How to Win Elections and Fix Bad Policies: A Leftist Blueprint for Remaking the Democratic Party

(This was a joint post, written with Cato Uticensis, which is the pseudonym of a union organizer working in the South. He likes barbecue, bourbon, cigars, and labor politics. He can be found on Twitter at @Cato_of_Utica.)

The status quo in the Democratic party is an unholy mess. This is true at all levels of the party, but especially so in the South, where most state parties are in an unacceptable state of disarray. Our nation is at a juncture where leftist politics and policy have started to re-enter the realm of the feasible. Certain progressive dream policies like Medicare for All and raising the minimum wage are now actively debated and discussed after the failures of pro-corporate policies have become manifest. And yet, the dysfunctional nature of the Democratic state parties in the South risks the best chance since the demise of the postwar consensus and the rise of neoliberalism to fundamentally move this country’s politics to the left.

Many fellow travelers in the progressive community might look at the Democratic Party and think that it is hopeless; that we would be much better starting a new pro-working class party from scratch. That sentiment is fully understood; most progressives have looked at this party and questioned if there is any separation on many issues that we care about: economic inequality, the right to have collective bargaining, marriage equality, reproductive health, and many other issues. It seems that more and more, the Democratic Party uses progressives, women, and communities of color for votes and donations without giving back much in return. It is very tempting to leave them in the lurch and begin anew.

However, there are practical reasons why engaging in this would hurt far more than it would help. For starters, the amount of investment that would be required of key stakeholders, such as unions and other assorted progressive organizations. Between the Democratic and Republican parties and their presidential candidates, nearly $1.8 billion was spent in the 2012 election cycle according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If you add Congressional election spending to that, the two major parties spent just over $6 billion dollars in 2012. Considering that the Democratic and Republican parties have both been around for at least 160 years and have infrastructure in every state, congressional district, county, and some municipal areas, the thought of the level of resources that it would take to get a progressive third-party off the ground (even if it is already in limited existence, like the Working Families Party) is staggering. At a time when disenfranchised communities face an all-out assault on any facet of participation in both the economy and our democracy, these stakeholders should be focusing more on organizing people, rather than starting a political party from scratch that has an unknown (but probably slim) chance of success.

On top of that, it would split the base of either party, leading to electoral dominance for those on the other side of the ideological spectrum. You can look to Canada and the Progressive Conservative/Reform Party split guaranteeing majority rule for the Liberal Party for the next thirteen years. Finally, it has been attempted many, many, many times. Note that all of these are spoken of in the past tense. Barring a change from our current first-past-the-post election system to a more representative voting system, such as proportional representation or instant runoff voting, there is no real way for a competing third party to have a positive impact in American politics outside of very rare, very specific (and very inspiring) sets of circumstances. A different set of criticisms apply when discussing the issues with electoral fusion, and while the Working Families Party has done great work in Oregon and New York, its ability to make an impact while avoiding the spoiler effect is still limited to the eight states where electoral fusion is legal.

None of these criticisms of third parties mean that that the current state of affairs in Democratic politics is even remotely acceptable. As we said earlier, most of the Democratic parties in southern states are wholly dysfunctional, led by some combination of the corrupt and the incompetent. In North Carolina, a former Congressman who did not actively campaign for the job and electors were not even sure until the very end of the voting that he would take it if he won nearly beat the current Democratic party chair while the far right ran rampant over a state with a long populist tradition. In Alabama, the state party has ripped itself in two, with allegation and counterallegation flying between the two factions, causing it to miss deadlines for a special election and issue perhaps the most pathetic set of excuses for doing so in modern politics. These are exceptional examples, but they are only unique in size and scope, not content. There are other, smaller scandals and stories scattered across Dixie.

Adding to the problem are the candidates that these parties pick. Oh god, the candidates they pick. In Tennessee, a man with only one yard sign and three hundred bucks to run for Senate. In Mississippi, someone who did not know what fetal personhood bills did but supported them anyways. In Florida, a former Republican once nicknamed Chain Gang Charlie when he was attorney general of that state. In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe.

These examples are the ridiculous that have become the sublime. There’s a whole slew of other candidates that are actually somewhat competent but still a gigantic problem because they are right wing hacks dressed up in a thin veneer of blue paint. Heath Shuler, Mike McIntyre, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Harold Ford Jr, Michelle Nunn, and dozens of lower-profile elected officials and candidates dot the South, voted for but not supporting progressives. This isn’t a phenomenon that is unique to the South, but it is one that lingers here: after all the term Blue Dog is a riff on the old ‘yellow dog Democrat.’

The cherry on this raw sewage sundae is that the Democrats have increasingly adopted the same capital-intensive political campaigning as the Republican campaigning model. This is a reflection of both parties’ lack of respect for labor and those that work bleeding over into a lack of respect for labor-intensive campaigning. No one talks of organizing in a political fashion in either party, and this is borne out in how both parties spend their money during elections: mostly on media advertising.

To sum all of this up, the Democratic Party in the South has entirely failed on an organizational level. However, this means that now is the perfect time to take the gatdamn thing over and make it function the way it should. If there has ever been a time when the energy, vision, and community-based ideology of progressives and leftists has been needed, it is now. Here is what we suggest:

  1. Find out when and where the meetings are for Democratic Party units in your community and JOIN THEM. The easiest way to get involved in the Democratic Party is to find meetings at the local level and go to them. Most of the time, this information can be found on the state Democratic Party’s website, like this one showing the information for county party units across Texas. Note that many smaller counties will not have meeting information available online, so you must call and email the contact person (usually the county party chair) until you get an answer. Be persistent; many units can be hostile to new people showing up and disrupting the status quo.
  2. Find out the procedures for membership in these party units, and then work to become a member. Every statewide Democratic Party organization in the South has a place where you can find the bylaws that govern the party units in your particular city, county, congressional district, and state (except Florida, though a quick Google search turned up their bylaws as well). In this document, you will find membership criteria for each level of the party. Each state is different, and each level within the state is different. In Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, you can become a member of the Democratic Party executive committee after attending three meetings. However, if you wanted to become a member of the State Democratic Executive Committee (congressional district committees are rarely, if ever, used in Alabama), you would have to run in the statewide party primaries as a candidate from your state house of representatives district. Sometimes there is no competition, and sometimes there is a multiple candidate race from a particular district. This is a situation where attention to detail can mean everything, so be sure that you understand the procedures that govern each unit. The South Lawn is unveiling a page that lists each Southern state’s Democratic Party bylaws/constitution in order to facilitate this process with a little more ease.

  3. Bring in friends and fellow travelers, and seek to form an informal progressive/leftist voting bloc in the party unit. No one person can do all of this by themselves. Roll that around in your head until it sinks in, because it’s a fundamental truth of politics. There are a ton of people who are just as frustrated as you are about the direction that the Democratic Party has taken; you just might not know them yet. Networking is key in this part of the plan; one can usually tell by faces, actions, and reactions to dialogue at the meeting whether a person is in lockstep agreement with the direction of an organization or if a person is dismayed by what they are listening to. Use the time after the meeting to engage in discussions with possible dissidents, and find out whether they have friends who feel similarly or if they know of any other spaces where progressives and leftists in the area gather for discussions of politics, policy, and organizing. If there are not, create one! It could be something akin to Drinking Liberally, or it could be a progressive potluck at your house or some other location. In addition to making new friends, it is a way to get folks talking and get them coming to Democratic committee meetings where a progressive/leftist caucus can be built up.

  4. Speak out and run for executive positions in the party. The logical extension of the previous point, this is where things start to get really interesting. You will find that people might not mind having you around at party meetings….so long as you do not say anything. Once the dissent happens, though, then the fireworks begin. This is why having a coalition of friends and people from the community who share your ideals is key in moving the party to the left. Use votes on procedural matters to assert a more progressive direction for the party unit. This can be as big as determining what neighborhoods to target in an election cycle or as small as choosing the most progressive-sounding bumper sticker to sell or give away during your events. As the saying goes, “Success has many fathers…” When people see the success that your caucus is having in moving the party in a more progressive direction, people who had previously felt disinclined to join the Democratic committee may give it a second thought. Once a critical mass has built up, then it will be time to run for spots on the committee’s executive board (most places have a chair, vice chair, secretary, and a treasurer; other vice chairs might be available for those who are members of a Democratic caucus, such as youth, people of color, or labor); the implementation of fresh ideas requires fresh leadership in order to make it happen.

  5. Use the pulpit that your office gives you in order to influence the candidates that run on your ticket. You’ve been elected as chair of your municipal/county/state Democratic Party, and you’ve carried at least some of your fellow travelers with you into other executive offices (or vice versa). Now what? While many candidates run for office at various levels without being tuned into the Democratic Party infrastructure, many others are recruited to run for office through the party’s candidate recruitment committees. Use these committees to recruit committed progressives to run for offices at every level, from Governor, U.S. Senate, and Congress, down to city council, school board, and the county commission. Even soil and water conservation district commissioners should have folks identified and supported. Sports analogies to politics are usually awful, but this one works: think of these low-level political positions as farm teams for your candidates. Being an elected politician requires skills that can only be learned by actually serving as an elected politician, and these low-level offices provide a place that allows people to make mistakes in a setting where damage to them will be contained.

  6. Give the progressive candidates all of the support that they need….AND LET THEM RUN ON THEIR MESSAGE. At this point, Southern progressives must let go of the notion that the worst thing that can happen to them is losing an election, particularly in the short-term. We need for our wins to wins, and for our losses to be losses, and you only do that by allowing progressive and leftist candidates to run on a similar message. Where do you come in? Your job is to provide the organizing infrastructure needed to turn out votes. That means working with local chapters of the College Democrats, Progressive Democrats or similarly aligned Democratic clubs, Democratic Socialists, NAACP, labor unions, civil rights organizations (such as the Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance), and other left-leaning community organizations and coming to an understanding of what a synergizing of efforts could mean for advancing issues that the stakeholders care about. Forming strong relationships with kindred organizations can go a long way towards building the sort of electoral machine that will churn out progressive political and policy victories.

  7. Finally, HOLD YOUR NEWLY-ELECTED PROGRESSIVES ACCOUNTABLE. So you’ve taken over the party in your state and elected Eugene Debs with a drawl. None of that means a damn thing if they do like Terry McAuliffe just did and stab you right in the back first chance they get. As we have been shown entirely too many times, there are frequently massive gaps between rhetoric on the campaign trail and how someone governs. An ongoing mobilization and organizing program focusing on voters should follow year-round, using the party infrastructure to put pressure on those already in office to do what they were put there to do: govern from the Left. This is where the alliances that have been built in the previous will be the most precious. The job of such a progressive alliance is two-fold: getting progressives elected to various offices and then using the alliance to keep them accountable. Unlike various rightist organizations, it will not be money or television ads that will keep our electeds accountable: it will be people and the communities most affected by the potential for bad public policy.

None of this is going to be simple or easy. The Democratic Party worked itself into this position over a period of years, even decades, and it will take years to get it back out again. That said, there are some topics, like those of reproductive health or issues with the criminal justice system and its abuses, that are too important to set by the wayside while we get ourselves together, because these are matters of life and death. We must give support to those candidates that will stand up and protect the right to access reproductive health care and fight to end the life-wasting War on Drugs while we work to fix the other parts of the Democratic Party that have lurched to the right. One of those areas that needs work is economic policy and combatting poverty, and unfortunately, it’s going to be a long and grueling road out of the right-wing swamp we have gotten ourselves stuck in.

Best to put your shoes on and start walking it as soon as you can.