Did You Ever Think That The Democratic Party Belongs To The Grassroots? Not Even Close

In a Nation essay yesterday, Steve Phillips asked a simple question: Who's In Charge Of The Democratic Party? And then fell right into a trap, defining the party as "a constellation of six entities that, collectively, spent more than $1.3 billion in the 2020 election cycle." He asserts this is the party:

You are what you spend? With the exception of being able to dump Trump and elect a crippled president with virtually no chance of accomplishing anything that will please anyone, all that spending led to one disaster after another. As Phillips wrote, "decisions will be made in metaphorical smoke-filled rooms, shielded from the kinds of transparency and accountability that are hallmarks of effective and successful organizations."

I whole-heartedly agree with his criticism. But he was off in the wrong direction from the first. The party should be defined as the grassroots, not the careerist politicians and operatives with their hands on the cash (much of which comes from the grassroots, but increasingly has come, since Clinton's presidency, from greasy corporate coffers. And yes, strings are attached.

He wrote that "Even in the most public process-- as with the Democratic National Committee, where bylaws clearly explain the process for electing a chair-- it remains unclear how to even put one’s name in the hat to be considered for the top job. Despite raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars from Democratic donors, the super PACs-- House Majority PAC, Senate Majority PAC, and Priorities USA-- operate with the least level of accountability, frequently making leadership changes without posting positions, searching for talent, articulating the key responsibilities of the position, or even revealing who is in fact doing the hiring... Over the past decade, dating back to my work in 2008 helping to create a Diversity Talent Bank of 5,000 diverse candidates interested in working in the Obama-Biden administration, I have rarely, if ever, seen a job description circulated for the top staff position of these entities. At best, these poor practices undermine their ability to function at optimal levels. At worst, they result in the kind of diversity debacle that occurred last year, when Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus members loudly complained about the overwhelmingly monochromatic composition of the DCCC staff assembled by then–executive director Allison Jaslow. Absent clear criteria for what the job entails and with no process in place for a healthy range of promising contenders to offer their expertise, the pool of potential people to fill those positions is, almost by definition, limited to the friends and family of a small circle of insiders."

  • He identifies 5 critical questions the establishment should answer-- and share with the grassroots:

  • Why did Democratic candidates fall short of expectations in congressional races?

  • What explains the party’s weakness with Latino voters, especially in Florida and Texas?

  • What went right in Georgia and Arizona that didn’t translate to Florida and North Carolina?

  • What is the right balance-- and allocation of resources-- between solidifying support in communities of color and trying to hold or increase support among white voters?

  • What is the right balance between spending on television ads (still the preferred investment of choice by many consultants) and grassroots mobilization of the kind done in Georgia and Arizona to help turn those states blue?

Phillips has some suggestions for how to go about getting to the bottom of the questions, proposals that will be ignored or papered over by a sclerotic, delusional establishment consumed by its own careerism and not in the slightest bit interested in anything as abstract as the health of either the party or the country. He's got 3 steps, none of which will be taken seriously:

Provide transparency in hiring: Job descriptions should be written and widely circulated for all top positions, including executive directors. What are the qualifications? Who exactly makes the hiring decisions? How do you apply-- and to whom?
Insist on cultural competence: Notice I didn’t say “hire people of color” (although, let me say it now, hire people of color!). Too often, consultants think that racial issues are something that only relate to people of color. Cultural competence, however, refers to the ability to also communicate with white people about racial issues. Racial identity is one of most clear-cut determinants of political behavior, and the political environment today is highly racially charged. Trump understands this, and that’s why he was able to garner such enthusiastic support. As a rule, people of color are more culturally competent than white people, because they’ve had to navigate the realities of race and racism their entire lives. Some whites have, in fact, developed cultural competence, but it’s a skill set and talent that’s largely missing from much of the Democratic ecosystem. The incoming staff and leadership will determine how much of the party’s hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on research seeking to understand why voters of color sit out elections-- and how much will be spent on anxious whites fearful about losing their way of life? Culturally competent leadership is critical if we want to productively explore and answer those questions.
Conduct data-driven post-mortems on the 2020 results: We are seeing lots of recriminations about Democrats’ losing seats in the House, but most of that commentary is driven by fact-free, preexisting biases that are not supported by empirical evidence. The conventional wisdom that the Black Lives Matter demand to defund the police weakened Democratic performance is contradicted by data showing that Democratic candidates actually significantly improved their performance over 2018 (the incumbents who lost fell short despite garnering an average 25 percent increase in votes). The problem was that the Republican increase was even greater. Whatever remedies are pursued in 2021 must be tied to an accurate diagnosis of what happened in 2020.