Texas, Democrats, 2014 again

I found this article about Battleground Texas interesting. It’s an attempt to figure out what exactly went so wrong for Texas Democrats in 2014. It wasn’t just Wendy Davis who lost big, see. It was basically every single remotely liberal candidate.

The article confirms some of my suspicions about how campaigns were run. Specifically:

The group’s ethos descends from Organizing for America, the Obama campaign’s organizing engine. OFA was a powerful national organization, attached to a juggernaut presidential campaign and was able to more or less dictate terms to the locals. Some of that attitude made it to Texas, and it went over about as well as you’d expect.

Battleground seemed to disregard institutional knowledge about the state’s political landscape, arguably to the detriment of the Democratic ticket. For example, the combined Battleground/Davis campaign effort tapped BlueLabs, a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm run by yet more Obama whiz kids, to conduct an analysis of the Texas electorate and figure out where to find votes. BlueLabs, the firm’s site says, “specializes in persuasion modeling”—targeting crossover and moderate voters.

This sort of massive centralization is no stranger to Democrats; the Republican Party has been the king of local elections and legislatures for some time. But it’s striking to see just how poorly it went this time around.

And a theme emerges in this article, repeatedly:

In largely Hispanic Nueces County, home to Corpus Christi, Republicans swept every contested race in an area that should be fertile ground for Democrats. One of the problems, local organizers say, was that the coalition didn’t spend enough time mobilizing Democratic base voters early on.

You can spend an infinite amount of money. If you can’t get people to vote–and in Texas, you need to be registered at least a month before elections–you’re going to get annihilated, and that’s what happened here.

As long as Democrats maintain a myopic focus on Washington DC (and inspirational but distant people like Elizabeth Warren) we’re going to continue to get thrashed in elections. We need a local “bench.” We need local social capital for liberal-leaning citizens. We need a right-wing-church equivalent.

If you go to see “Selma,” keep in mind the powerful role that black churches played in the civil rights movement. I wonder whether they might be able to play a large political role yet…

The Left and the Tea Party

Found this great article via littlegreenfootballs.com.

As the progressive wing of the Democratic Party threatened to derail the cromnibus in order stop further weakening of campaign finance and Wall Street regulations, it became fashionable in some circles to call Elizabeth Warren and her ilk the “Ted Cruz” or “Tea Party of the left.” This phrase and similar ones are usually said with a sneer, as if the danger and stupidity of a such a thing were obvious on its face.

But is it? The problem with the hyperconservative Tea Party wing of the Republican Party isn’t its tactics, but rather its policies. Washington establishment and cocktail party circuit types love to focus on process and tone rather than on policy. The Tea Party is bad, we’re supposed to believe, because they say mean things, or because they play hardball in their negotiating, or because they’re willing to engage in histrionics just to a make a point, or because they’re willing to primary longtime members for the sake of ideological purity.

Which is just to say there is a lot of room for liberals/progressives to maneuver. The Tea Party has been fairly successful electorally; their tactics have often borne out. They’re succeeded in replacing a lot of conservative politicians with extremely conservative politicians. So why can’t Democrats do the same? Shouldn’t we? Use the tactics of the Tea Party, but promote sane policies instead of conservative or pro-bank legislation.

The trick here is that Tea Party tactics rely on not only pre-existing anger, but also relies on the Republican Party having a strong “ground game.” There were scores of local candidates ready and willing to take up the mantle of being a Tea Party politician when the movement emerged.

I am less sure the Democrats have that kind of network in place, although I live in a red part of a red state so I can’t say for certain. And it is just as big a part of the puzzle as promoting good policy.

Elizabeth Warren, Obama, personality cults

Senator Warren has been getting a lot of attention lately for opposing the CRomnibus budget bill due to its fairly outrageous Citigroup bailout. Moveon.org announced it is spending $1m in a bid to get Elizabeth Warren to run for President in 2016. Okay, fine. I would be very happy with a President Warren.

But this is endemic of Democrats’ weakness nationally. We can’t win state or local elections (in many cases) so maybe we settle for having a Democratic president if we’re lucky. We got clobbered in 2014. Fine, it was a bad year–everyone has them. Well, why are we weak locally? Why do Republicans control 23 more state legislatures than Democrats? “Well, there are a lot of conservatives in small states.” Okay, I get that. But where are our grassroots candidates? Where is the Democratic Tea Party? Is there one?

I’m not saying Democrats don’t have some passionate and engaged voters, or that the party leadership is totally incompetent, or that this is an insurmountable problem. But we need local leaders.

I’ve been following the DC Ferguson March today. From what I can tell, some of the protestors are pissed at how Al Sharpton organized this shindig. It’s very Democratic Party: everything is centralized, organized mainly from Washington. And that’s not inherently a bad thing.

But the leaders of the Ferguson movement may not be the same people as the current leadership in the Democratic Party. Shit, this isn’t even a Democratic Party issue, or shouldn’t be. Instead of trying to run things themselves, Democratic leadership needs to step back and think: “Why do we keep getting crushed? Maybe we need to let some other people run things, and see how they do.”

Is Hillary Clinton really the best candidate for 2016? Does she really represent the concerns and desires of most American voters? Or does her candidacy have a touch of inevitability about it because there just aren’t that many strong Dems?

The Democratic Party needs an injection of fresh blood into its leadership or it’s going to continue foundering. It needs local community involvement. If you’re a Republican and you care about your community, you can volunteer through your church or maybe the local Rotary Club or even local government. If you’re a Democrat and you live outside of a blue state, what do you do exactly? Donate to Planned Parenthood? Visit 350.org?

It’s not enough.

Ferguson protests and liberal leadership

I think Democrats need to look at the Ferguson protests as a great potential source of liberal leadership. We have people engaging locally. We have people organizing these protests: timing, location, logistics (who will get water bottles, or earplugs or eye protection). We have people emerging as possible leaders via social media, the most prominent being Deray McKesson (@deray on Twitter).

The Democrats don’t need more liberal bloggers. We don’t really need more journalists. We don’t even need many more Harvard lawyers. We need people who can direct peoples’ emotions about some of the horrible shit going on in the world into productive venues. We need people who can round up upset people and get them to protest, and register voters, and even maybe run for (gasp) local offices.

This is not to detract from the actual issue at hand–Black men getting arrested, incarcerated, shot at disproportionate rates. We need to change that. It’s going to be a long process. It’s going to involve a lot of different towns and a lot of different situations. It’s going to be a national issue that is changeable on a local level. But the Democratic Party would be foolish not to identify effective ralliers, spokespeople, and cat-herders, and figure out how to get them to effect change on a larger scale.

(Of course, the Republican Party is also welcome to recruit whatever future leaders emerge from Ferguson. I would welcome that. I just don’t see it happening.)

“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.