This report was written by Walker Bragman
Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential bid may have come to an end, but the revolution continues in Michigan. There, a group of progressives has made significant strides in taking over their state’s Democratic Party. This group has forced a number of procedural and platform changes over the course of three years, resulting in a democratization of the party and the endorsement of agenda items like single-payer health care and universal basic income. Progressives can rely on the votes of roughly a third of the state party’s leadership committee.
Now, in the upcoming February 20 election, progressives have a slate of 123 candidates running and are hoping to capture a majority on the state party’s governing body.
The effort’s success could provide a roadmap to other progressive groups looking to establish lasting positions of power in their state Democratic parties. As Liano Sharon, one of the Michigan insurgents, told The Daily Poster, the secret is to take aim at the administrative structures that have long kept the old guard in place — and change the rules of the game.
“We have a real opportunity here in Michigan to really change the direction of the party and be an example to the rest of the country about how we can change the party even in places where not everybody gets to vote in the party, because those things can be changed as well,” said Sharon. “These things can change. It takes persistence; it takes keeping after it, but these things can change and they will change.”
Defeating The Gatekeepers
Sharon, a long-time independent business consultant who specializes in cross-cultural training, joined the Michigan Democratic Party in 2016. On his website MichiganProgressive.com, he explains that he “wanted to move the Party left — universal single-payer, criminal justice reform, abolishing the electoral college, immigration reform, money out of politics, Green New Deal, and so on.”
Over the last several years, he and a group of about 20 other progressives who took up the name Michigan for Revolution have done just that, forcing a package of procedural reforms that have democratized the state party. They have managed to secure changes to the state party platform including the inclusion of single-payer health care and universal basic income despite opposition from top-ranking state Democrats like Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
He and his group accomplished the seemingly herculean feat by thinking institutionally.
“The thing that’s holding the progressive movement back right now is the fact that there are these gatekeepers who are using rules in ways that are not democratic — that are not acceptable even under their own rules — to keep us out,” Sharon said.
To his point, at the February 2017 state convention, party leaders ignored a rule on the books requiring proportional voting so that they could keep progressives out of coveted delegate positions in the state central committee, the party’s governing body. The progressives appealed five times, but their efforts were rejected based on prior decisions of the party’s appeals committee, rulings that were not available to them for review.
To remedy the situation, he and a group of about 20 other progressives settled on a strategy to game the system, weaponizing the rules to their advantage. Through their efforts, they secured a line-by-line review of the rules in 2017.
Sharon’s group figured out that they could force such a review by overwhelming the state party resolutions committee, which considers resolutions sent to it by units of the party.
The Michigan Democratic Party has multiple “units” — 82 counties, 14 congressional districts, multiple statewide caucuses and local clubs. Each of those has the ability to send resolutions to the resolutions committee.
Sharon’s group sent out various resolutions from across the state demanding, among other things, a corporate money ban, a prohibition on lobbyists serving within the party, and the elimination of super-delegates. The goal was to get as many sent forward to the committee as possible.
“They got a gigantic stack of these nine resolutions in various different forms,” Sharon explained. “And rather than review them separately, they decided to do a complete line-by-line review of the rules.”
The party conducted the review between early 2017 and early 2018. The results were tangible.
Thanks to the line-by-line rules review, progressives managed to affirm that proportional voting would be carried out only by approved methods. Another revision held that “decisions of the appeals committee made prior to March 17, 2018 shall not be binding authority for any appeal filed after this date.” Still another change mandated that “written opinions of a summary thereof shall be published or made available for review of any member of the MDP in good standing.”
The new rules tied the hands of the party’s old guard at the February 2019 convention, and every Congressional District adhered to proportional voting.
Sharon explained that today, progressives can count on anywhere between 40 and 60 votes on the state central committee, which has a total of 172 delegates — an improvement on the 20 to 40 they had previously.
“When We Stand Up, We Win”
Another accomplishment of Sharon and his progressives in 2019 was securing free online registration for the state Democratic Party. The move had the effect of streamlining recruitment efforts, especially of younger people, who tend to lean left, making them a boon to the progressive wing of the party.
Once again, the progressives used the existing rules to their advantage. In 2018, Sharon ran a recruitment drive to bring in enough new voters to swing the party’s Attorney General endorsement away from the establishment candidate.
Party rules only required Sharon to submit a new registrant’s name, address, and birth date to the party. The rules did not require a phone number or email. By only providing the minimum required information, he left the party with no way to easily contact their new members, since direct mailings are inconvenient and expensive.
“If they’d have had free membership online, they wouldn’t have had to do that,” Sharon explained to The Daily Poster.
In 2019, the party caved and new members were allowed to join for free online.
Progressives also managed to defeat an effort by the establishment to prohibit recorded meetings, allowing people to stay engaged with party politics during the pandemic while sheltering in their homes.
Sharon told The Daily Poster that he hopes to grow the progressive presence on the state central committee and build on their list of achievements. He and his group have reorganized under the name MISolidarity, which is dedicated to getting more people involved in the party.
No matter what happens in the election this weekend, Sharon and his progressives have already charted a course forward for the left, proving the importance of institutional thinking and strategy. Facing an oppositional party establishment, Sharon’s team demonstrated the value in working within the system itself — going over the state party rules with a fine-tooth comb, finding loopholes and opportunities, and forcing structural change. With every reform, they are a step closer to their goal of taking over the party machinery.
“There are 10,000 members of the Democratic Party. Those are the numbers we have to get through,” Sharon said. "If we could have a reliable constituency of five to seven thousand progressives that would turn out regularly to vote, we would own the party and they couldn’t do anything about it.”
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