A plan to modernize the Democratic Party
We need a stronger, more community-centric Democratic Party that elevates the experiences of everyday citizens so that they cannot be ignored by leaders more focused on their own power than serving the people they represent. There’s an enormous amount of finger pointing happening about the lack of participation and responsibility — here’s the reality: if you voted, you’re part of this — if you didn’t, you’re part of this. If you’re angry and protesting, you’re part of this. If you live in a white privilege shelter in a large city like New York, you’re part of this. If you feel ignored in a rural county in Missouri, you’re part of this. One country, many communities — one goal: progress for everyone.
The world is changing. Our politics and our campaigns are not keeping pace. To thrive in the future, the Democratic Party must embrace where our society is headed — a future that is both more personal and more connected, where people are both more engaged and more overwhelmed, where we have both more reach and are more easily ignored. The constant advance of communications away from channels toward networks has altered not just our ability to reach audiences, but also what we say, how we keep their attention, and how we build relationships. Despite an exceptional and creative community, out strategies and tactics too often well staid and too-well-trod. Our lauded technology advantages are largely myth and too driven by the power and resources of the presidential cycle. We have failed to invest in and build technology infrastructure that can be shared in order to elevate the whole party. But before we begin the work of modernization, we need a new idea of what a modern party should be — and embrace that its purpose is in fact the service of and progress of the people.
Our party must be about a network of millions of active citizens, a 3,143-county community where we help people work in their local communities to create the change they need in their daily lives and engage on the issues that matter most to them — better schools, building local parks, fighting for local advanced manufacturing zones, and better trade policies, open resettlement of refugees, or racial equality. This is not a return to “all politics is local.” Instead, all politics is personal. Individual. Human. Real-time. And constantly evolving. It is this network of interconnected communities of complementary, shared (but not identical) values, and priorities that will provide the strength the Democratic Party needs to confront and assuage the angry populism infecting both the right and left. Too often when we we talk inclusion, it really sounds like assimilation to communities of color or rural communities who hear elite, coastal voices asking them to coalesce around stale ideas that don’t connect with their daily lives. We must create the broader ideological foundation for a much larger party that is both more progressive, more diverse, more aligned, and more empathetic as opposed to the fractured, isolated, homogenous groups arguing facts that will be overrun by the passion of the right. More active citizens engaged in what matters most to them deriving value from a party supporting their efforts to elevate their lives will find common ground with like-minded, similarly trained and inspired activists nearby. This shift will necessarily mean more engagement in local and state parties. We must be a party that can respond to and serve the interests of that diverse, ever-changing population with constant and vocal values and principles.
To achieve this, we must look ahead. We must drive a narrative at the national level that illuminates the pain and process of everyday Americans, that shines light on injustice and inequality with clarity and honesty, and that articulates policy focused on opportunity and progress. We can no longer allow our interests and priorities to be driven by corporate actors. Our party must be about what’s possible for us as individuals and as a nation that creates space for all Americans and that inspires people to use their energy and passion in service of whatever matters most to them — local, national, or global.
Our role is to inspire and support, not to direct and manage. We cannot expect to inspire engagement via a platform whose only stated priorities and only mechanisms of participation are national or global in scope. Authentic engagement will happen inside our existing social and civic institutions, inside our party directly, and in new orgs still to be launched. We should not expect to be able to demand what people will care about on any given day. Equality, justice, and opportunity have profound personal consequences, and the value we provide members must also be personal. The public good of better institutions and a healthier more active body politic are downstream consequences of more active citizens, not the value proposition of participation.
We must make regular civic participation the essential purpose and building block of the party. The party feels like a members club for elites and donors, not a community supporting people and social change in their daily lives. Electing like-minded leaders will be a consequence of and enabler of our work not the defining purpose of our work. The only people not part of this network, not part of our party are those don’t share our values or remain inactive.
Our mission is progress not power. The purpose of our work is the dignity, equality, and elevation of every American. Our party must be the engine of progress in this country — both civic and political. The party must be the place to express a desire to engage so that the energy of rebellion that drove Trump and Sanders and BLM and the Tea Party infuse the party with power, not fuel its dissolution. But there is an important and essential difference between protesting and organizing that we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of. Building infrastructure to support and drive progress requires that we build, that we are for something and that we are careful not to define ourselves by what we oppose.
Towards Permanent Engagement
Permanent engagement (not permanent campaign) should be the basis for building deeply active, deeply committed people that form the organized foundation for the modern party. We have to encourage support for the civic and democratic process — everything from a vibrant discussion of issues to practical instigation of change both local and palpable to full access and participation in voting. But voting itself is rare and cannot be the defining behavior of membership. Voting is a natural consequence of everyday engagement of building a habit of participation. Participation is driven by teaching, training, and listening, by serving our members and helping them be more effective in their local communities as a citizen-led bulwark to a Trump Administration that we cannot predict. Winning is a consequence of service. We must also work to ensure that voting is an easy rung on the ladder of engagement via automatic voter registration. The resources required to engage at a deep local level while articulating and providing infrastructure at a broad national level are significant, and they should be driven by membership and value with local money paying for local engagement with national investment funding shared infrastructure including technology, training, content, and media. We should focus on grassroots membership and resources and get away from the “our billionaires vs your billionaires” mentality and actively work to support meaningful campaign finance reform. Enabling real participation and providing real value will lead great loyalty and greater financial participation even if we ask for money less often.
Our goals must be both more ambitious and more personal than simply winning the next round of elections. This massive network of active, engaged citizens will not only be the engine of local progress and national energy but will provide a much deeper well of potential candidates for elected office. It will also produce better candidates who are deeply connected to the communities where they are active who approach civic engagement through the lens of progress and service rather than power. Getting more of this kind of leader into office also requires our commitment to a principled end to gerrymandering. We want to achieve more than just winning back the White House and majorities in the House and Senate. We want to build a durable community of thriving active, citizens on the local, state, and federal level. This is how we fundamentally change the way government works, by recasting citizen participation, reimagining the culture of elected officials, and rebuilding public trust in institutions. The electoral result of this community-first strategy will be 100,000,000 Democratic voters in 2020. Voting and voting for like-minded members of the same network of citizens will be a natural consequence of this path. We will win more often, on more of the daily things that matter most. And our community-first citizens will earn the right to lead and serve in elected roles ultimately guaranteeing the tectonic realignment we now need in the face of a Trump Administration.
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