Democrats need leadership from bottom to top

Head up Democrats!

I told myself a while back that I would stop writing about the continuing party struggles of Democrats from the local to the national levels. But there’s a national discussion going on, and honestly, its something that needs to be talked about. What is the future of the party? and how does the best version of that future come to fruition?

Over the next few weeks some party organs will be selecting leaders for the upcoming terms.  Here in Tennessee, elections will be held January 28th in Nashville. Nationally, a new DNC Chair will be elected at the end of February.

In both instances, I don’t have much of a read on what will happen. This is inside baseball stuff. Regular people don’t vote on this. In Tennessee, the 72 members of the TNDP Executive Committee will vote. For the national election, the 447 members will make the selection.

So while these aren’t elections that most regular folks can participate in, they do have some impact on how the party rebounds from a devastating loss. And while most of us won’t be casting votes, its good to know what’s on the minds of these candidates. The ideas, even of the losing candidates, may have some merit that needs to be explored.

What’s most interesting is that the top two candidates for the national job are echoing things that both I and Newscoma have been saying for nearly a decade.

The DNC Candidates

Right now there are seven declared candidates for the DNC Chair. The two who have been getting the most air time are Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and outgoing Labor Secretary, Tom Perez.

Both men have good resumes and speak well about what they would do as Chair of the DNC. You can hear them talk about their plans here (Perez) and here (Ellison).

What’s most striking is that both men, and some of the other candidates, recognize that State and Local party organs have been withering on the vine over the past 8 years. The loss of over 30 state legislatures and Governorships represent a huge liability for Democrats. They see that in order to whip the party back into shape we have to do better at getting our message outside the urban centers and into rural America. That means party building down to the County level.

You don’t have to be a genius to see where they’re coming from. There are 95 counties in Tennessee. Here’s how many of them have state or Federal Democratic Elected officials.

10 counties in Tennessee are represented by Democrats out of 95. That’s 10.5% of the state’s counties.

The total population of all those counties is around 31% of the state. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out we’re way behind.

I wish I could say we’ve been gaining ground. But while we’ve made some strides in the suburbs, we’ve lost more ground in rural Tennessee.  Over 55% of Tennessee is rural, exurban (population centers around an urban area but further out than suburban) or what I call “rural anchor” counties.  The term “rural anchor” is my own. It basically means a town or county that drives the majority of commerce for a mostly rural area (ie. it anchors commerce for said area). We have two or three rural districts. The rest are concentrated in Shelby (10) and Davidson (9) Counties , which make up just 24% of the state’s population.

That’s no way to win a majority, much less a statewide election.

Since the end of the “old guard” era in Tennessee Democratic Politics (that ended in 2008) we’ve seen leader after leader talk about expanding the brand, reaching out to rural Tennessee to make the state more competitive. So far it hasn’t happened.

I will say, I don’t think its from lack of trying…just that what’s been tried hasn’t taken hold.

Building from the Bottom

I’ve seen several folks working really hard in rural counties with some success. They can’t do it on their own.

While State and National party leaders need to put more emphasis on building stronger local organizations, they can’t dictate from on high. Organizations grow and thrive by building from the bottom, not the top. They need support from the top in the form of expertise, organizing methods, and messaging material. But when it comes to the meat and potatoes, its gotta be done locally.

That means local organizations have to reach out beyond the normal folks who want to attend a meeting every month or so. It means doing things that might not appear to be overtly political to raise public awareness of the group.

These groups have to actually do things, not just be there. Whether that’s a cookout or a canvass, poll watchers or a phone bank, doing things is the only real way to expand the party brand (Facebook, Twitter, and emails asking for a $3 donation don’t count).

When I look at the list of leaders of County Party organizations in Tennessee I see a lot of the same names I’ve seen over the past decade…and a lot of the same results.

What that tells me is these organizations are too insular to bring in fresh blood. They’re siloed. Siloed organizations don’t grow, they rot from within.

That rot ultimately spreads like a disease and makes it impossible for a candidate wishing to carry the party banner to be successful.

There are some places (Shelby County for instance) where the presence of so many Democratic voters can overcome the ineffectiveness of a local party organ. But Shelby County is the largest County in Tennessee with nearly 1 million people. We’re not the norm in a largely rural state. We have districts drawn by Republicans specifically to elect as few Democrats as possible. And while we gained one this year, our future prospects for gaining more ground in Shelby are pretty dim.

That’s why building effective local parties is so important. Because that’s how we gain enough strength between now and 2018 and beyond to rise above our current situation. We’ve got a great opportunity in 2018 and 2020. We need too seize it.

But to do that, we’re going to have to come together and put some of our internal disputes behind us.

Purity Test

The unfortunate truth is, there’s a lot of fracturing in the party these days.  These fractures have been getting wider over the past decade. Most recently, they’ve turned into a circular firing squad fighting for political purity.

The Democratic Party has never operated on ideological purity. It has always been a collection of diverse interests working for universally significant goals.

That diversity is a strength, so long as we don’t undermine it internally.

There are times to mobilize and times to stand down. To be effective we have to be more focused on the “effect” than a series of “events”. Legislatures hold a ton of meaningless votes. Getting outraged about a meaningless vote is wasting energy. Its the critical votes that are important.

If the vote has no effect (meaning it was some procedural thing, or it had no material policy effect), freaking out about it just makes you look stupid. The member may have had a strategic reason (gaining concessions, seeking support for an amendment, etc.) for casting that vote. Not all of those things can be broadcast to everyone and still be effective. If there’s no real effect, stand down.

But if a Democratic legislator votes the wrong way on a critical vote, it’s appropriate to hold them accountable. You’re holding the member accountable for the policy “effect” rather than the “event” of the vote.

Over the past decade we’ve seen the expansion of a lot of groups who whip up internal discontent for fun and profit. These groups preach a gospel of ideological purity, but provide little context for their pronouncements and are often badly misinformed or sourced.

Think before you act. Research from credible national news outlets. Know the story before you show how little you know.

I’ve been guilty of falling into this trap as well. Just trust me, we’re doing the devil’s work if we’re constantly fighting among ourselves.

Just Do Something…Anything

I think sometimes we feel powerless. Like nothing we do will have any effect. But no one can change the world alone. Its a group effort, and tiny changes add up to make bigger changes.

Let me put this in perspective for you. In the time its taken me to write this blog post, I could have knocked on 20 doors in my neighborhood. That means making 20 introductions, and having 20 conversations about what’s important to my neighbors (though I doubt they’d appreciate a knock on the door at 4am).

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but its huge. First of all, you’ve identified yourself as someone who’s genuinely concerned for your community. You’ve been able to gain some insight into the person and what’s important to them. Maybe you have shared interests, maybe not…but now you know.

You can use that introduction, and the knowledge that comes with it as a chance to organize on a hyper-local level. You don’t need permission anyone to do this.

Finding new allies is awesome, because it not only gives you a “brother-in-arms”, but it also expands your actual network individually, and your potential network of exponentially. Even if you think you know everyone, I guarantee there’s someone you don’t know.

You may not be able to work with these new found people on every issue, but now you know which issues you are most likely to be able to work on, and can expand from there.

Organizing at the neighborhood level is powerful. It builds a sense of community that’s been lost over the years. Organizing can transform from a small group of like-minded individuals, into a political force to be reckoned with.

But that’s how it starts. Just a few people talking and getting to know each other. Using the expertise they each have to make each other better. That’s what community is about, and that’s the kind of community Democrats need to work towards if we’re going to be an effective force in the future.

And that’s ultimately what our party needs, more people out doing things.

We don’t need more keyboard warriors taking the fight to Facebook, or “defending progressiveism” with Taliban like zeal on Twitter. People gotta do real stuff. Let your Twitter war be a reward for doing something.

And when you feel tired, or down and out, remember what President Obama said in his farewell address:

It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.  Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy:  Citizen.  (Applause.)  Citizen.


So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.  If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.  (Applause.) If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  (Applause.)  If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  (Applause.)  Show up.  Dive in.  Stay at it.


Sometimes you’ll win.  Sometimes you’ll lose.  Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you.  But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire.  And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed. – President Barack Obama in his farewell address

Wou’re really beat, and ready to quit, watch the video of the speech again. Use it to remember how good we’ve had it…challenges and all…over the past 8 years.  Use those words to recommit yourself to building on President Obama’s legacy, that helps make the dream of “a more perfect union” a reality.

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