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Just like a lot of people here, I've been wondering how to rebuild the Democratic Party. It's not a small task, and like businesses that fail because they only look towards the next quarter, rebuilding the party means more than looking towards the next election (or the last).

I'm going to start with a little bit of relevant history of the Democratic Party's successes, and then see if I can't put together some ideas for building a better, stronger, more democratic party.

Where have you been?

When solving a problem, the first step is always to identify the problem. As Democrats (or liberals, or progressives, or leftists, if you've already given up on the party), we face three types of problems:

Credibility and communication

    The media don't often represent our views or report accurately.

    Some parts of the media, like Fox, talk radio, or campaign ads have destroyed the Democratic/liberal brand.

Influence and access

    The other side has more money than we have or will ever have, and more lobbyists.


    We can elect "more" Democrats, but they rarely turn out to be "better" Democrats.

The solutions offered to those problems usually involve more fund-raising, education, getting out the vote. Someone once suggested we buy a major newspaper, like the New York Times. Even things like Air America have done little or any good. In my opinion, none of those are sufficient.

It's alright, we know where you've been

These are a relatively new set of problems, that FDR, Truman, and JFK didn't really face, and even Clinton, despite impeachment, faced to a lesser extent. Why? How did all of those presidents reach the White House?

In New York State, Jim Farley was the Democratic State Chairman (not a gender neutral title back in the 1920s). He was essentially the boss of bosses, getting the various NY political machines  - Tammany in NYC, Brooklyn, Albany and others - to work together.

Farley got Al Smith elected governor twice, but couldn't get him elected President. Farley then got FDR elected governor twice, and then got FDR elected President twice. FDR and Farley split on FDR's third run - Farley wanted to be President - but Farley and FDR ran the New Deal as a giant Democratic political machine. Harry Hopkins ran the WPA and similar programs, but Farley chose the WPA managers and foremen, who were all loyal Democrats. The WPA created jobs in urban areas, many of them for the benefit of urban political bosses. Part of FDR's electoral success - often overlooked - was the urban vote.

Harry Truman got to be a Senator from MO because Tom Pendergast, who was the boss of the Kansas City machine, said so. Truman went on to become Vice-President and then President. If you think HST didn't value the KC machine: Truman, already VP, was the only politician to attend Pendergast's funeral, a few weeks before FDR died and HST became President.

JFK was a third generation machine politician. His middle name - Fitzgerald - comes from his grandfather Honey Fitz, who ran the North End Boston machine in his day; PJ Kennedy, paternal grandfather was a formerly competing boss, the families allied through Rose and Joe's marriage. Add to that Joe Kennedy's money, influence and friends. They opposed the Lodges, one of whom - Henry Cabot Lodge - JFK defeated in his first Senate run and as the GOP VP candidate in 1960.

Bill Clinton had his machine too - remember Friends of Bill (FOB)? But Clinton's machine was a modern era machine.

The old machines worked because they were a top-to-bottom organization, where intelligence - voter's needs - filtered from the precinct captains at the bottom back to the top. You could attack the machines, and many did, but people in the precincts had frequent contact with machine operatives and respected them. They respected them because they delivered - a job when you needed one (like the WPA nationwide), groceries or coal for heat when you were a little short, a fifth or two for the wake and maybe money to pay the priest, help if you were busted, whatever you needed.

James Pendergast, Tom's father and founder of the KC machine put it this way:

I've been called a boss. All there is to it is having friends, doing things for people, and then later on they'll do things for you... You can't coerce people into doing things for you – you can't make them vote for you. I never coerced anybody in my life. Wherever you see a man bulldozing anybody he don't last long.

Contrast that with modern parties, who more and more people feel do little for them in any way, much less the personal, face-to-face aid a ward heeler could deliver.

Yeah, I know, machines were corrupt, yada, yada. Since we got rid of them, we no longer have politicians that deal out contracts to their friends, who then fail to perform the work, but get paid anyway. No politicians or aides get fat jobs with lobbying or PR firms after their tenure. People with money don't influence legislation at all. Jack Abramoff never existed.

The machines didn't go away (or the corruption) - they morphed into something more efficient. Bill Clinton's machine never delivered a bag of groceries or lump of coal, but it delivered for its constituents - Friends of Bill. Bill's friends were Rubin and Goldman-Sachs, people who like NAFTA and exporting jobs, and bankers who didn't like Glass-Steagall. Modern administrations - GOP or Dem - deliver for their new class of constituents as efficiently as the old urban machines, and their constituents reciprocate with jobs, travel and above all, campaign donations. Nixon did, Reagan did, Bush I and II did, and Jimmy Carter was a one-term fluke.

... and you know you're nobody's fool

But what if you could achieve the successes - doing things for people - of the old-time machines without the corruption (or with - doesn't matter much to me)? You can, but it won't be quick or easy.

A good place to start is this diary by ActivistGuy (there are lots of other good diaries and comments I read leading up this - that one's just the most recent, and really gets to the point).

Here's one more detail - the current electoral situation. More or less, the balance between Dems and Republicans is 50-50 (it varies from that by district, obviously) and, as you should know by now, elections are decided in the middle, by swing voters and nominal independents. The money in politics has power mostly because it buys votes - largely through campaign ads and media coverage. But if you can control a few percent of the vote in a close district, you control the election. That's political power, if you can deliver or withhold those votes (and without the latter, you still have no power).

Where can you get more votes? It would seem obvious: from swing-voting independents and people who aren't voting. Many Democrats simply don't vote - get them to the polls and you can win. Get more independents on your side, and you win that way too.

And that's what rebuilding the party is about.

The first step is to stay away from any manifestation of the Democratic Party - it's toxic in most places. You want to take over the party, not follow it down the drain.

ActivistGuy, in the diary linked above, suggests building "affinity groups" - small groups that interact regularly and hold more or less common views on issues. Those are the core groups you need to form, and then throw issues, and any mention of politics, out the window. Your job, as Pendergast says above, is to do things for people, so they'll do things for you. For most people, a political rant or discussion is doing something to them, not for them.

The next step is to spread out in your community - your friends, church, workplace, neighborhood, wherever you meet other people. Let's use a neighborhood canvass as an example, although it's probably not the best way to go. When you knock on a door, if you get an answer, it will be from one of three categories: a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent (with the odd Socialist or Libertarian, I suppose).

Forget the Republican - the first rule of sales (and that's what this is like) is to not waste your time on people who won't ever buy your product.

The Democrat - if committed - might become a new member of your core group. If a weak Dem, they're just a better class of independent. And those weak Dems and independents are where your votes - and power - are going to come from.

You need to find out three things from your "victims": what are their issues, what are their interests, and what are their needs. For now, interests and needs are more important - filling people's needs is what made the old machines work.  As you discover their interests, you need to plug them into your network of core group and newly discovered Democrats. It might be a knitting group, or ham radio, or a book club, or even activism on some (very) local issue. But you need to hook them in, because frequent face-to-face contact is critical to building a new group.

As you get to know people, you may find that, for example, a single mother can't get to your knitting group because of her kids - provide baby-sitting or someone to help with homework. Maybe her latchkey kid needs some after-school supervision or tutoring. Maybe she's gone back to school and could use some help with homework. Maybe someone needs help keeping up with housework, or a hot dish when they can't cook because they have to spend time with a family member in a hospital or nursing home. But the goal is to traffic in favors - no politics, no pressure.

Eventually, people will want to help out too. Helping out is almost as satisfying as being helped. That, in turn, helps your organization grow and makes it more cohesive.

Through all this, you need to do one other thing - identify yourself as a liberal or Democrat or whatever you are. Wear a button, or T-shirt, or baseball cap that says so. Now, rather than being the evil spawn of George Soros, you're a neighbor, and a liberal, who's a decent person that helps out and is just like anybody else. You can't buy advertising that effective, plus you've created a "cross-pressure". When Limbaugh says you're scum, your new independent friend has some cognitive dissonance.

How do we get votes out of this? We've just countered two of the hurdles above related to credibility and demonization. Now, when you phone-bank or canvass or do other GOTV stuff, you're not a stranger knocking on the door, but a friend, a neighbor, a peer - and if you remember from high school, there's such a thing as peer pressure.  You can increase peer pressure by keeping tabs on who's voted or not.

You can also make up your own candidate guides - listing just your candidates (and you should have a slate of candidates from Cemetery Commission - that's an elective office where I live - to Senator or Governor; if you've been defending the President and complaining about Congress, here's your answer). You can highlight three or four simple blurbs on their positions, targeted to your voters. You've been listening, instead of talking politics, and you know what their issues are. Along with the candidate guides, you can provide a sample ballot someone can use to mark their ballot - their friend or neighbor says these are the people to vote for. And instead of hanging those on people's doors, hold a gigantic party - just before election day, or before early voting or voting by mail. Hand out your information then - it'll be one of the last pieces people see before voting, and that's another advantage.

I don't think my examples are that good, and the activities for getting out the vote may not be that effective, but I think the basic framework is correct.

Is that manipulating people? Not if you're really making friends and improving your community. Even if you lose, you know more people and live in a better place. What if the GOP does the same thing? Your community just got even better, and people who are genuinely helping other people are less likely to succumb to the fear propaganda the GOP relies on to win.

So welcome to the machine

You've also just built a political machine. The next step is to use it.

If you've delivered votes, the results should be in the totals, win (hopefully) or lose. Let candidates know you can deliver those votes, and that you can also withhold them. That's what corporations do. That's what Karl Rove does. When an important issue reaches the city council, state legislature, or Congress, remind your representative who controls the outcome of the next election.

When the next election comes around (you should be keeping your organization active throughout), if candidates want money, make them come and talk to your group, and then give them the checks if they pass your test. Your donation to ActBlue carries virtually no power with it. Make your donation contingent. If you don't like what you hear, keep that candidate's name off your list for the general election, or find a challenger for the primary.

If you've networked with similar groups throughout your ward or legislative or Congressional district, you now have a machine that can solve (probably not perfectly, but pretty well) all of the problems at the top of this diary.

You have a communication channel that bypasses the dishonest media. Your voters know that liberals are much different than what Fox says they are. You've countered corporate money in ways that their money can't touch. And you've built a machine that can both select candidates and hold them immediately accountable.

And if none of that works, you've made friends, done some good, and live in a better place.

If you think that can't work, look at the old machines. Watch Meet John Doe again. Look at how big money does it. Look, even, at the NRA, which operates on the same principles. If people had liked Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina or Linda McMahon, they would've won, but hundreds of millions of dollars didn't change that. Boxer, Brown and Blumenthal actually had records of delivering for people.

More money won't do that for you. Better GOTV won't do that. For the most part, the internet won't either - you need the face-to-face contact we're probably wired for through years of evolution (or intelligent design, if you prefer).

But one last caveat: don't make this about politics - at least not until your organization is well under way. If you prefer, think of this as Taoist non-action, which is not inaction, but achieving your goal through sideways action. You want to show, by example, what intelligent, well-meaning people believe politically - and deliver -  so that other people will want to adopt the same views. Nobody wants political lectures, and few people want political arguments.

Originally posted to badger on Mon Nov 15, 2010 at 09:17 AM PST.

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