Park Menn

Only a political party as useless as the Democrats could take advice from a vacuous snake-oil salesman like Mark Penn.

Aspen Institute / Flickr

No more needs to be said about the drivel squeezed out by Democratic Party barnacle Mark Penn (with an assist from convicted white-collar criminal Andrew Stein) and inexplicably published on the New York Times op-ed page last week. “Back to the Center, Democrats” was greeted with an instant barrage of criticism from all directions, its incoherent and reactionary premises torn to shreds by anyone with a pulse.

Penn and Stein’s advice to the Democrats seemed to come from an alternate reality somehow even dumber and more venal than our own. Hopefully there will be nothing to be learned about the future direction of the Democratic Party in “Back to the Center, Democrats,” but plenty about its past.

Penn may be an unemployable laughingstock these days (although he still has a disturbing hold on influence through his ownership of powerhouse DC political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker), but his career as a highly sought-after Democratic campaign guru exposes the shambolic vacuity of America’s ostensible left party. Penn promoted bad ideas that got worse results and was rewarded with increased status and financial compensation at every turn. He spun corporate ties, marketing hogwash (his book Microtrends is the Necronomicon for PR slugs), and general strategic incompetence into electoral failure.

It is worth considering, though, how essentially bereft a political party would have to be to produce and continue to listen to someone like Penn.

The fundamental fact about the Democratic Party is that it’s neither democratic nor a real political party. While most other left parties in the West emerged from the labor militancy of the late-nineteenth century, creating mass membership bases and close structural ties to labor unions, the Democratic Party, having existed in some form since the early Republic, absorbed working-class voters into their broader electoral coalition without offering any kind of built-in commitment to their agenda in exchange.

Being a party committed first and foremost to facilitating the rise of industrial capitalism, the Democrats had to fend off challenges from insurgent parties such as the Populists, Progressives, and Socialists. The New Deal finally cemented an alliance between the Democratic Party and organized labor that persists to this day, but the relationship has always been transactional. Since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s, the logic of that transaction has grown more and more threadbare.

Whatever Frankensteinian political creature the party was before the 1970s, the contemporary Democratic Party is a more easily recognizable creature: a brand.

Without a program of policies to advance the material interests of ordinary Americans (that would conflict with the crucial, bipartisan work of clawing back wages and benefits from workers to make up for the declining profitability of capitalist class investments), the Democrats were forced to adopt corporate marketing strategies to attract voters. There’s about as much objective reason to vote Democrat as there is to drink Coke, so the DLC-era Democrats embraced the emerging “science” of marketing and branding to persuade people that doing so would make them cool and with it and concerned about their country’s future.

Enter medicine show frauds like Mark Penn.

Penn got rich peddling obvious snake oil in doomed Democratic campaign after doomed Democratic campaign, being rewarded with greater and greater responsibility, culminating in the catastrophic 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign. Penn’s nostrums (microtargeting! NASCAR dads! Crossfit aunts! Sniper-enthusiasts!) had no empirical basis and no persuasive force besides convincing high-level Democratic operatives that they were the key to electoral success.

It was snake oil, which perhaps some other people in the ‘08 Clinton campaign realized when Penn spoke blithely of winning all of California’s primary delegates without knowing that they were apportioned proportionally. And so, after Clinton blew the primaries in historic fashion, Penn was cast out of the inner circle, never to be allowed inside a high-profile campaign again. Instead, when Clinton ran again in 2016, she forsook Penn’s proprietary blend of fraudulent microdemographic cant and embraced the immortal science of poll-based statistical modeling.

Penn promised Clinton that he could define the electorate to a molecular level. 2016 campaign director Robbie Mook didn’t claim to understand the electorate, just that he could predict their behavior on a molecular level. It didn’t go any better than the first time.

Only time will tell what will come first: the Democratic Party being turned into a vehicle for the aspirations of working Americans, or the Democratic Party spending millions of dollars on dowsing rods. Either way, Mark Penn will be sitting on the sidelines, counting his ill-gotten gains and offering free advice.