Where the Sanders Wing Can Have a Bigger Impact
Let's talk democracy, and the difficulties and opportunities involved in newly energized citizens.
I didn't write about the contentious contest for Democratic National Committee chair while it was underway because, as others have said, it just doesn't matter very much. The DNC chair raises money, runs a marginally important bureaucracy, and may wind up speaking for the party on cable news shows that practically no one watches. New chair Tom Perez comes from the same mainstream liberal wing of the party as does his narrowly defeated foe, Keith Ellison. The election will almost certainly have no effect on who wins the 2018 elections, Democratic strategy in opposing Donald Trump, the 2020 presidential nomination outcome, or really anything.
Still, the frustrations of those who strongly supported Ellison and feel defeated by the process and the party are still quite real, and those who also supported Bernie Sanders for the 2016 nomination and feel doubly defeated by the party have understandable feelings about it, even if objectively they simply lost fair and square.
There are two ways to look at it.
One is that it is incredibly difficult to take over a party. As Will Cubbison argued on Twitter over the weekend, "If you want to change the direction of the party be prepared and have a plan to organize tens of thousands of almost full time activists." He means the formal party at the national level, the Democratic National Committee, and he's correct. It is, as Cubbison points out, a pyramid-style structure and one needs to capture seats from the bottom up in order to capture the top. And, yes, organizations such as this one (or its Republican counterpart -- all of this applies to both parties) tend to have rules which give advantages to those already involved. Rules aren't even the main barrier; the current party organization has advantages of relationships and knowledge that make outright defeating them difficult at best. 1
On top of that is just the massive scale involved. The Democratic Party is one of two major national parties in a nation of over 300 million citizens. Of course it's difficult to turn such an organization around rapidly, at least for any relatively small group -- and tens of thousands still constitute a small group in a polity of that size.
Beyond that: Politics is frustrating by its nature. One cannot hope to win even in a much smaller jurisdiction without entering into alliances with people who are involved for often completely different reasons -- people who may simply be very different, on all sorts of dimensions. We get involved in politics, often, because of a fierce rage for justice on some issue or another, but it's never going to be true that everyone else feels that rage, and some flat-out disagree. That's bad enough if they are on the other side (and it can be chalked up to malevolence), but if one has to form a coalition with those folks in order to have any chance of winning? Well, that can be -- is -- painful. And the basic condition of U.S. politics, with two broad-based political parties, means each party must necessarily be a coalition.
But that's just one way of looking at it.
As hard as it is to take control of a national party in such a large nation, it turns out both major parties are incredibly permeable. The doors are open.
That's true of the formal party organizations. Show up at a party meeting, perhaps with a few (or a few dozen) friends, and in a very short time it's not at all hard in almost every precinct in the U.S. to be a real player at that level, and before long in many places at the county level.
The even better news is that one can ignore that entire hierarchy and still become meaningfully involved, and even influential, in the party. That's because U.S. political "expanded" parties are composed of both formal organizations and informal networks. In practical terms, that means one can jump in at any level of electioneering. 2
Indeed, there are hundreds of winnable elections in the U.S. for which the Democrats (or the Republicans) fail to field any candidate at all or, in some cases, only have a placeholder candidate. Winning the nominations for these contests is entirely plausible, even for a fairly small group of newbies. 3 If you can win a nomination, you already have influence within the party; win the election, and you have more. More good news: The candidate who wins that election with your help is going to pay a whole lot more attention to your preferences than to what the national committee chair wants -- or even, in most cases, what the state party chair or the county party chair wants. Politicians care a lot about their strongest supporters.
Capturing, or perhaps influencing, a handful of state legislators, a city council, or a few school boards -- or even a U.S. House seat -- may not be as glamorous as winning a national party chair contest. But each of those positions has real ability to affect public policy (something a national party chair can only potentially do indirectly at best).
There's more. Parties are made up of politicians, campaign and governing professionals, donors and activists, formal party officials and staff, and party-aligned interest groups and media. Anyone can jump in -- and indeed one can start new groups that can potentially wield influence within the party.
The truth is that both Democrats and Republicans are eager to bring in new people, especially those with useful resources such as money, volunteer time and energy, expertise, or the ability to produce significant numbers of votes. The extent to which those already in the party may resist new policy ideas depends on many things, but ultimately in most cases the parties are going to attempt to accommodate any new group which can realistically promise to help win elections.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
I should point out that casting the DNC Chair fight as "insiders" against "outsiders" isn't quite right -- all the voters, the members of the national committee, were insiders by any reasonable standard, as were both of the candidates. But certainly some who were new to the party did support Ellison from outside.
It also means "capturing" a party will be uneven, at whatever level one starts from. Even the top: As Trump may already have learned, just because he's the president doesn't mean all other Republicans will have to fall in line with him. Indeed, so far it appears to be the other way around.
One might even say that Donald Trump changed the Republican Party by just happening to run for president during a cycle where no formidable candidate happened to be running. Of course, Trump brought one impressive resource with him -- his celebrity -- that few others have, and which allowed him to operate at that level without much prior history in the party.
To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at firstname.lastname@example.org