Much has been made in recent weeks about the autopsy the Republican Party has conducted in the wake of two devastating national elections. This introspection is unprecedented and overdue. Although the Democratic Party’s has fared better in the last couple of cycles, I’d suggest a measure of introspection is in order for us as well.
Though a lifelong Democrat from a family of lifelong Democrats, I’ve only recently jumped headfirst into the inner workings of the Democratic party as an elected member of our county’s Central Committee. Shortly after being sworn in, I was appointed to serve as a delegate to the annual state convention. It was at a training for the upcoming convention that I first observed what is expected of a “good Democrat.”
The friendly, genteel Regional Director I had just met was offering pointers to the group on how to navigate the convention. We were instructed to bring plenty of business cards for networking. We were then advised that we better plan on using a union shop when getting our cards printed. The next comment took me somewhat aback. The R.D. said, “when someone hands me a card, the first thing I do is look for the union ‘bug’, if I don’t see one on there, the card goes straight in the trash.” Another union representative also stood up and reenforced the notion that to get along and make connections at the convention, you better stay at a union hotel and order business cards from a union printer.
I chewed on this over the next couple of days as the thought of being given an ultimatum didn’t set well with me. While I am a supporter of labor and understand the push to support union businesses, the perceived threat made me uneasy. I later learned I was not alone in my sentiments. A fellow new delegate apparently turned in his resignation the following morning in response to the strong-arming. This generated a variety of responses from the party faithful ranging from, “glad to accept his resignation” to “perhaps we need to take a closer look at how we communicate our ideals.” I’d suggest the latter was the more appropriate response.
Although I’m a supporter of labor, I am a Democrat for a whole host of reasons. I support full reproductive rights for women and equal pay for equal work. I am an advocate for marriage equality and the rights of all LGBT individuals. I am concerned about climate change and support the pursuit of alternative, renewable energy. I want to live in a country where healthcare is available and affordable to all. I think sensible gun legislation is overdue as is comprehensive immigration reform. I believe a quality public school education should be available to all. I am concerned about the widening gap of income inequality and support the right of workers to organize. I believe that all of these ideals are important strands of the Democratic DNA and no single issue should serve as a litmus test of party loyalty.
My Democratic sensibilities were shaped by my father who was a community college instructor and a member of the teachers union. I was raised to have great respect for the public school system and attended public schools until I graduated from college. My two children are also products of the public school system and they both walked the picket line with me a couple of years ago in solidarity with their teachers who went on strike after failed contract negotiations with the local school board. We made signs and delivered cases of bottled water to our neighborhood school sites for teachers walking the picket line. I am a supporter of teachers, teachers unions and labor in general yet it is union tactics that I find myself most often defending when talking about Democratic ideals with others. The perceived lack of flexibility and the “strong arm tactics” are complaints I frequently hear. So sitting in a room full of political allies and being on the receiving end of those tactics made the complaints more real to me than ever before.
If one of the positive attributes of the Democratic Party is our big-tent, inclusive philosophy, should we really be so quick to throw away some of the most committed amongst us because of a business card? This type of divisiveness is what currently ails the Republican Party who is cleaved down the middle by the hard liners on the right and the more moderate wing of the party on the other side. Tea Party Republicans draw a line in the sand on their pet issues, and if you don’t stand on the right side of that line, you are not welcome in the tent. As a result, moderate Republicans are leaving the party in droves, Decline-To-State registration is skyrocketing, and the disengaged turn off the TV set and stay home during elections.
Democrats must not fall into the same trap of creating hard line, single issue divides which drive loyal and potential members away. To essentially tell a room full of committed party activists, many brand new to party politics, that they are not welcome because they don’t fall in line in one small way on a single issue of ideological purity is political malpractice.
My suggestion, as a set of fresh eyes and ears within the party “apparatus,” is that education, collaboration and teamwork go a lot further than threats, intimidation and inflexibility. Let’s practice what we preach as Democrats and focus on the big picture of justice for all rather than squabbling internally and eating our own. There is much work to be done and we are on the right side of the issues. And when we do have the inevitable internal disagreements, let’s adopt the, “perhaps we need to take a closer look at how we communicate our ideals” approach rather than the, “glad to see them go” response.