The coverage of the DNC Chair race is still all wrong
Adapted from an earlier Facebook post.
The race for DNC Chair, eventually won by former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, was seen through many divisive frames: establishment versus progressives; Clinton versus Sanders 2.0; activists versus donors; and many others that were primarily influenced by the eye of the beholder. At this point, even pointing out that both Perez and Ellison are accomplished progressives seems to alienate some of the camps.
Unfortunately, it seemed like at times that many of the Democrats following the race seemed to subscribe to the Green Lantern Theory of the DNC Chair. Electing the right candidate, it went, would unify the party and solve many of the issues we face as Democrats. That’s absurd.
So much of the coverage of the race — including unprecedented live debates — was devoted to these conflicts. As a result, lost in the coverage of the #DNCChair race was that the problems facing political parties are so much bigger than any chair can handle, and they have nothing to do with ideological purity.
The Democratic Party is currently organized like many of the civic institutions that have seen a massive decline in membership and participation over the past 50 years. While we have succeeded in opening the party to women and minorities in a meaningful way, we’ve lost people who can no longer afford the time or money it takes to be involved.
As an example, I was a three-term chair of a statewide Democratic Party organization and I’ve worn many hats in the party. I’ve had many mentors and many conversations about the old days. 50 years before I was Young Democrats president, the organization counted 10,000 active members and a chapter in almost all of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
When I took over the organization in 2011, we had about 500 dues-paying members and 25 chapters across the state. This is not unique: many partisan organizations worldwide are shrinking, and more Americans are declining to identify with either Party.
On the other hand, we had made progress because we had women, African-American, Latino/a, and openly LGBT people in leadership positions where they hadn’t been before.
What happened? We ask regular people to devote many hours of their life to being precinct chairs and county officers, and they get nothing in return. The days of patronage are long gone. It’s no surprise many precincts struggle to get 5 people to a meeting (the number required for quorum in North Carolina). We certainly don’t have enough people to have the “ward heelers” of old to get out the vote on every block.
With all of this structure, it’s no surprise that the party has become ossified. In North Carolina alone, a fully-functional Democratic Party requires over 10,000 people to be active in elected positions and to do their jobs well. If we were to go beyond that and elect all of the precinct-level delegates to county conventions that we’re supposed to elect, the total approaches 23,000 people. This is just the party structure and doesn’t include the people we need to work and volunteer on campaigns, or all the positions and staff needed to effectively manage this bureaucracy.
That’s one state. Making all of this work is a daunting task. We don’t fill anywhere close to all of those positions, but I don’t see it as any person’s “fault” or a failure of leadership. No one person can fix it. Democrats are dealing with the weight of an inherited structure. All things decay and at some point it becomes too costly to continue to bring order to chaos.
The Democratic Party has been around a long time. It’s the oldest Party in the world. Perhaps it’s too old, there’s too much entropy, and some DNC Chair in the near future will be the one to put the chairs on the tables, sweep up, turn on the alarm, and lock the doors for the last time.
I don’t know what the solution is, though I’ve proposed a couple in my time. We need to get better at listening to people in the party. We should pay our staff more because there are real barriers to working in politics (I’m encouraged by Perez’s plan to pay interns). More state and local Democratic Parties could endorse in primaries and make party participation meaningful. The Democratic Party’s most valuable asset is its brand, and it’s a brand that people believe in enough to care deeply about this DNC Chair election, so we should do all we can to leverage it.
When talking about the Party, I often quote Mailer: “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.” If we aren’t growing, we’re dying; without changing, the cost of new members goes up every year. The Trump backlash is the perfect opportunity to bring new people into the party, but the structure of the party has to adjust to catch the wave.
To those leading the party, I have a couple of suggestions: make it easier to be involved and make your party unit more accessible. Live by the words “If it’s inaccessible to the poor it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.” You can’t listen to somebody if they can’t make it to the meeting.
Don’t be afraid of meeting and taking action in the virtual world. Train people not only to be the people we need, but also to know they’re the people we need.
Don’t dismiss the concerns of groups in our coalition as “identity politics.”
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
If this all sounds easy, it’s hard to do in practice. It requires training and funding, and leadership that is invested in making it happen. It is a job that is impossible for a DNC Chair to accomplish alone: they’ll need buy-in at every level of the party structure. Saving the Democratic Party may be a Sisyphean task.
It means we need to train thousands of people from the grasstops to the grassroots to value the participation of the people we bring into the party. It means having a structure, a plan, and grassroots-facing staff that make every volunteer hour and small dollar donation matter. It means making party membership meaningful— “showing citizens they have impact” is one of the ways to reduce civic apathy. Let people know they’re being heard.
Years of organizing have taught me that your ability to listen is so much more important than what you preach. Tom Perez’s first move — appointing Keith Ellison — was a good first step, it shows that he’s been listening, and it gives me confidence in Perez’s ability to capture the next generation of Democrats.
Speaking of which, we need you. Be one of the 10,000 people the North Carolina Democratic Party needs to operate: organize your precinct, and make it the best precinct in the state. If you live in another state, go to your state or county party website and see how you can be involved. We need people like you who care enough to read a Medium article on the state of the Democratic Party to be involved. If you want to be in the position to change the party, and have the leadership listen, you have to have skin in the game.
As we used to say during the Bush years, regime change starts at home.