The Democratic Party is the premier political organization in America, right? More people belong to the Democratic Party than any other. The President and the majority of the Senate belong to it.
But don’t try to call the offices of the Democratic Party organization in Seattle. You can’t. The party doesn’t have an office or a phone number.
How about calling the Democratic Party for King County? Don’t bother. The King County party organization doesn’t have a phone number either, and doesn’t maintain a staffed office.
The Washington State Democratic Party does have a phone number and office, but has a staff of only 10 people to run operations statewide. There is no one on the staff tasked with organizing. If you click “get involved” on their website, you are referred to the local party organizations, the ones with no phone number.
The paltry party infrastructure illustrates the weakness of popular political organization in the U.S. There is no permanent, ongoing effort to establish a sustained and vital connection between ordinary people and the Democratic Party platform of economic equality, social justice, civil rights, and the environment. Rather, our politics is built around intermittent campaigns for individual candidates focused on expensive media buys and the fundraising required to pay for them. After Election Day, the campaign infrastructure is dismantled, and lobbyists and vested interests take their usual position linking hands with politicians at center stage of the political process.
Is someone else besides the Democratic Party doing the work of registering voters, educating voters on the issues, building a culture of political involvement, and motivating voters to go to the polls? Labor unions have long provided most of the organizing muscle for the party, but their strength is a fraction of what is once was. Unions today represent less than 12% of all workers, compared to more than 20% in 1983, and are generally retrenching amid determined assault from the Right.
Private non-profit organizations once provided some consistent political education and organization. Acorn, the most prominent of these organizations, claimed to have registered 1.3 new voters before the 2008 election, and were perceived by many Republicans to have been a decisive factor in the election. After conservative activists released selectively edited videos purporting to show low-level Acorn employees involved in supporting prostitution, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a law signed by President Obama banning Acorn from receiving funding, essentially causing Acorn to go defunct in 2010. With the possible partial exceptions of the Public Interest Research Groups and the League of Women Voters, grassroots political organizing and educational efforts are scattered, ad hoc, underfunded and ineffectual.
At times, the party briefly morphs into a well-funded and vibrant political organization. Barack Obama built a formidable political organization for the 2008 election, engaging a diverse and committed grass roots political network. The organizing paid off. Nearly sixty-four percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in 2008, including a sizable percentage of first-time voters. Once the election was over, however, Obama’s organization largely disbanded, its once-vibrant membership reduced to names on direct-mail fundraising solicitation lists. Last-minute efforts to reconstitute remnants of the organization shortly before the 2010 election obviously fell short.
In Western European countries, voting participating rates hover around 85%, about double the U.S. average. Of 169 countries where voting occurs, the U.S. participation voting rate is ranked 120th, sandwiched between the Dominican Republic and Benin. Most U.S. voters see little reason to get involved in politics, when the parties are distant from them, and candidates reach out to them only at election time primarily with sleazy attack ads and fundraising appeals.
The results of the party’s weak organizational effort are abundantly evident here in Seattle.
- At Ballard’s Sunday Farmer’s Market on July 2, thousands of people were ambling among the 50+ stalls of people selling fruits, vegetables, fish, and crafts. There was not a whiff of political activity—not even anyone registering voters or passing out political information, even though the foundations of the welfare state are shaking, and a corporate power grab is picking up steam.
- I am 45 years old, and have lived in Seattle most of my life. Not once in my life have I ever been personally contacted by a party representative and asked to get involved.
- There is no Precinct Committee Officer for my precinct, and only 5 of 14 of the precincts in the area around my house presently have leaders.
Why is the party’s organizational infrastructure so weak and underfunded? Why is there so little will to create a better-funded, better-trained, more effective party? Why can’t the local Democrats even keep a phone staffed? There are several reasons. The elected officials who control the party are concerned about diversion of political funds and energy to a permanent party bureaucracy. A dynamic leader atop a vibrant party organization might be threatening to politicians who relate to voters primarily through voting-season television ads and direct mail. The persistent involvement of an engaged political party is a nuisance for politicians focused on catering to an insider’s network of donors and interest groups. There is widespread skepticism concerning the ability of voters to maintain interest in politics after an election. Most important of all, however, is that both major parties have long enjoyed a monopoly on power because of the two-party system. Shielded from meaningful competitors other than one another, they have not needed to evolve and improve to survive.
What would a revitalized, well-funded Democratic Party do? The overall goal would be to make every citizen feel connected to the political system, and to believe that he or she can improve his personal situation through maintaining a connection to the party. Activities which a strengthened party could undertake include:
1) Hiring professionally trained organizers to recruit, train, and support precinct leaders in all precincts;
2) Requiring that precinct leaders personally know the people in their districts, and the issues of concern to them;
3) Providing precinct leaders with a stipend for two weeks of intensive work at election time;
4) Working with precinct leaders to explain how Democratic Party policies match the needs of the citizens within their precincts;
5) Support precinct leaders with organizing around and raising the profile of intra-precinct issues (e.g. getting the police to pay more attention to a street corner);
6) Assuring that party representatives are at all significant gatherings of people;
7) Working with politicians to give special attention to issues raised by precinct leaders;
8) Creating programs which create value for constituents such as a “Democratic Job Bank” which matches Democrats looking for jobs with Democrats who are offering them;
9) Sponsoring housing, legal services, and medical screening clinics with volunteer Democratic lawyers and professionals.
10) Work on burnishing the branding and image of the party (i.e. “The People’s Party”).
A genuine re-engagement with the masses would not only increase the public’s loyalty to the party, it would also reinvigorate the party itself with new spirit, energy and pride generated by the party’s new members. It might refresh the tired image of a party long branded as the tool of interest groups, lobbyists, and large donors, and provide it with a measure of independence from those groups. A revitalized party would benefit Democratic candidates at all levels, from state representative to U.S. President, and would therefore be an economically efficient shared platform for candidates. Even a relatively small increase in political participation, say 5%, would have tremendous impact on elections.
How much would such an organization cost? In Washington, there are about 6,600 precincts. If the local Democratic organizations were staffed at the rate of one organizer for every 60 precincts, a budget of roughly $10 million would be sufficient to fund the effort. Given that more than $70,000,000 will likely be spent on political campaigns in Washington for the 2012 election, such a level of investment would be feasible.
The stakes for the 2012 election could hardly be higher. Medicare, Social Security and the rest of the social safety net are in jeopardy. Labor unions are under vigorous and unprecedented assault everywhere. Four justices on the Supreme Court are in their 70s—a single appointment could dramatically change the Court and the law.
Given that there is so much at stake, how is it possible that there is no organization responsible for communicating with and organizing voters on a persistent, disciplined, and effective basis? Is our plan to leave everything to the last minute as we have in other elections, and rely on political junk mail between elections? Is our primary response to the 30 second attack ad at election time going to be a 30 second attack ad at election time? Are we going to once again write off the half of the population which does not vote?
Can someone please answer the phone?