electoral career bankrolled by fossil fuel firms, he has not just ignored the scientific evidence that shows fracking is dangerous — he has also denied that climate change is happening, offered to back corporate lawsuits to overturn municipal drilling regulations and appeared as a spokesman for the oil and gas industry in its political advertisements.

Additionally, the Denver Post reports that Hickenlooper's regulators "rarely penalize companies responsible for (drilling-related) spills."

If you find this repulsive, then you are probably on the other side of the Democratic Party divide — the one personified by Warren.

Though a freshman legislator, she is already a celebrity thanks to her longtime advocacy on behalf of the poor, her fiery tenure running the panel that audited the 2008 bank bailout and her 2012 election victory over a Wall Street-financed opponent. This week, as if deliberately underscoring her commitment to live up to the Democratic Party's populist billing, Warren rejected the unspoken Washington rule requiring junior lawmakers to keep quiet. Instead, she used her first committee hearing to slam Obama administration regulators for being weak on financial crime.

In assuming such a posture, Warren, along with Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), represents what the late liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone called "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." In other words, unlike Hickenlooper's cadre, she doesn't represent the business elites who buy politicians like shares of stock. She represents the millions of voters who win the party elections.

For his part, Hickenlooper has deployed cronies to stoke rumors of a presidential candidacy. Meanwhile, the ABC News headline "Elizabeth Warren 2016?" summarized the sentiment of liberals who are buzzing about a possible Warren White House bid.

Regardless of whether the two run, it is likely that the 2016 Democratic presidential primary will feature their archetypes, forcing the party's coalition to choose a side. It is also a good bet that because those archetypes are at odds with one another, whichever side wins will decide the party's direction for generations.

David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." Email him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



2 Comments | Post Comment
I'd argue that there is no internal fight; the Democratic Party leadership (DNC, DSCC, DCCC) are the corporatists and did not back Warren until it was obvious that she had a chance of winning. It was the outside group PCCC that "recruited" Warren and backed her from the start. She would never have been selected by the party leaders who don't like those liberal Democrats that challenge their campaign funders from Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Media, etc. The main reason Warren is where she is today (besides her own intelligence and determination) is because progressives got out in front of the party machine and really supported her and her ground game throughout the election. Hickenlooper is the typical party candidate; the kind they like because they can rake in a lot of corporate dollars. So the only way I see of changing this is to keep pushing from the outside to try to change the party leadership and get more people like Warren elected. We saw good changed when Howard Dean was running the DNC but after he left they went back to business as usual.

Also, I'd have to disagree with your example of Al Franken being a Democrat that bucks the system. Sherrod Brown sure but Franken has been a big disappointment to me. He's been keeping his head down and playing it safe so he can win re-election. He did have a close race, but how does he expect to win when he has virtually no record to run on? Look at the difference between him and Brown. Brown has been very outspoken and he managed to win even though he was the top GOP target and they threw everything at him. But his constituents knew him and knew that he was on their side fighting for them so they re-elected him. We'll see if Franken can get enough people to rally behind him after being absent from all the major Senate fights over the last few years.
Comment: #1
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Feb 22, 2013 8:45 AM
If I may, I wish writers on the progressive side would stop using the word "brand" when referring to the parties or the factions of the parties. To use that word in such a situation is to give credence to the conservative idea that what we needed (and have implemented) in society is the business model.
The reason the Democratic Party developed the DLC and now the New Democrates is because of the successful implimentation of using business as the model for structuring society and thus government. It is the modo, the MO, the crede of the conservative ideology.
Thus, "brand" having inferences within the public's mind as being related to business, most commonly retail, the application of that word to political parties just makes it easier to be less serious and intent when trying to solve our problems. Using the word "brand" is why we are already talking about 2016 presidential possibilities. It's just rolling out the new model. Ok, but where's the truth? "Brand" does not conjure up images of the founding fathers in deep thought and debate during the constitutional convention, at least not in my opinion.
Please don't use "brand".
Comment: #2
Posted by: Daniel Becker
Fri Feb 22, 2013 9:10 AM
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