President Obama’s speech this afternoon covered a wide variety of topics. I tried to imagine Trump answering even one of the questions coherently. I couldn’t. We’ve obviously replaced one of the smartest men in the Oval Office with the most ridiculously and proudly ignorant person we could find. That comes more into focus every day.
President Obama’s charge to Democrats, echoing Senator Bernie Sanders, is to “return to the grassroots.” What do the Dems need to do, especially in Wisconsin, to actually gain some ground at the local, district, or state levels? We are not even doing the basics really well right now, and yet local initiatives like school referenda passed all over the state. It’s not working to listen to so-called leaders who have long-time Democratic Party ties at the national and sometimes state level while they are so disconnected from the grassroots. Here are my suggestions for everybody after talking to people a lot more knowledgeable than I am:
1) Think like a religious organization member. Anybody ever get invited to someone’s house of worship? People are often asked to ask. Know someone who shares your values, but maybe hasn’t gotten into politics or organizing yet? Invite them to a party meeting or other organizing gathering. Maybe it’s Citizen Action (almost nobody does this better than Citizen Action), maybe it’s a Democratic Party event near you, maybe the Working Families Party is active where you live, or maybe you just want to start bringing people to your town hall meetings because the shit’s getting real. Invite them. Unitarians describe this approach as “…congregations committed to breaking from the status quo are called to develop a sense of ‘radical hospitality.’ Rather than seeking out like members for mutual support, they seek people who consider themselves beyond the reach of organized religion.”
2) Have you been to your local Dem party meetings lately? How was it? Did people make you feel at home? Party regulars somehow don’t see the irony of failing to make space for new people while complaining that nobody wants to be involved in the party.
3) If you made it to your local Dem/other cause-related meeting, did you leave with homework? Good organizations are “sticky”, and make sure people have a reason to come back. They are put to work-- plugged in immediately. People have so little time that if you don’t use it wisely, they will find somebody else who will. Same goes for any group that says they need people, but then doesn’t put them to work as promised.
4) Related to #2, stop it with the purity tests, comparing how long people have been involved with the party or with a cause. Just stop it. Nothing but nothing drives people away faster than saying they can’t participate because of something it’s literally impossible for them to rectify. “You should have been here years ago”—seriously? The same goes for anybody who brags about how they have done so much more than everyone else. It’s repellant.
5) Everything has changed. Unlike a lot of die-hard older Dem volunteers, for younger people (especially under 30) there’s often no such thing as job growth, no such thing as employer-sponsored health care. For many of them, there is no possibility of company-sponsored pensions. Consider this when you wonder why young people don’t have time to volunteer. It’s often because they are working twice as many hours as you did at their age, for less, with no benefits. You can still make space for them but you may need to be creative in how they work. Their technological capacity and access is probably better than a lot of other volunteers, so plug them in that way.
6) Does your local party look like your locals? Who’s in power in your party, if it’s active? Take a long, honest look at this, and then go back to #1.
7) Stop recycling the same consultants who have an almost-constant history of losses. Now, a lot of Dems in higher ranks will cite gerrymandering, money, blah, blah, blah, but in the end, it is still possible for Dems to win races here with the right candidate and the right approach. Harder? Absolutely. But not impossible. How are such seemingly intelligent candidates recycling the same old people to run campaigns? I’m talking to you, Rep. Dana Wachs.
8) Martha Laning has some pretty obvious weaknesses as head of DPW. How could she have done if the outgoing folks had met with her regularly or at least held back from regularly openly mocking her on social media? Who knows? Their egos wouldn’t let them put party over personality when their preferred candidate lost. At least we all lose in that scenario, right? I try not to think about how far we could have gone with everyone pulling in the same direction. Or with better communication and support from the DPW-- but that is a long-running complaint that predates Martha's arrival. To be fair, we need stronger direction. And we need a listening tour PRIOR to a presidential election, not after one. Let's face it: a lot could go better with the state party.
9) Is a model of 72 individual county parties to make up one big party with a flimsy infrastructure a sustainable one? Probably not. People have almost entirely given up on the party since 2010. The decision from the DPW leadership—that we shouldn’t have a primary for the recall election—was a colossal miscalculation that people are still upset about. The groundswell of grassroots support that had been built up through the recall was quashed. Maybe Mary Burke would have emerged as the frontrunner, but by ensuring no primary, we’ll never know if more people would have gotten behind her or not if the story had been allowed to play itself out in real time. I’m sure the DPW felt it was best from an expense standpoint. Think money and volunteers can’t be raised when people get fired up enough about something? Wrong-- ask Jill Stein.
10) If the state party wants help besides money, then they should act like it. Lots of us signed up to help with the recount via the DPW. And lots of us never heard back. And then the solicitations for money started right back up—if they ever stopped. Wisconsinites don’t only want to be asked for money when they have other things to give.
Wisconsin is a progressive state, confirmed in the selection of Senator Bernie Sanders in the state Democratic primary. Until candidates who can rekindle that same grassroots fire start running for office we can expect to keep scrambling for enough people to do the work, and to keep losing. Having party-picked candidates vs. people-picked candidates is not what real progressives want. (After some time spent watching Dana Wachs on YouTube I’m sad to report his speaking style makes Scott Walker’s look scintillating. Perk up!! Still, he could be really good at reaching voters outside of Dane and Milwaukee Counties—something we definitely need. Geography is only part of the equation.)
People are not interested in a party that doesn’t look like them, whatever that means at the local level. They don’t want the corporate Dems in charge no matter how many times they are told to sit down and shut up and just let the folks supposedly in the know lead them. They don’t want to keep hearing – after mounting losses—that the blame’s on them. It’s not. Could we look at what Wisconsinites really want and then act on it? Even once? Please?