The Democratic Party is in shambles. And it’s not only because Donald Trump is president: the number of elected Democrats at the local, state, and national level is frighteningly low. Not only does the Republican Party control all three branches of government in Washington D.C., they also control 32 state legislatures and 34 governorships nationwide.
However, in spite of its lack of representation and political power in government, the Democratic Party is still quite popular: Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, and the approval ratings of Democratic leaders like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren exceed those of the most prominent Republicans. However, this precisely underscores how poorly the Democratic Party has converted its popular support into institutional power: simply put, they’ve failed to play the essential “game” of politics.
Ideology aside, the Republican Party’s resurgence is partly due to its powerful organizing at the local level. The Tea Party, among other grassroots movements, has generated enthusiasm for the GOP’s conservative base, and it turns out voters even during midterm years.
By contrast, the Democratic Party relies on an unwieldy, top-down campaign structure, an organizational model premised on driving down-ballot turnout through success on the national level. Indeed, the upper ranks of the party consistently show ambivalence or even outright disdain toward passionate grassroots and social justice activists. Given its current dire state, the Democratic Party needs to recognize that only bottom-up organization can muster the strength necessary to fight the GOP.
Local organizers know best
The broken situations of two states, Michigan and North Carolina, reveal how the Democratic Party’s inadequate handling of local organizing led to electoral defeat. Because a Republican presidential candidate hadn’t won Michigan since 1988, Democrats counted the state as a sure victory for Clinton in 2016, despite the state’s conservative governor and state legislature. As a result, national Democrats neglected to listen to local and state officials who rightly feared for a Trump victory.
In part due to their advanced data models, the Clinton campaign pursued less traditional person-to-person campaigning than previous campaigns had generally done. Some operatives remember moments when an elderly woman in Flint and a group of building trade workers were not given a lawn sign and canvassing materials because they weren’t considered “statistically successful.” They never returned to the campaign. One DNC member complained about the campaign’s lack of trust in the organizers on the ground, remarking, “When you don’t reach out to community folk and reach out to precinct campaigns and district organizations that know where the votes are, then you’re going to have problems.”
The effects were catastrophic. The campaign failed to gain sufficient support among the labor union members or the African American voters Obama had done so well with. Clinton was especially hurt by a sharp decrease in turnout in black cities like Detroit, Saginaw, and Flint. The state ultimately went to Trump, but by less than twelve thousand votes, a margin that could very well have been overcome if the Clinton campaign made more of a grassroots effort.
The rise of tyranny
North Carolina’s government is broken to the point that one political scientist no longer deems it a democracy. Although Democrat Roy Cooper defeated Republican Pat McCrory in the governor race, in part due to the unpopularity of the HB2 bill, North Carolina Democrats lost the rest of the slate, including the presidential election. One undeniably significant reason for GOP victories in North Carolina is the state’s broad voter suppression scheme. A Republican legislature researched the most common methods black users used to vote and slashed them accordingly. After Cooper was elected, the state legislature passed laws curtailing the incoming governor’s power. The GOP’s power play in North Carolina was so successful, it might be implemented on a national level in the future.
The important lesson is that state legislatures matter: the Democratic Party must nurture strong Democratic presences in all fifty states. In 2009, the Democratic National Committee turned away from its successful 50-state-strategy, which apportioned its resources somewhat evenly between the state parties, and embraced a more top-heavy approach to gear up for the 2012 re-election of Obama. Given Cooper’s victory in 2016 and Obama’s in 2008, North Carolina’s Democratic Party should be much stronger than it currently is. Instead, it has simply failed to turn strong popular support into legislative power.
But there is some good news from North Carolina: the organizing that enabled Roy Cooper’s victory engaged in precisely the sort of local politicking that Democrats can and should rely on everywhere. It wasn’t the Democratic Party, but progressive Christian activists and the local NAACP that converted the unpopularity of the so-called “bathroom law” into Pat McCrory’s defeat. Their protests, dubbed “Moral Mondays,” successfully united people of color, members of the LGBT community, and poor whites under one cause with an inclusive message. Grassroots activism successfully married identity and class politics, a feat the party has struggled to accomplish.
Activists and the Democratic Party at odds
The divide between the Democratic Party and activists is wide and, at times, crippling. Democratic politicians have been reluctant to support recent mass progressive movements like the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter. A leaked memo revealed that officials were urged not to promise Black Lives Matter concrete policy positions, to which Black Lives Matter responded, “we deserve to be heard, not handled.”
The party also showed disdain towards Bernie Sanders supporters, many of them grassroots activists, during the 2016 presidential primary. When asked about the need for superdelegates during the primary, then-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said they “exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists,” a clear rebuke of grassroots politics as an overarching party strategy. Many of the delegates were activists without strong ties to the party, and were derided by Democrats, even Sanders surrogates.
But Vox’s Matthew Yglesias makes the case that if these activists can be brought into the party, both they and the party would benefit. Given the party’s dismal state, it is imperative that the party brings activists into the fold to build a powerful and consistent base that can contend and organize at local and state levels. The party needs to place activists and their positions in the spotlight, elevate activists to positions of power, and urge Democrats to become involved in their community grassroots efforts. After all, local activists know best how to navigate the complex networks of churches, unions, grassroots organizations, and majority-minority neighborhoods that provide staunch Democratic support.
Millennials aren’t sold on the Democratic Party
Although young people voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, they did not turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton as much as Democrats hoped. Throughout the 2016 presidential election, millennials worried Democrats because of their low enthusiasm for the party and its candidate and their gravitation towards third party candidates. As the most racially-diverse and the most liberal generation in America, millennials are essential to the Democratic Party’s long-term success.
Nowhere is the lack of enthusiasm more apparent than in black millennials. Although black millennials overwhelmingly favored Clinton over Trump, they’ve been frustrated by the Democratic Party’s inability to address systemic racism. Coming of age in a time when Black Lives Matter stands for more of what they believe in than the Democratic Party, their lack of enthusiasm for Clinton was a key factor in the disappointing turnout in predominantly African American cities like Philadelphia and Detroit.
Many enthusiastic young organizers on the left, especially people of color, have eschewed establishment politics in favor of grassroots efforts outside the party. As a result, the Democratic Party has few young politicians to take on the mantle of Obama, and maintains a leadership that is disproportionately old and white. Millennials who felt their voices weren’t heard by the the party will organize anyways. It’s up to the party to let them in.
Instead of catering to activists and young people, the Democratic Party has centered its outreach on moderate, white upper-class voters. The Democrats’ presidential campaign focused on recruiting these voters at fundraisers among the ultra-rich. Ultimately, however, most of these voters voted for Trump. In 2017 and beyond, the party must focus on building its base, turning non-voters into voters, and uniting various causes rather than making appeals to a demographic it probably won’t win.
The party must resemble the grassroots movements it represents
Sohow exactly should the Democrats rebuild their party through activism? North Carolina’s Moral Mondays offered an opportunity for organizers of all types to unite for a single cause, according to The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk. Similarly, Jamelle Bouie at Slate suggests the Democrats follow the model set forth by Jesse Jackson, an activist himself, in 1988. The left coalition would emphasize the importance of intersectionality, mediate identity and class concerns, and push for a multiracial class solidarity.
A more recent and salient movement, the protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL), offers an intriguing model for the Democratic Party’s resistance. A grassroots struggle in the truest sense, The beauty and efficacy of NoDAPL’s organization is in the ideological range of its protesters. Native Americans protested the pipeline to fight against the white supremacy that has plundered them and their lands for centuries, while other organizations of people of color such as Black Lives Matter expressed their solidarity. Environmentalists stood up for the health of the planet against oil corporations, and socialists and unions fought the greed of capitalism. Finally, after months of protest, President Obama decreed that the pipeline must be built on an alternate route. Yet the Democratic Party itself has still not officially embraced the NoDAPL movement.
Any party that consistently fails to figure out a way to convert popular support into legislative power is a party that will continue to let its voters down. The people who know how best to do so are not party officials. They are local and state organizers who understand what their neighbors want from the party. Going forward, both of the leading candidates for DNC chair, Tom Perez and Keith Ellison have emphasized the importance of local organizing to the rebuilding of the party. It’s crucial that the DNC, Democrats in Congress, and popular national figures like Obama and Clinton support and implement comprehensive changes to the organization of the Democratic Party.
Grassroots activists, people of color, and millennials will and already have begun to organize. In 2017, Democrats will have to react quickly and effectively to everything the terrifying GOP regime puts forth. If the Democratic Party does not let these organizers in, the Republican Party will continue to amass the power necessary to implement their radical, unpopular agenda.
Hugo Kitano, a senior studying computer science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.