Friday, December 10, 2004

Making New Democrats: State of the Party 4

Two days ago, the NYT ran a handful of short pieces on the future of the Democratic Party (written by actual Democrats: so no Mickey Kaus or Peter Beinhart or Joementum Lieberman) on its op-ed page. Mostly the pieces didn't say much of value, but there was one by Howard Wolfson that reminded me of something I've been thinking of for a while and that I think deserves attention. (so yeah, anything of value is in my definition something I either agree with or have thought of before, I guess).

Anyway, a practical step he recommends is that the voting for the Democratic chairman should be opened up to more of the Democratic Party members. A fairly straight forward idea, and a good one I think. But his broader point is that political parties used to be more involved in their communities, by, say, sponsoring Little League teams, neighborhood picnics, delivery turkeys on Thanksgiving and so on. The advent of TV and mass communication has had the effect of reducing the direct contact between party leaders and The People. Now, obviously parties used to be involved in people's lives in other important ways as well, such as through the art of patronage, which the establishment of a modern civil service has pretty much wiped out, and through party activities on election day that were later viewed as being coercive and potentially fraudulent, leading to various party and campaign "reforms" that lessened the role of political parties in mobilizing voters. The change from urban to suburban communities has also changed the degree to which parties are and can connect with voters. So some of these connections between the party and the voter will be difficult or illogical to restore.

But the point from Wolfson's essay, I think, and the argument I would make, is that these changes don't mean that the political parties (especially our own) can't reach out in different ways.

Now, what type of reaching out should the party do? First, we have to recognize that voter outreach can't just start the summer before the election and consist only of voter registration drives and calls to go to the polls on election day. Many groups did a good job this year of doing that, but it wasn't enough. The party will need to develop ideas for bringing politics to the people between elections.

Second, the substance of what parties do to involve people will have to be meaningful, and involve actually helping communities deal with problems. One of the reasons the Democratic Party has struggled to articulate a message and has struggled for votes in recent years has been its basic failure to connect government to people in a way beyond the cutting of checks from Washington. Knocking on doors and such other grassroots activity is good (and always trotted out as to what the party needs to do following an election loss), but it's not enough. The party will need to begin soon to involve itself in our communities and work with voters in ways that helps party leaders understand how various issues and problems can be dealt with, either by local government, voluntary groups, or by state or the federal government.

In an ironic sense, the nationalization and beaucratization of domestic policy through the New Deal and Great Society programs may have had the effect of increasing the distance between government, parties and the public, reduced the role of local government and party institutions in solving problems and meeting needs, and decreased the Democratic Party's ability to connect with voters for the purposes of building and maintaining and governing coalition.

Consider this my first installment regarding how and to what extent the Democrats must "economic-populist" their message.

Have a great weekend, and if you're in the Washington, DC area, try to stay dry.


American Dilettante said...

I think one big issue is that the Repugnicans have a built in localism with their issues (even though it's mostly imagined). They claim they are the party of low taxes (selfness is as local as it comes). They claim they are pro-gun (guns are local as they are under their voters' pillows). They claim they are pro-military (people's dads and brothers are local). They claim they are pro-Jesus (churches and the tips of their voters' tongues are local).

Democrats' issues are abstract and far away. Oceans, wetlands and rainforests are far away. Social programs help people that voters have never met. Fiscal responcibility is complicated and exists in budget books. Equality and civil rights are abstract and hard to imagine.

If people are given the choice between beef jerky and fillet minion, I bet most would choose the former because they wouldn't know what the latter was.

mondale/ferraro foreva! said...

indeed - totally agree with this post. I went to a democracy for america event in adam's morgan on friday night and was a bit disappointed by how empty it sort of felt. everyone was drinking wine and eating brie (which was pretty tasty i must admit). the one cool part was that people were talking in this backroom that looked sort of like a cave and gave the event a bit of a rebel movement sort of feeling. but for the most part, didn't feel anything was going on other than gearing up for other elections and raising money - and i would think that democracy for america is probably doing the best at sticking to the grass roots, but even they need to focus more on actual changes in communities and reaching beyond the typical people who go to political gatherings.