Local Organizing Won the 2017 Elections for Democrats and Progressives

Are liberals and progressives finally building grassroots organizations that can mobilize voters and win elections? The 2017 results strongly suggest the answer is yes.

In an important article back in January, political science professor Theda Skocpol argued that successful electoral performance is based to significant degree on strong local-level political institutions. She observed that the current democratic party is organizationally quite weak in comparison with the GOP. In the past, when unions were much stronger and more numerous than they are now, they had a continuous presence in many communities, particularly working class communities, all over the country. With stable memberships, full-time staff, and substantial resources, the unions could reliably turn out voters for democratic candidates up and down the ticket.

After decades long declines in memberships and resources, unions no longer have the presence or the resources they once had. Or the political heft. This stands in stark contrast with republican organization-building or, to be more precise, the organization-building of conservative and hard right institutions, including churches and evangelical bodies, the National Rifle Association, and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.

This institution-building on the right is documented by the Shifting Domain Project headed by Skocpol. The charts and graphs on this site that illustrate the growth of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and other organizations are quite eye-opening. After a couple of decades of building, these hard-right organizations have a large, constant presence in many states and communities in contrast with the democratic party, which tends to disappear between election cycles.

But last week’s election results suggest that progressives and liberals may be catching up. Yes, the nation-wide blue wave could have been fueled in large part by widespread anger at President Trump and the republicans in Congress, providing extra motivation for people to vote. But fundraising for candidates, canvassing, signing people up to vote, and getting them to the polls on election day also takes organizational muscle. Did Indivisible, Our Revolution, and other groups, together, build large, active volunteer bases that performed these critical tasks?

Initial evidence suggests they may very well have. The emergence of a new cadre of young, extremely diverse, candidates at the state and municipal level must surely reflect the efforts of groups like Run for Something and Emily’s List. In addition, numerous other groups such as Indivisible, Flippable, and Our Revolution were active in many places. L. A. Kauffman notes that Indivisible has around 6000 chapters across the country with at least one in every Congressional district. In Virginia, a group called Network NOVA built a large cadre of volunteers who engaged in numerous, creative, large-scale actions to knock on doors and otherwise get out the vote. Watch this video to learn what they did. A full accounting will take some time, but there are strong indications that the liberal-progressive “ground game” has made its presence felt.

To build on their 2017 wins, liberals and progressives need to maintain active groups and continue working toward the midterms a year from now. And after that it will be critical to stay active and keep building. 2020 is three years away and the primary “season” starts a year and a half before the November, 2020 elections. Having strong organizations that maintain a presence at the local level is key.

What about the democratic party in the 2017 elections. On a national level, the party is still struggling to get its act together and the conflict between the centrist and progressive wings seems only  to have intensified in recent weeks with Donna Brazile’s book release along with the recent report Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis. It is tempting to conclude that the party didn’t have all that much to do with the nation-wide victories, but that may only apply to the national institutions of the party such as the DNC.  Local-level party organizations may have been major players in many places.

If that is the case, and especially given the presence and critical roles of independent organizations, one has to wonder if those of us on the left are worrying too much about what Tom Perez and his staff at the DNC are up to. The real politics and the real power may be in independent organization building in local communities. We don’t need the party for that.

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