“Bowling Alone”, social capital, and a weak Democratic party

There’s a great article up on Slate by Jamelle Bouie about the weakness of Democrats nationally. The worst of it:

As Amy Walter notes for the Cook Political Report, Democrats lost big at all levels of government, including the states. “Today,” she writes, “about 55 percent of all state legislative seats in the country are held by Republicans. That’s the largest share of GOP state legislators since the 1920s.” What’s more, “just 11 states have an all Democratic-controlled legislature,” and Democrats hold single-party control in just seven states. By contrast, “Republicans have a legislative majority in 30 states, including the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina,” and single-party control in most of the South. [Italics mine.]

I’ve been trying to figure out what makes the Democratic Party struggle so much electorally. I read something in Bowling Alone tonight that made me think. The book, by Robert Putnam, is in general about declining civic engagement of Americans, and how we as citizens might rectify that.

The specific example that I saw was where Putnam compares the strategies of pro-life and pro-choice organizations, and he mentions that their tactics and base of support are fundamentally very different. Pro-life organizations have a local groundswell of church members and religious people they can rely on. They are able to therefore do things like staff “crisis pregnancy centers”, picket local Planned Parenthoods, etc. Pro-choice organizations aren’t as lucky–they tend to be heavily centralized, and most member involvement (in the book, estimated at 95-97%) tends to just be donations rather than say volunteering at your local women’s health center. The comparison mentioned is that of a pro-life “ground war” versus a pro-choice “air war.”

This looks to me a lot like Republican vs. Democratic electoral strategies. Republicans can pick leaders from their churches, local businesses, etc. to pursue party goals on a state or even national level. They have succeeded in packing local legislatures in 30 states at present. Even though (in my opinion) their platform is weaker than the Democrats’, they often have killer organization. Their voters tend to actually go vote. A significant part of this gap appears to be religion-based: local churches provide a great place to bond, make friends, talk about shared values, gain leadership experience, etc.

Democratic voters tend to be less religious, and this poses a practical problem. Where will we get our future leaders from? On a national level, Democrats appear to be content recruiting from the ranks of places like Harvard Law and other elite institutions. There is nothing wrong with this! But politics is local. Democrats need diversity in leadership. Democrats need options, so we’re not deciding whether or not to coronate a Clinton. We need a bigger “bench” for national leaders.

Obama got elected. Good. Gay marriage is legalizing. Great. This is progress. But is it producing enough local leadership? Can the Democratic Party launch a strong “ground war”? I would argue based on recent election results that the answer right now is no. And we are paying a heavy cost:

[T]here are more costs to Democratic weakness in the states than just House elections. States are where parties build talent and try new ideas. Here, the GOP is instructive. Its brightest stars are either governors (Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Chris Christie) or former state officeholders (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Joni Ernst). And Republican-controlled statehouses have been incubators for conservative ideas, from experiments in tax cutting (Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana and Sam Brownback’s Kansas) to full-fledged assaults on public-sector unions (Walker’s Wisconsin and Christie’s New Jersey).

The Democratic Party needs places it too can experiment and build talent. Look at the rise of Elizabeth Warren (unsurprisingly, formerly of Harvard Law). We need a great deal more candidates like her. We need to be able to implement liberal policies locally. The model for Obamacare was based on a Republican governor’s model, for Christ’s sake. Why couldn’t a Democratic governor have implemented his or her own model in a different blue state? Oh, right, because Democrats barely control anything on a local level.

For a future post, possible solutions. For now, I need to think.


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