That is the question former Governor Douglas Wilder recently asked in an article in Virginia Tomorrow. Some in the past have referred to the former Governor as “a loose cannon,” and it looks as though the cannon has fired a devastating broadside against what he himself clearly had considered in large part his own creation, the modern, post-Byrd-machine Democratic Party of Virginia. Mr. Wilder is unhappy with the condition, policies, leadership, and prospects of his party today—- in fact, with the whole shebang. In making his case, he writes:
“Before the Voting Rights Act, the voting populace of Virginia was so small one observer of southern politics said this commonwealth made the notoriously voter-hostile Mississippi look like a hotbed for democracy. After the passage of the VRA, voters with darker faces and those without family wealth and prestige dating back to 1619 started to cast ballots in larger numbers.”
Thereafter, as in other states subject to the VRA, a realignment of the political landscape began, with the shifts at first benefitting Republicans (after all, the Great Empancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was a Republican), which is how in 1969 Republican Linwood Holton was elected to the governorship. (FYI side-note: it was in 1619 that the first slaves from Africa arrived in Virginia—- the past is never really past, in the Old Dominion).
The decade of the 1970’s was when the Democratic Party re-built itself “from the ground up” on the ruins of the formerly all-powerful Byrd machine. This was a slow process, “shedding the ultra-conservative Byrd elements,” elements which began joining the Republican Party, freeing the Democrats to build an essentially new party coalition of diversity through painstaking grassroots organizing on “just about a precinct-by-precinct level.” Wilder praises Chuck Robb for bringing the “disparate groups and entities together” in 1981, when Robb ended the 1970’s Republican electoral dominance with 12 years of Democratic sweeps in the commonwealth.
In typically sly but sharp, nuanced style, Mr. Wilder notes that the winning 1980’s Democratic coalition
“…was not built on personalities—- though we had many a strong personality involved—- and it was not built on the wealth of rich candidates constructing personal political organizations by pouring money into electoral campaigns”
Mr. Wilder does not add “unlike in today’s Democratic Party,” but the words seem to hang in the air. The resurrection of the Democratic Party in 1981 was, in his opinion, built on ideas, issues, and a vision of Virginia’s future, appealing to the moderate middle. The “Black Democratic Caucus of Virginia,” of which Wilder was the first chair, has pretty much faded from view, and there no longer seems to be anyone in the party looking after the long-term interests of the party. Everything seems to revolve around specific candidates, “who,” he says, “do little but take advantage of the party-line on the ballot.”
“What is the plan for the Democratic Party’s next decade and beyond?….It might be suggested that today’s incarnation of the Democratic Party of Virginia is built for those who stand as statewide and national candidates, at the expense of its rank-in-file members and the ordinary voters of Virginia.”
If some of this sounds familiar, it may be because you have read diaries and articles here on BlueVirginia.us expressing many of the same points as Mr. Wilder. I myself have penned a few, including the after-action report following the Deeds campaign, and diaries by other authors found in the archives of BlueCommonwealth.com, all here. The candidate-centric, short cycle nature of DPVA operations, the failure to cultivate and absorb the first-time, young Obama voters, not to mention the new African-American and Latino voters, the striking lack of over-arching ideas with a vision of the future (much less a simple business plan), and what I consider to be the stubborn narcissism of a barnacle-encrusted establishment, all have contributed to the recent Democratic losses—- and it will only get worse unless the party re-invents itself again.
“There is an odd lack of organization at the Democratic Party of Virginia.”
I could not agree more.
After slamming the current party leadership (without mentioning names, mind you) former Governor Wilder ends on a rather plaintive note, wondering why those leaders have not reached out to those who rebuilt the DPVA in the 1970’s, so it won in the 1980’s. These are the people who “know how to do” what the Party so desperately needs in 2011, especially when it comes to nurturing the broad grassroots. He notes:
“Today’s Democratic leaders seem to have determined either: (1.) They don’t need that knowledge; or (2.) They have a different methodology for success. I can tell you, neither seems to be the case.”
Now, there’s a Wilder-zinger for you—- unfortunately, almost spoiled by the inevitable disclaimer: “…this is not about me, but about objective analysis.”
Notwithstanding the loose canon view many party members may have of him, in this case I believe he has hit the nail on the head, and also probably hit a nerve or two. If the DE (Democratic Establishment) can be jolted into undertaking another resurrection-reorganization of the Party, I would hope they would also start listening, really listening to the deep grassroots; we have certainly been telling it like it is for several electoral cycles now, but to no avail. And if the DE is deaf again? Maybe the grassroots should take matters into their own hands… maybe even with the help of those old resurrectionists of the 1970’s. It may not be the 1970’s, but political moxie doesn’t change.