More on “Rebuilding the Farm System” in the Democratic Party, Part II
In the first part of this series I began an answer to Zandar’s question, “What kind of ideas do the assembled have for improving the Dems chances where you live at the state level?” with a brief recap of the deindustrialization of the US economy over the last 45 years and two of its consequences for the political climate we live in today: the optimization of the Republican party for class warfare and the optimization of the Democratic Party for, well, not much at all:
I’ll grant you whatever you might want to say about each and every reform won by the Obama administration — as far as I’m concerned they’re all good and all irrelevant to the point: we keep assuming that the Democratic Party is some kind of a fighting organization. It’s not. It never was. It will at some times and for its own reasons offer some support to fights that other people start, but its sole purpose is to put into power candidates who profess belief in its program and it doesn’t formally care about much more than that. As such it’s more of a force for social stability than social change; the impetus for change comes from outside the party and the party mediates it. And the adaptations that it’s made since it unmoored itself from its base in the unions have made it even less, rather than more of a fighting organization.
“Improving the Dems chances” begins with an analysis of the Dems’ situation. That needs to be done on a state-by-state basis , but the lesson from Wisconsin is that it is as though the DP were being optimized for mediocrity. And once such an organization has reached a really high level of mediocrity, for the people on the inside the only thing that’s worse than losing, is losing their influence. Or as commenter Kathleen put it, in one of the final comments on the first part,
I think one of the major problems with the Democratic Party is that it is led at the state and local level in a lot of places by people who are not that unhappy with being a minority party, so long as they get to be the people in charge. I mean, recruit “those people” ( outsiders, youth, soccer moms, whoever) who just don’t understand how things are done?
This nails the Wisconsin Democratic Party in two sentences. Here, it’s not that the DP is always bringing a knife to a gun fight. The DP is the knife in the gun fight.
Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future the DP is the only organization we’ve got in the field of electoral politics . Third party initiatives like the Green Party are proven failures. They exist as a space in which liberals can exercise their endless search for some moral high ground, for some principle that’s more pure than any other liberal’s principle, for the chance to “vote against evil” and bathe themselves in righteousness, for an opportunity to use their righteousness to condemn other liberals less righteous than they. They’re talking organizations not fighting organizations. They don’t exist as a vehicle for taking and expanding political power: that’s what Republicans do.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We have to begin by taking some responsibility for the problems we face. Too often, progresssive/liberal activists will say, “If only the Democrats would do X [for us]…” or “If only the Democrats would fight for Y [for us]…” or “If only the Democrats would fight back against the Republicans [for us]…”. What the Democrats do, they do for themselves: they are not in it for us. If we want anything done for us we have to do it ourselves. Experimenting with letting the state DP organizations fix themselves (while we express our concern about their failures and shortcomings) has to end because the results are in: it doesn’t work. Left to their own devices — as a rule and with some exceptions — the state DP organizations have gone from bad to worse.
“How do we improve the Dems’ chances” is the wrong question to be asking, because our main goal should not be to improve the Dems’ chances. Our main goal has to be improving our chances of survival in a social and political context where we face an opposition willing to go to war against us. Whether or not the DP can be a means to that end is a conclusion that is both tactical and provisional, and varies from state to state. But in general, the DP only deserves our trust and support to the extent that it serves (or can be made to serve) our purposes.
To rely on the DP as a vehicle for our political aspirations is strategically foolhardy but tactically necessary. In other words we have to work with them while we figure out how to work around them. But the bottom line is, we have to fix this mess because it surely is not fixing itself.
Fixing the Democrats, One State at a Time
If you want to tackle the project of turning the DP in your state into a fighting organization, it’s up to you to do the triage:
If you live in one of the states where the DP seems to be doing a reasonable job, that’s great. Join up and join in, and the sooner the better. Whatever Party unit you join should be able to find valid and important work (not “busy work”) for you to do and should make you feel like both you and your contribution are welcomed. If that’s not the feeling you end up getting, trust your instincts. See Kathleen’s comment above, and read on to the content below.
If you live in one of the states where the DP seems to be “on the bubble”, you have a choice to make. Let’s assume you want to get in, get active, try to make some positive changes. In order to do this you have to be ready to organize an insurrection (or if you’re lucky, join an existing one) and take over control of the Party. Every situation is going to differ on the specifics but here are some general rules:
- Soon after you join up you will begin to meet the people who are creating the problems you seek to fix. They will not be welcoming your suggestions. It won’t just be because you’re a newbie although they may try to make you think so.
- Therefore you need to be organized. You absolutely need to be part of a group of people that’s working on the same strategy to bring about the same set of changes. Alone and on your own, you will be defeated. The DP isn’t good for much but give them credit: what they are good at is defeating or co-opting idealists like you.
- If you can’t join up with like-minded friends you have to find them among the people who preceded you. This will take some time.
- The initial goal of your group is to take control of a local Party unit. Use that to increase your power by hooking up with other like-minded people both inside and outside the organization.
- Don’t make your goal winning one or another election. Don’t focus on temporary campaign organizations (like OFA) that fold up and disappear the day after the votes are counted. Aim for the permanent structures.
- Your group needs a plan. You also need some standards for what success looks like and what failure looks like, and an exit plan for what you’re going to do if reform from within isn’t working.
- Don’t run for some office yourself, get someone else to do that. Your focus needs to be on the level of the organization you’re trying to capture.
- However, your ultimate success will depend on your ability to win elections. You need to know what it takes to win an election on the level of the Party organization you’re trying to control. So you need to have a good working knowledge of campaign field support without letting it define the limits of your vision. You want the skillset for campaign mangers not candidates, and you want to leverage your skillset both inside and outside the organization.
- Be patient. You have to be willing to dedicate years to this project.
If you live in one of the states where the DP is beyond redemption, attempts at internal reform will be met with so much resistance that they will prove to be futile. To try to reform such an organization from the inside puts you into conflict with the nominal “Democrats” who created the mess in the first place, rather than the Republicans. If that’s what you want, see above and best of luck. Or consider organizing outside the Party entirely. To do that, once again you need a power base only now you need to build it outside the Party. That’s what we’re doing in Milwaukee. To a first order of approximation our plan is the old “more and better Democrats” but the innovation we add is a political program to help us to define “better” and organizational resources to help us to win “more”. We always organize outside the Party and we organize continually, not just during elections. We try to find and elect good people, as Democrats in the elections where party identification is relevant; we just don’t rely on the Democratic Party to do so.
The basis for what we’re doing in Milwaukee was formed in the 2011-2012 campaign to recall Scott Walker, and the disillusionment that the betrayal of that effort by the Democrats left behind. Thanks to that we have the luxury of a critical organizational mass that may be lacking where you are. In that case you may want to consider getting involved in Move to Amend. In my experience, MtA is a great way to get out and start organizing activist-type people; it will provide a broad array of both opportunities to build an organization that can challenge entrenched interests in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and interesting problems that will have to be solved in the process of doing so. And, it’s already up and running nationally, you don’t have to build it from scratch. Rather than go on at length here, I’ll discuss more in the comments if people are interested.
If MtA does not seem that interesting to you or it’s not active in your state, look up the “Fight for $15” in your area and go volunteer. Lots of people do that here, it’s a very community-oriented movement. If you’re volunteering in this kind of effort though, be warned that inconsistent volunteers are almost worse than no volunteers at all: whatever you do, do it reliably. It’s a general consensus among liberal/progressive activists that Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” was a good idea and that things started to go to hell when the DNC bailed on that strategy. I don’t entirely agree with that analysis because I think it’s too simplistic but it isn’t totally wrong either. But how can you have a “50-state strategy” that means anything more than a slogan, without beginning with a “50-state analysis” on which to base it? And if you buy that, who’s doing the 50-state analysis? You can bet that the DNC isn’t; they reject the whole premise. Who does that leave?  Even worse: we don’t have much at all in the w/r/t organization outside the field of electoral politics. Again, compare this to the situation among the right wing.