On Rebuilding the Democratic Party

People’s Climate March, Washington DC, April 2017

For progressives interested in taking back this country and making it a sane and functional place that works for everyone, Theda Skocpol’s article back in January is required reading. It explains how the democrats need to organize and prioritize in order to become competitive again nation-wide, an argument that  both Tom Perez and Keith Ellison, among many others, appear to be in alignment with.  But, her insistence on the democratic party as being the single organizational locus for resistance may be too limited given the proliferation of progressive organizations that have emerged in the past several months.

The core of Skocpol’s argument is that the democratic party is organizationally quite weak in comparison to the old democratic party as well as in comparison with the current GOP. The key explanation for this is the decline of unions, which used to have a 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 bring out voters for democratic candidates up and down the ticket.

Now, after memberships and resources have been declining for decades, unions do not have the presence or the resources they used to have. This state of affairs 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 organizations, 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 illustrating 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. Skocpol is quite right to insist that this must change. If democrats are to become competitive in all or nearly all Congressional districts and state legislatures, they need an organizational presence that does the vital local-level work 12 months a year.

The obvious solution, then, is for the democratic party to rebuild, starting at the local level and focusing on human-to-human contact, instead of media, advertising, and polling, which have assumed much greater emphasis in recent years. What about other organizations? Skocpol likes Indivisible, its suggestions for local actions, and how it is bringing people together. On the other hand, she is skeptical about building up organizations outside of the democratic party in a way that would be  analogous to Americans for Prosperity on the right. Her concern is that it would take too much time for this to happen. Given that organization building needs to start immediately, the existing scaffold of the party is where the building should take place.

There appears to be fairly strong agreement on the left and within democratic party circles with her focus on organization building, starting at the local level.  But relying solely on the party does not fully take into account the organizational potential–and reality–that already exists on the left,  where many different groups are involved at the local level. Some, such as Progressive Maryland in my state and Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders’ campaign turned into a regular organization, have a broad, progressive agenda. Many others such as Black Lives Matter, LGBT groups, and climate change groups such as 350.org have more focused agendas.

Skocpol takes a dim view of this multiplicity of liberal and progressive groups.

“Meanwhile liberal groups are fundraising to defend dozens of separate causes or constituencies, playing into conservative plans to fragment their opponents. Conservatives realize that liberalism too often devolves into a weakly coordinated set of interests and causes.”

This may be short-sighted. In the past, it clearly was the case that many liberal causes fought their battles in isolation without being part of a larger movement with clearly-identified goals and an organizational structure to back it. But times have changed. With the hegemony of reactionary conservatism allied with the racism and malevolence of the Trump administration, progressives now view their issues as overlapping. This is especially the case for people in their teens, 20s, and 30s. If you are a member of 350.org, you are also aware of and support Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, healthcare for all as a general principle, tax fairness, and a significant increase in the minimum wage.

Of course, there are still splits and conflicts can crop up, especially among more ideological groups, but for the most part there is strong recognition that whether you are fighting for tax fairness, renewable energy, women’s rights, voting, criminal justice and police reform, or any number of other issues, the opposition is more-or-less the same corporations and reactionary conservatism imposed by state and national legislation, the Supreme Court, and–at the moment–the executive branch of the US government. This multiplicity of causes actually brings more people into the struggle, especially young people, and directs more pressure against the existing power structure(s).

This may strike Skocpol as a doubtful argument, but I think one could also find support for it with respect to right-wing politics. Although there are splits on their side too, there does seem to be an acceptance that whether one has a libertarian economic outlook, is hawkish on taxes, favors big business and corporations as well as tax policies that benefit the 1%, evangelical politics, or an adventurist foreign policy, all of these issues and groups have more-or-less been able to hang together politically, even though their logical contradictions appear to be more significant than those of progressives. They have come to recognize each other as allies against “liberalism,” although each faction might have its own version of the liberal enemy.

The obvious point here is that the local strength of the republican party is due in large part to the networks of non-party local organizations to do a lot of the constituency work. This means that in today’s political environment, factions and groups that are loosely associated with one major political party or political trend, can find a way to work together for the long-term benefit of each, even though their interests might not cohere perfectly.

If this is the case, the, progressive groups that share the same general analysis of the problems of our society and see each other as addressing different parts of the same problem, have the potential to build an effective force against the prevailing power structures. The polarizing effect of the Trump presidency only serves to draw progressives more tightly together.

This is not to say that coordination is not required or can be accomplished without hard work. It also does not fully answer the question about local-level organizing. As national organizations, #BLM, 350.org, Our Revolution, and MoveOn, taken together probably do not have the local organizational presence that Skocpol is talking about. And even where they are organized at the local level, they are far more likely to exist in urban areas and among student groups at universities; in other words, in places where democrats are already strong.

What about Indivisible and other groups such as Swing Left, Knock Every Door, and Brand New Congress, all of which are focused on building progressive strength in places where democrats do not dominate? It is still too early to know how effective they’ve been so far. In evaluating their potential impact, we should follow Skocpol and look at their local-level organization building outside of “blue” geographies. If they are creating stable organizations and have enough resources to be talking with large numbers of people, they might be able to play a role analogous to conservative organizations working for republican candidates.

This is not to minimize the imperative for the democratic party to rebuild at the local level in all or most of the 435 Congressional districts. But the existence of independent progressive organizations may have significant potential to play complementary roles and work with local party offices.

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Final Note: There is obviously a lot more to say about rebuilding the democratic party in terms of progressive politics. Skocpol gets into some of that in this article including the struggle between the progressive and centrist wings of the party. I plan to address some of these issues in an upcoming post.

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