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A guide to rebuilding the Democratic Party, from the ground up

Organizationally, the US right is light years ahead of the left. A leading political scientist explains what Democrats should do to change that.

Democrats cheering in July 2016, at the party’s national convention.
Democrats cheering in July 2016, at the party’s national convention. After the November letdown, it’s time for some hard work.
Tom Williams / Getty

For 2016, Democrats put all their chips on a bet that demographic destiny would sweep Hillary Clinton into the White House on the backs of the “rising” Obama coalition of young, minority, and female voters. This gamble came up just short — in a narrow Electoral College loss with huge consequences for the country.

Now partisans and pundits alike are debating the “crisis of the Democratic Party.” Such stocktaking would have been needed in any event. Since the heady days of 2008, Democratic elected officeholding has plunged in all but coastal liberal states plus a few islands of blue in the center of the country. In addition to facing full GOP control in Washington, Democrats currently hold only 18 of 50 governorships and 31 out of 99 state legislative chambers.

Although the 2016 outcome holds no silver lining, it does create an opportunity to take stock of center-left strengths and limitations, bolster party organizations, and devise new and more effective strategies for organizing and mobilizing citizens. Much of the post-election recrimination has focused on the wrong things — on feckless second-guessing and on proposed strategies that range from utopian to counterproductive. In this piece, I will argue that in our time, the key priority should be strengthening the Democratic Party at state and local levels, even as liberals also build a mass movement to demand universal voter access and devise new formats for unions and other dues-based popular associations.

Traps the Democrats should avoid

A code blue for Democrats was declared on election night, with supporters scrambling to shock the stricken patient ever since. But the bustle has so far been mostly wasted, as many Democrats and aligned groups fall into traps. Endless election replays are the most obvious dead end. Since November 8, Bernie Sanders supporters have renewed their primary-style attacks on the “Democratic Party establishment” — suggesting their man would have won, were it not for biased party functionaries — while Clinton backers seethe about Russian hacks, improper interventions from the FBI director, and told-you-so-ism from Sanders. President Obama has declared that if the Constitution had allowed, he could have won a third term.

None of this helps build for the future. The presidential contest almost certainly was tipped by email obsessions, but it should not have been close enough for such factors to be decisive.

Another detour lies in pundit postmortems that parse national exit polls to figure out which big slice of voters underperformed so a new “message” can be aimed at that group. (The current consensus settles on the “white working class” as the slice most in need of wooing.) This kind of analysis treats the United States as if it were one big parliamentary democracy (if it were, Clinton would be the resounding victor). But America is actually a federated polity where electoral geography matters more than ethnic or class aggregates.

From that perspective, one 2016 pattern stands out. Compared with previous presidential contests, the partisan gap between big-city and non-big-city voting patterns widened. Trump won because he rang up unusually high margins (although not unusually high turnouts) among voters across all social strata in suburban, small-city, and semi-rural counties, especially in the Midwest. In many of those places, Democrats are not an organized presence at all.

Doubling down on earlier flawed tactics is another trap. The Super Pac Priorities USA is amassing additional resources to demonize Donald Trump — ignoring the fact that many people voted for him even though they accepted the Clinton campaign’s arguments about his poor temperament and lack of qualifications. 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.

Most puzzling of all are left reformers who are continuing to push favorite procedural nostrums that have precisely zero chance in a GOP-dominated polity — pie-in-the-sky causes like abolishing the Electoral College, instituting the public financing of elections, or banning gerrymandering. Electoral College changes will never happen without votes from states that benefit from this feature; and the latter two reforms probably would not help progressives very much even if, magically, they went into effect.

Some might say that a push for procedural fixes is harmless. But history back to the Progressive Era shows that energy put into such reforms cannot go to organizational efforts that really matter. Campaigns for legal or judicial fixes to US politics overall amount to elitist insider games that drain élan from popular engagement.

If Democrats manage to pull out of dead ends, there are important next steps they can take instead — to which I now turn.

Bolster — don’t batter — national and statewide party organizations

Some on the left regard the Democratic Party as inherently corrupt and call for proliferating protests and changes in rules that would enable non-party actors to dismantle or take over the remaining shell. But weakening Democratic Party organizations is the last thing that should happen at this critical juncture, when there is a strong possibility of a long-term authoritarian right turn in US politics.

Anti-institutional tendencies in today’s culture make the idea of dismantling the existing order attractive to many people. But social science research has long shown that majorities need strong organizations to prevail against wealthy conservative interests in democracies. The real problem in US politics today is hardly too much unified organizational heft on the center left; it is too little. Unless the Democratic Party becomes stronger and more effective, a radicalized Republican-conservative juggernaut is likely to take over for decades.

Along with colleagues, I have been doing organizational research on the shifting US political terrain. We find that since 2000, official Republican Party committees have grown markedly weaker relative to resourceful, well-organized operations on the ultra–free market right. In particular, the Koch network of interlocked think tanks, advocacy organizations, and constituency mobilizing groups has joined longstanding right organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association to both displace and largely replace the official GOP.

As a media-celebrity outsider, Trump took advantage of Republican organizational weakness to grab the 2016 nomination. But once he got the nomination, he was able to rely not just on party organizations and lots of organized business support, but even more on the cross-state federated networks of the NRA, the Christian right, and the centerpiece Koch organization, Americans for Prosperity. These well-entrenched networks reached into most states and localities and helped Republicans bring conservative voters home and rack up commanding suburban and rural vote margins. While the liberal political cognoscenti mocked Trump for his lack of “ground game,” these groups provided a more than adequate substitute.

It really makes a difference to have paid staffers in place in the states to work with volunteer activists on electoral and policy campaigns — and Americans for Prosperity has avidly embraced that strategy. Since 2004, AFP has been built up steadily as a centrally orchestrated federation that now has hundreds of paid operatives in three dozen US states. For the US right, enacting state restrictions on labor unions and blocking Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act have been top priorities, and our research group’s statistical models show that the presence of AFP paid state directors contributed to accomplishments in both of these areas, above and beyond public opinion and partisan balances in state governments. In addition, AFP volunteers and money weigh in significantly to bolster the GOP in the states during midterm as well as presidential elections.

Democrats need new groups to step in where unions used to do the heavy lifting

On the left, labor unions used to be the most far-reaching federated organizations cooperating with and bolstering the Democratic Party. But both private and public sector unions are now in sharp decline after years of conservative attacks — and their current dues-collecting arrangements face legal deathblows under the incoming regime. Unions aside, most center-left organizations are professionally run advocacy groups headquartered in New York, DC, or California and devoted to many separate causes and constituencies. Democrats tend to organize across the entire country only temporarily for presidential campaigns.

During the Obama years, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s Senate, House, and gubernatorial campaign committees have done little more than fundraise for election years, and Obama’s Organizing for America operated mainly as a personal reelection machine. Sadly, President Obama also delayed replacing Debbie Wasserman Schultz, his ineffective part-time head of the DNC, until way too late. In recent years, Democratic Party committees have remained robust fundraisers, but they have atrophied as organizational presences in many states and localities.

That has to change. Although it might make sense as a long-term strategy, it is now too late to build an extra-party federation like Americans for Prosperity to take up the slack from beleaguered unions. The Democratic Party itself has to be beefed up and redirected into a year-round organizing operation — right now. A new head of the DNC will soon be chosen, and he or she has to be a nuts-and-bolts reformer, not just a show horse or protest organizer.

Effective political organization in America is always centered in and across the states — and that middle level of organization is what Democrats must reinforce. They must embrace a year-round, face-to-face organizational style. Devising poll-tested messages and delivering them through television and radio ads and social media is no longer enough, if it ever was. Only people on the ground can network and engage in respectful two-way conversations.

A new DNC head must put big resources into state parties and prod them to give year-round support to local supporters who can inject themselves into ongoing conversations everywhere, not just on MSNBC or in big cities. Furthermore, the new DNC head will have to find ways to replicate most innovative and effective state party strategies — like those devised in New Hampshire and Nevada, swing states that performed well for the Democrats. Old formulas for reinforcing time servers in state parties will not work.

Organize locally to oppose the Trump GOP

What can ordinary rank-and-file Democrats and their allies do? They can express opinions to the roughly 447 (mostly state-level) party leaders who will select a new DNC head in late February — but should not wait until then to mobilize locally. The Tea Party example of 2009-’10 shows how effective largely spontaneous, grassroots local groups can be in challenging an incoming president’s agenda and shifting political conversations at all levels.

As Vanessa Williamson and I documented in our book The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, roughly a quarter of a million conservative citizen activists managed to use largely voluntary methods and shoestring resources to create some 900 regularly meeting local Tea Party groups from 2009 through 2011. Those groups, agitated against Obama administration reforms, took over or influenced local Republican Party committees, and pushed state and national elected representatives to oppose changes they did not want.

What made these Tea Party activists different from liberal professional advocates or Occupy Wall Street protestors was their use of the machinery of party politics — and the exertion of pressure on representatives from local districts. Tea Partiers did not just run urban demonstrations, posture for media outlets, or make appeals to Washington DC.

Recently, a group of former Democratic congressional staffers has drawn insights from the Tea Party experience to prepare “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.” This offers practical advice to local citizen volunteers who want to form groups to agitate against the Trump-GOP agenda and pressure legislators to oppose or delay such damaging measures as Obamacare repeal, tax cuts for the rich, anti-immigrant measures, dismantling of environmental protections, and privatization of Medicare and Social Security. Turning out for town halls and contacting local congressional offices are the keys, these authors wisely say.

I would only add that local groups can also work to make Trump policies and their deleterious consequences visible by writing letters to editors, speaking to local associations and church groups, and talking with their friends and neighbors. In turn, local volunteer efforts can become excellent points of contact for beefed-up statewide Democratic Party organizations.

Improve political intelligence and strategies

Beyond state and local organizing, Democrats need better research and ways of thinking about unfolding political dynamics. Party leaders and associated interest groups now spend millions of dollars on attitude surveys and focus groups that are, in turn, used to craft media snippets for discrete electoral or policy campaigns.

Recently, “big data” analytics have supplemented surveys to develop microtargeting strategies for particular baskets of voters. These approaches have some value, but they are also overly static and overly national. Surveys and focus groups tell us what individuals in various demographic categories say in response to questions experts put to them, but they do not reveal how people in groups and communities think and talk about politics — as Katherine Cramer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, discovered when she actually sat down with groups all over her state to “listen in” on their discussions of community affairs.

When it comes to what people will do in politics, as opposed to what they say they believe, non-polling research tells us that social network ties and feelings about “who we are” versus “who they are” may matter much more than individual demographic characteristics or discrete attitudes. Consequently, the messages that matter most in politics may have to be delivered through social contacts. And they should focus not just on issues and policies but on conveying a sense of respect and connection to specific groups and communities.

Additionally, Democrats need to think much more strategically about what scholars call “policy feedbacks” — the ways in which policy fights and outcomes at one point in time set up, or close off, future possibilities. The first thing Democrats do when they win elections is turn to experts to devise ideal governing policies, such as the “Making Work Pay” tax credit or Obamacare, which are often not clearly explained, and whose effects may not be visible to voters. Democrats tend to believe that good policies or their overall beneficial effects will speak for themselves and thus gain automatic public understanding and support. And when policies such as Obamacare are not immediately popular, their pollsters often tell Democrats not to talk about them.

In contrast, conservatives more often use policies and debates about policies to change politics. The first thing Republicans do when they take control is push through new measures that have the effect of disorganizing and undercutting their opponents — such as restrictive voter ID laws, rules that undercut labor unions, and budgets to defund Planned Parenthood. And when conservatives decide which issues to take up first, they try to debate and enact early measures — such as tax cuts — that set up desirable debates and patterns of political mobilization down the line.

The right is simply light-years ahead of the left in thinking about the interplay of policy and politics. Right now, for instance, the incoming Trump administration and GOP Congress intend to move fast to get rid of the taxes on business and the wealthy that have paid for Obamacare’s remarkable expansion of health insurance to more than 20 million low- and middle-income Americans.

Ostensibly, full cessation of insurance benefits will be delayed to give the GOP time to devise “replacements” — the GOP is using the “replacement” language as a delaying and deflecting tactic. But as GOP strategists surely realize, there will be no future revenues to pay for adequate replacements, because conservative groups will go all out to support GOP politicians who promise not to raise taxes. Later, when Obamacare benefits are slated to fully disappear, conservatives will pit halfway restorations against funding for traditional Medicaid and Medicare, trying to force Democrats into choosing which kinds of health insurance to protect.

This kind of political strategizing — using early policy battles to shift the terrain for later battles and designing policies to build political support — needs to happen for Democrats and the left, too. But right now, the left has no sources of data or analysis to support this kind of strategizing, and it does not engage experts who could help devise such strategies.

Focus on 2017-’18 contests for governorships and legislatures

My final point pushes back against those who want to start the next presidential or Senate campaigns immediately. National media outlets are already speculating about which Democrat is positioning him or herself for 2020, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will grab the spotlight as he tries to protect his caucus’s right flank for 2018 reelection by triangulating among President Trump, House Republicans, and his own vulnerable red-state senators.

But party organs and the party faithful can’t afford to let the worries about 2018 Senate losses or 2020 positioning take up all of the air. Democrats need to organize widely across the country and rebuild their bench of elected officials. Unless Democrats register legislative and state-level gains starting in 2017, they will not succeed in shifting the momentum for 2020.

The good news is that the immediate electoral opportunities line up well with what Democrats need to do to rebuild nationally. Over the next two years, thousands of state offices and 438 House seats will be on the ballot, and those contests are excellent places to organize for Trump era accountability and pushback. Critical state-level contests start in 2017, when special legislative contests happen in North Carolina. The best way for Democrats to defeat GOP-sponsored voting rule changes is to mobilize their supporters against those who “do not want you to vote,” checking and adding voter registrations so that electorate-shrinking efforts can be cut off soon.

Furthermore, 38 governorships will soon be on the ballot, in Virginia and New Jersey in 2017 plus three dozen more states in 2018, including in pivotal major states like Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. By winning a substantial share of the 2017-’18 gubernatorial contests, Democrats can assure themselves leverage in bargaining over the next rounds of redistricting following the 2020 US Census, even if they do not win many state legislative majorities right away.

Equally important, Democratic candidates for these executive offices can formulate and spread convincing messages. Contenders for governorships are perfectly positioned to spell out the disastrous effects for their states of Trump-GOP eviscerations of health and social spending; they can also articulate bold, inclusive plans to promote economic innovation and growth in ways that reach into smaller cities, towns, and rural districts.

In short, the Democratic Party’s most promising path forward runs through dozens of states and many legislative districts. To ensure that party leaders get on that path soon, all voters, activists, and groups in the party’s orbit need to push for new organization-building strategies. Donors big and small should stop giving until they hear clear, practical plans, and citizens should organize voluntarily at the local level.

If and when a revamped DNC and other party committees start to get with the program, however, then donors and activists should stop naysaying and fragmenting their efforts and get on board — because the key to electoral and policy victories for America’s future lies in a robust, nationwide Democratic Party built to engage citizens everywhere in election and policy campaigns year round, every year.

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas professor of government and sociology at Harvard University and the director of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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