Friday, June 17, 2022

Democracy in Danger: The January 6 Insurrection and the June 6 Ward Leader Elections


Granted there’s a totally different order of magnitude, but there is a connection between the trampling of democratic traditions during the January 6 insurrection and the violation of democratic rights that occurred in some of the June 6 Philadelphia ward leader elections. The parallel has been most effectively drawn by Philadelphia Magazine’s Ernest Owens who notes:
It’s hard to watch the ongoing January 6th committee hearings into the attack on democracy at our nation’s Capital and not be a little concerned about the democratic principles in our own backyard.

There is a shared contempt for democratic processes. Of course, the consequences of the June 6 ward leader elections are nowhere near as dire as those of the January 6 insurrection, but they are not trivial.

According to Billy Penn: the conflict in West Philadelphia’s 46th ward… “devolved into a physical fight” between supporters of incumbent Jannie Blackwell and progressive challengers contending they were denied the opportunity to nominate a candidate

Such violations have a long history in Philadelphia politics. When I interviewed scores of committee people and ward leaders for my book Green Shoots(2016) I heard many stories of reorganization meetings similar to some of the June 6th meetings--no clear process, everyone confused, and a vote happening (or sometimes suppressed) in the middle of the confusion. Sadly, many elected officials who decry the attempts of the mob to overturn democracy on January 6 turn a blind eye to violations of democratic process on the ward level.

The good news is more citizens (and journalists) are paying attention to the failures of the Philadelphia ward system. Despite Democratic ward elections marked by bitter arguments, violations of ward policies and procedures — and in at least one case, a physical struggle — progressives in Philadelphia this week made significant movement towards their goal of making local politics more democratic and transparent. Furthermore, Progressives have built an organization Open Wards Philly which brings together individuals who may disagree about policies and about candidate endorsements but who share a commitment to democracy in the ward system.

There is mounting evidence that the voters have lost faith in the Democratic Party. Chair Bob Brady, who seems to be investing more energy into defeating progressives than into defeating Republicans, h ran an ugly campaign against progressive incumbents in conjunction with a PAC affiliated with the Republican Party. However, voters rejected by large margins the candidates Democratic City Committee put forth to oppose progressive candidates.

Voters are decisively rejecting the argument that progressives do not belong in the Democratic Party. I have heard Democratic Party activists and elected officials associated with the Party machine argue that progressives should not be running as Democrats but should run as third-party candidates because they are not “real” Democrats. They seem unaware that there is a long tradition of progressives building a base within the Democratic party. The labor movement did this; the civil rights movement did this. Also, there are progressive caucuses in many state legislatures and a progressive caucus in Congress.

Progressives are an integral and rising part of the Democratic Party. They have demonstrated in the recent ward leader elections that they value and understand the importance of democratic procedures. With their recent successful lawsuit Bob Brady and Councilperson Cindy in Common Pleas Court, they have also demonstrated their determination to fight for the rights of committeepeople to participate fully in endorsements and in ward governance. The Inquirer’s Chris Brennan reports Bob Brady’s dismissive remark in response to progressive challenges to results of ward leader elections: “They want to go to court? That’s fine,” he said. “One thing I have is plenty of attorneys. We’ve got a lot of people who want to be judges.”

Brady’s remark underscores what is wrong with our system. It is difficult for a judicial candidate to be elected without support from the Democratic City Committee. Brady’s words could be taken as a warning to attorneys with judicial ambitions that they would do better to ally themselves with the Party than with progressives. Acquiescence in this system and the failure to demand democracy and transparency in local politics can lead to an erosion of commitment to democratic values on the national level. There is a connection between January 6 and June 6.

This article appeared in the the June 30 2022 Chestnut Hill Local.

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