On this blog there have been some interesting articles on what the grassroots want to see changed in the Democratic Party of Virginia (see Let’s Improve DPVA – Tech Edition and A Few Suggestions for Reforming DPVA
NonTech Edition). The long thread of comments provides proof that there is a strong, deep current of dissatisfaction, which is not, be it noted, simply whining, since it includes several well-thought-out recommendations.
This is not the first time on Blue Virginia that we’ve seen such calls for reform and even lists of suggestions (see the recently re-published Executive Summary of Hard Lessons). There is, in other words, a body of literature already out there that never got much beyond the readership of this blog, which naturally raises the question: is this time going to be any different? The Petition on Change.org has sparked interest from some members of the Steering Committee and others, so that’s a hopeful sign, and I do remember that about 50 years ago the national Democratic Party did re-organize itself in response to massive complaints, so it really is possible DPVA can reform itself. After all, DPVA’s increasing ineffectiveness at winning elections, and the way Organizing for America and even some candidates simply bypass the Party and run their own campaigns, must give even the most die-hard and barnacle-encrusted members of the Old Guard food for thought.
Just nibbling around the edges in order to stave off a serious shake-up is not going to be acceptable to the hard-working grassroots. Therefore, what reforms and changes are on the “A” List, which I believe we have to have, and no dawdling, please?
What a lot of us really want is for DPVA to adopt a more progressive Democratic philosophy, getting rid of the damnable Republican Lite that seems to animate the Party Establishment in Virginia —- they crouch in their foxholes, trying to win elections with me-too-ism, afraid to be even a little bit populist because they are convinced Virginia is “conservative” and “centrist” (a la Mark Warner, say) despite contrary evidence. What contrary evidence? Well, when the new Obama voters went to the polls in 2008, Virginia turned out to be center left, not center right. Then there was that barn-burner of a speech by Dr. Drew Westen at the DPVA Summit last summer, “The inauguration speech I wish Obama had made”—- it brought down the house with its fighting populism, proving that the audience, composed of local party activists, was much more populist and progressive than the party leadership.
When we have a strong populist message and a candidate who does not spout Republican Lite but instead is unafraid to take a stand for Democratic values and the social contract, the base is energized, and those new Obama voters will come out and vote. When the same ol’ same ol’ Maginot Line, Wall Street-lackey policies are the message, the base is dispirited and neither works nor votes; a different universe of voters goes to the polls and Republicans win. Change to a positive populist Democratic philosophy and all else will flow from that, including not just that sacred cow of improved “messaging,” but administrative reforms and modernization of the Party, not to mention actually starting to win elections.
When there is no chain of command there can be no accountability. If the mission of the Democratic Party is to win elections in order to implement the social contract philosophy of government, and it does not accomplish that mission, it has failed. When it continues to fail, who is accountable? When it comes to this pass, I am in agreement with General Curtis LeMay, who was boss of the Strategic Air Command (our nuclear response bombers during the cold war), when he said “I am unable to distinguish between bad luck and incompetence.” In other words, there can be no alibis, no rationalizations to excuse a lousy job. We must replace the current leadership and also conduct a structural audit of the DPVA’s organization.
Personally, I believe that employing an independent management consultant to diagnose the ills of DPVA would be helpful, just as an unwieldy business does when it needs to improve its bottom line, but if that is too much, then consider grassroots recommendations to loosen the grip of insiders (and of selected outsiders) who are really running things—- “the fix is in” sort of cabal that makes the major decisions, which are then generally rubber-stamped by the Central Committee. None of this actual chain of command shows up anywhere in the table of organization; it is cronyism at its worst, and it extends right down to the local level as well in some areas, leading to what I call Intra-Party Malice, or IPM. The result is that a candidate who is not anointed by the clique is not supported by his or her own local committee, which seems willing to let a Republican win in order to teach the upstart a lesson. This turf-defending warfare is counter-productive, not to say fatally foolish. Further up the food chain, the existence of an extra-curricular cabal of decision-makers deprives the Central Committee of its purpose, turning it into mere kabuki theatre. This is a fatal flaw in administration, and it requires an organizational change at the very top to restore a clear, direct chain of command responsible to the chosen grassroots representatives of the Party membership.
Strong local committees are the way to win elections. The sad fact is, most Democrats are generally indifferent to politics (until something awfully bad or awfully good happens); they can’t be bothered with boring meetings and have their own lives to lead. That means that committee work and maintenance is always left in the hands of the same few volunteers, often retired older people because they have the time, and they become entrenched and hide-bound, sometimes without realizing it. Republicans, however, are in permanent campaign mode, and have the funds to hire lots of professional operatives. Creating an ongoing local party structure that is continuously active, recruiting a bench of candidates, training precinct captains, raising the Democratic profile in their area, and broadening its diversity of membership is absolutely essential. This is asking a lot of volunteers; clearly, they need a professional support system. Restore the paid regional co-ordinators instituted by Howard Dean when he was Chair of DNC; integrate a formal but flexible modern media program, including a beefed-up technical section at headquarters; create an endowment fund or super-PAC that is not used for campaigns, but can provide education, training, and research in support of local committees; institute term limits for membership in Central Committee and Steering Committee as part of the re-organization of Party administration.
There is a lot more that comes to mind, such things as showing documentaries and videos to bring in new members or enliven meetings, sponsoring public action or charity events, creating a physical office for local committees… once you open up the process to new blood, you’ll be amazed at how creative people can be.
All of these suggestions are doable, with a bit of elbow grease and political will. If we just continue the way we have been, we will continue to get the results we got, results we all agree are not acceptable.