Rick Perlstein’s focus on 2018 is spot-on. Because really the only thing we want to mimic about right-wingers’ success is their long-term view.
Much—too much, really—has been written that documents how conservative strategists and funders turned things around after the Goldwater defeat. But on our side I think it is important to understand where we have come—and why—before tackling the challenges we need to get right, as we write the winning script for 2018.
Explaining the “how-did-we-get-into-this-mess” issue need not take very long—I can name that tune in four notes. We got into this mess because we needed to create political leadership opportunities and replace the smoke-filled room with the open-source, collaborative politics that is our future. It’s important to remember that if you were a female or an African-American in 1964, there was nowhere to go if you wanted to advance yourself in the Democratic Party or the union movement. So we saw an important and necessary flowering of single-issue movements (civil rights, women’s environment, gay and lesbian, and so on) and leadership opportunities. Is this Democratic Party or this Democratic coalition now less than the sum of its parts? You betcha. Were these changes necessary? Of course.
So that was then. And now, how are we going to put Humpty Dumpty—the Democratic coalition—back together again?
First of all, we need to understand that it’s not the Democratic Party’s problem alone. Legal changes, created by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, actually make it illegal for the Democratic National Committee to create the coordinated plans for winning presidential states—and of course, that’s how we make a president.
So we’re going to have to do it all by ourselves—using existing coalitions, new creativity, and a bottom-up, grass-roots organizing model that blends high-tech and high-touch approaches. Essentially, we must quit the habit of blaming “the Democrats” and learn the new skills of “pick up a hammer” politics.
Confused? Think of it this way: every four years there are about 50 million Democratic voters who get counted, more or less, depending on Florida’s mood. The rest of the time, the Democratic coalition divides into card-carrying party activists, passionate environmentalists, pro-choice voters, trade-union members, and at least 28 more great flavors of Baskin-Robbins–Democratic–green–progressive–liberal you-name-its. Of course, we’re all individuals, we all hate being labeled (so no letters about this!), and we all want more community and more cooperation.
So how can we rally our troops, state by state? Frankly, it’s an open question and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I agree completely with Rick Perlstein that we need to think big and offer optimistic visions, and I have been a proud partner in one such project, the Apollo Alliance, which wants to spend big and use nationalistic instincts to drive a smarter regional economic-investment agenda.
But to re-glue together the Democratic coalition, we’re not going to succeed overnight with one big slogan. We really need to think more like Barry Diller and less like FDR—or Boeing. Diller’s Internet empire and business model strings together many powerful brand names, but they are all tied together by a common, back-end infrastructure.
In Oregon, for example, where I now live, it may take an army of angry parents to step up and demand serious action to preserve and enhance public education—rather than more bickering over Band-Aid solutions. Doing that right may require organizing every living room, school, place of worship, workplace, and mall into a new network that Salem cannot ignore. It certainly will require “strange bedfellows” politics—since we’ll want business leaders to join in and say we need a well-educated work force if Oregon is to incubate new ideas, technologies, and jobs. This new movement will probably also have to take positions on issues besides education—by painting a new vision of Oregon’s future. Long-term success may also involve creative “Civics 101” efforts to make clear to voters that sidewalks and fire trucks are not free.
What will this new network be called? Well, it probably won’t just be called the Democratic Party. Because it can’t involve just Democrats. It probably won’t live under any one roof. But this emerging network will end up serving as a focal point for growing new community leaders and inspiring a return to old-fashioned, face-to-face conversations about our future.
In other states, the focal point for organizing new hybrid Democratic networks might involve expanding health care, ending special-interest corporate welfare, investing in green growth, or some other rallying cry that ties together neighbors and communities across the state.
For many political folks used to simpler times, the substitution of loose-knit, state networks for the ease of shopping at “Window A” at the DNC is a sad day. Mixing back together all 32-plus flavors of Democrats into a new, tastier milkshake will take a while as we figure out what messages and values actually engage our voters.
Perlstein’s quotation from Will Marshall has it half right: it isn’t that the Democratic Party alone is an albatross—any political party would be. So yes, we will want to keep the Democratic brand name while we test-market what sells, and hopefully inspires, political action, affinity, and community-based connections that last.
Yet while a new era is dawning, it need not be dark. State networks, not national parties, will be the easiest place to gain traction and drive social change. So let’s dream big and see what works. Let’s pursue and repeat the marketing lab experiments that work, while we build a new Democratic Party. If we can finish before 2018, all the better. I’m getting tired.
Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “How Can the Democrats Win?”
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.