The Democratic Party: Where do we go from here?

In the past week, I had three conversations that all intersect on the issue of the future of the Democratic Party. Three quite different people, and varying subject matters. I have not yet reached a conclusion, but the questions raised fascinate me.

Conversation 1

I belong to a political action group and we had a meeting. While the topic doesn’t matter, this comment still rings in my ears: “I work in a factory, and we make decisions immediately. I hope the rest of you won’t take this wrong, but you are pencil pushers.”

Prior to this conversation, I’d recently read this article which talks about who and what the Democratic Party has left behind over the past 30 years. And here was someone, a man I know, who could have made the same arguments made by the Ohio Democrats in the article.

It stung. I have spent my life as a liberal Democrat: fighting for inclusion, with no true understanding that I knew people who were unheard by a party dedicated to inclusion of all who shared the ideals of the platform.

Conversation 2

A woman, new to politics, is running for a row office this year. I’d heard good things about her from people we know in common, and this conversation was to see if she wanted, and if I would provide, support for her nascent campaign.

When I interview candidates for DCW or other publications, my questions relate to why someone is running, what their background includes, and issue questions to provide the readership with the answers they need to make an independent choice for whom to vote. When I interview candidates to provide support, my first question is always “What’s your number?” It doesn’t matter what the number is, only whether or not the candidate knows it. Candidates who know are able to plan effectively, develop teams that can reach the goal, and have a shot at winning. She knew her number right off.

Part of our ensuing conversation related to her initial interactions with the local party apparatus.

Conversation 3

The third conversation was with an elected member of the party hierarchy. This woman is well-intentioned, conscientious, and committed to the party. She believes that the only way to change the party is from within.

She told me flat out, and early on in the conversation, that the group to which I belonged could never get a Democratic candidate elected, only the party could do that. Huh. It’s been working so well for them…

Putting it all Together

Back in 2009, we spent a lot of “ink” here at DCW discussing what would happen to the GOP. And pretty much, we were correct: they’re completely splintered, the Teabaggers hold the jokers that prevent the moderate and business wings of the party from accomplishing much of anything, and their leader is a no-nothing who has basically invaded two countries and is considering military action against a third, and he STILL can’t fill positions in his government. There’s even a loyalty oath.

We should have done better. What could we, the Democrats, have done to prevent this lunacy? Let’s start with the man representing one wing of the party that cost us the election. Not the only wing, but a big one. The white working class. Back in 1999, with the repeal of Glass-Steagall, both parties signaled their allegiance to Wall Street over Main Street, and laid out a commitment to an overall economy that was corporatist in lieu of capitalist.

While manufacturing had been in decline for a while by 1999, the new formal relationship with Wall Street led to an escalation of globalization to the end of increased profits for shareholders. To be fair, part of the decrease in American manufacturing is due to mechanization. Take semi-conductors, which were invented and grown in America (yes, really, go back to the early 50’s and the history of Texas Instruments). The operations of division of TI employees several hundred thousand people, but the physical manufacturing is subcontracted, and those companies use more robots than humans. The employees tend to have Master’s degrees and work with large scale computer systems. A far cry from twisting tops onto tubes for hand cream, nailing together frames for furniture or any of the other tasks accomplished decades ago in manufacturing plants.

What has the Democratic Party done for these people who used to do this kind of labour? Frankly, nothing. They don’t even talk in terms of kinds of training that might help them transition to other types of employment since those manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Not to America, not anywhere. But it’s not just manufacturing, nor mining (also not coming back) – it’s also the service industries, which as Paul Krugman points out, are also never coming back.  But Krugman also has the answer for this situation, which is something the Democratic Party CAN work towards:

While we can’t stop job losses from happening, however, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong — which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.

Which brings me to the Party, and the crop of candidates. What tangible support will the party provide for candidates running this year? Or for Congress next year. Sadly, not much, especially as compared to what other groups offer. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are either running for office this year, or considering a run next year. Some are running for row positions for which they have experience they could bring to bear: for example, lawyers running for judge. Others don’t even understand what’s involved with the positions if they do get elected.

To win, candidates need a number of things: money, infrastructure, strategy, paid teams, kitchen cabinets, and the time and commitment needed to undertake a campaign. They also need training. Being a successful elected official doesn’t just happen. Historically, people started with local offices, built their understanding of governance, worked their way up, and I have to say it — I cannot BELIEVE that President of the United States has become an entry level position….sorry, I digress.

For most situations, however, candidates need training so that they can effectively raise money, spend it wisely, hire the right people for their staffs, assemble a kitchen cabinet of non-beholden advisers, develop their speeches, receive help with messaging, etc. etc. etc. Does the Party provide training? Nope. However, a lot of progressive organizations like Bold Progressives and Move On do. Netroots Nation has classes every year.

Does the party provide tangible support for candidates? That means canvassers and phone bankers tied to an individual candidate? Again, no, that’s on the campaigns. Do they look for ways to integrate campaign events with Voter Drives? Do they hold rallies and invite candidates to attend? You get the idea, and you know the answer.

And let’s talk money. Does the party provide direct funding for candidates? Nope. The local parties will often provide literature mentioning all the candidates in a township or boro and drop them on doorknobs. But it’s rare that the Party makes direct contributions to candidates that the campaigns can spend on what they need.

Even at the Congressional level, the DCCC will sometimes provide some indirect funding, but rarely direct to coffers. Nor does the party raise money on behalf of candidates. Tomorrow is the Jungle Primary for the Georgia 6th. Did the Party provide any tangible support at all? Nope. Nor did they last week in Kansas, when so doing would actually have made the difference in the outcome. They couldn’t be bothered. Jon Ossoff raised more than $8 million dollars for the Georgia race: the vast majority of it via Daily Kos campaigns and Act Blue. The DCCC? Not a buck.

So that brings me back to the question about the future of the Democratic Party. Do I believe it should be disbanded? Not at all: the infrastructure is solid, and there are a lot of people who have put in a lot of work over the years. Does it need an attitude adjustment? You betcha’ as Spunky Palin would say. Can that come from within their ranks? Unlikely. They’re all too entrenched.

The likelihood is that there will be a lot of pain within the Party. They will watch as outside groups actually do elect candidates. Running candidates on the Democratic line who get their training, support, money and volunteers overseen by the groups mostly formed since the last election. Groups that hold rallies, vigils, voter drives and help send people to canvass and phone bank. And those groups will provide data back showing what they did in terms of voter engagement and voting turnout, and the difference will become clear. And then, finally, will come the maintenance of the infrastructure, platforms that harken back to when Democrats were Democrats.

I leave you with an article of mine published 10 years ago.  I’ve posted it before, so many of you may have seen it already. It’s what the party was, and may well be once again. Personally, I’m committed to working for that party, but from the outside.

When she died last year at the age of 107, my grandmother was a proud Democrat who had never missed an election. I was born into a family that valued not only the Party and its principles, but the political process. In my extended family, if you were old enough to stand on a box and reach a table, you were old enough to stuff envelopes. I worked my first election at the age of 3.

But “because that’s how I was brought up” is not reason enough to make the choice as an adult as to which party one wishes to belong. I am a proud, liberal, Democrat because of the ideals and principles involved in the Democratic Party platform and its proud history. While I may not always agree with all of the members of the party and what they stand for as individuals, one of the fundamental tenets of the Democratic Party has always been that many voices are better than one.

The Democratic Party is the oldest continuous political party in the US.  The party was founded by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the early 1790’s as a congressional caucus to fight for the Bill of Rights, a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and a weaker Federal government (relative to States Rights). Jefferson was elected as the third President of the US under the banner of the “party of the common man”, officially named the Democratic-Republican Party. The party split in 1824, emerging as the Democratic Party with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, Abraham Lincoln later being the first Republican president.

In the 20th Century, the Democratic Party brought great change to America. Things that we take for granted today were codified by Democratic administrations and Congresses; including, but not limited to: the eight-hour work day, Civil Rights Legislation (integrated schools, voting rights, prohibition of discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex and national origin, and prohibition of housing discrimination), affirmative action, the lowering of the voting age to 18, and the repeal of prohibition.

But it is not just the elected officials who make a Party, it is the people who work for the party (formally and informally). The first US party platform was put forth by the Democrats in 1840. To this day, any registered Democrat can apply to be a part of the platform committee, and Democrats can also testify to make their feelings known to the whole platform committee. It is truly a big tent. The platform is the framework of goals and aspirations: what the Party views as imperative to make America better.

The 1840 platform was brief, and was concerned with limiting the powers of the Federal Government, including avoiding chartering a National Bank, and conferring most powers to the individual States, resolving that every citizen had the right to equality of rights and privileges, and to protection from domestic violence and foreign aggression.

The current platform, from 2004, is much longer then the first, and reflects a world which faces challenges inconceivable to the early Democrats. It is entitled “Strong at Home, Respected in the World” and answers not just to making America stronger in terms of reformed health, education  and jobs programs, but also handling terrorism, nuclear weapons, the world-wide AIDS epidemic, renewable energy, and equality for all.

The final words of the 2004 Platform are as follow: “Members of our party have deeply held and differing views on some matters of conscience and faith. We view diversity of views as a source of strength, and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who seek to build a stronger America. We are committed to resolving our differences in a spirit of civility, hope and mutual respect.  That’s the America we believe in.”

That is the America I believe in, and the Party I think has the best chance of getting us to where we need to be in a dangerous and difficult world. Democrats have a long history of being able to set lofty goals and then achieve them: FDR and his Kitchen Cabinet got us out of the Depression, JFK wanted a man on the moon in a decade, and that occurred sooner than expected, Johnson fought for a Great Society, and much was accomplished in those turbulent times. Were these men, and their associates, perfect? No, certainly not. But their intentions were true, and they made great strides.

I leave you with the words of two great Democrats, who espouse better than I ever could, why I am a Democrat. First, JFK, speaking to the Liberal Party of New York in 1960: “What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” … [I]if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.””

And finally, his brother Ted, after losing the nomination in 1980: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”


This entry was posted in Democratic Party, Money in Politics, Politics. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.