Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A New Direction Home

I've been doing a lot of navel gazing these past weeks.

Less about Hillary's defeat...because she won, even if the electoral vote is rigged in some fashion, and besides, this would still be applicable if she had swept into the Presidency as a re-election issue...than about how to expand the Democratic vote.

See, if you count heads, the Democrats have won the Presidential election in six of the last seven cycles. Two Bill Clinton, one Gore, two Obama, one Hillary.

The one cycle Republicans won was by a hair's breadth, over arguably the least competent candidate since Mike Dukakis.

And yet, we can't seem to expand those victories to places where our message of equal opportunity for all should resonate like a church bell on a quiet June morning.

This isn't about pursuing the angry white male. Fuck no, and fuck them (see, I'm one myself, so I know whereof I speak). This is about shattering the solid red wall in the middle of the country.
“The Democratic Party ceded rural America to the Republicans quite some time ago,” said Vickie Rock, a member of the Nevada State Democratic Central Committee from rural Humboldt County. “They invested nothing, they built no bench. They don’t even send out signs anymore, which is a staple of rural politics. 
“All Trump had to do was peel off a small percentage of urban votes, and he was going to win,” Rock said. “Because he already had, in his back pocket, rural America.”
Some Democratic officials in rural areas are plotting runs for leadership in state parties, while other gurus say they will take it upon themselves to train a new generation of rural-friendly operatives. These kinds of efforts won’t solve the problem alone, the strategists readily acknowledge, but would at least help the party begin to understand how much ground it must make up.
The kicker is, we have the tools lying around to do just what our rural brethren are asking for.

Before I get too deep in the weeds, let's review what we're talking about so we speak a common language.

The largest beneficiary of Federal government spending (adjusting for total population of the state) is typically a sparsely populated rural agricultural community. Farm subsidies, food programs, defense contractors (those missile silos in Kansas need to be peopled), interstate highways -- admittedly, not a Democratic program, but...--  are all funded in large part by there Federal government. Our tax money.

Yet, every election cycle, we Democrats and pundits scratch our heads trying to figure out why those people won't vote for the people who would rather spend that money on them then take it away in tax cuts for the wealthy.

Now I want to talk about the other commonality we see every election cycle: the fact that Democrats and liberals in those areas feel like they are isolated, alone, and at the mercy of their more vocal and more belligerent political opposition.

If you need to think about this more thoroughly, imagine being at a picnic or a barbecue. Let's say you're a University of Michigan fan, but there are about an equal number of Ohio State fans there. But those guys had a head start on the beer, and are extolling the virtues of OSU loudly.

You might tease them with a "Go Blue" cheer (there's a reason I picked those two schools), but they've already bonded and they drown you out quickly.

The other UM fans see that and decide it's not worth creating a ruckus. They'll just cheer when they get home.


What if at that picnic, you were handed a list of people who also liked UM? And you sought them out? Made friends? Bonded?

Now, suddenly, you aren't getting drowned out. You have back up.

(I'll get back to this analogy in a moment)

This is where the Democrats have fallen woefully short: connecting the blue dots in the red sea.

We've been communicating top down, and we've paid a price. We've told people in Utah and Michigan and North Carolina what our positions are on issues, and on larger issues, that's fine. But tell me: what's a good agricultural policy for the Democrats to pursue?

Here's Hillary's.

One of the most important issues in the heartland, and all she could muster was two paragraphs, one that would increase regulation.

I'm a city boy, altho I'm the spawn of farmers and love living part time in farm country, and I can think of about a dozen bigger issues for rural Americans than where salmon spawn or what kind of fertilizer I use or how much my workers are paid.

You want rural votes? This isn't brain surgery. You know all those farm subsidies we hand out like candy? How about targeting them better? Give the lion's share to folks whose name is actually on the mailbox, the ones who actually raise food for a living, and not for a board of directors to pay out in dividends.

Create infrastructure to help those farmers get their food to market faster, cheaper and yes, more environmentally-safe.

Talk about water rights. Talk about how you aren't banning people from capturing rain water but you are keeping their neighbors from damming up streams they rely on.

Back to the hypothetical picnic above: You, a Michigan fan, scan the list, look up and see a bunch of other people looking around, lists in hand. So you gravitate over to them, and you all start to talk about your love of UMichigan and you find out that one of them is the county ag commissioner, and another is the local Methodist minister, and a third is the Girl Scout troop leader.

In other words, authority figures. People that other people will respect when they speak up.

But instead of talking about the quarterback or the coach, now they're starting to talk about how they got in touch with the state party chairman and he's arranging for the county officials to come up and speak to the legislature about including some provisions about, say, that creek that overflows every few years, or that road that all the trucks use that needs to be filled in every spring.

And they make a point of saying these are Democrats working for the people in the county, to make their lives a little easier.

Have you ever attended a local party meeting? It's ludicrous how few people show up, apart from the officials who hold an office there. It's insular, and everyone is elbowing, jockeying for position to be the next person to move up the food chain in the county/state/national party.

Instead of addressing needs, they seek power through alliances and vote trading. And if you try and speak your mind on a subject, you get quickly reminded of the time limits and oh, there's a point of order!

This means that there are just not enough people showing up at these meetings to make the complacency go away, and here, the party is to blame as well. There are simply too many chiefs at every level and not enough soldiers.

The Democratic party needs to take a cue from the old corporate mantra of flattening the hierarchy and distributing responsibility. But then they need to go all in here and distribute the authority too.

In this case, authority = money. Stop investing in these grand national and state-wide schemes like the Fifty State plan of Howard Dean, or the federalism of Debbie Wasserman-Schulz (I had to make something up because, frankly, I couldn't remember that she had a strategy beyond winning the Presidency again). We're winning those frikkin' elections! We can afford -- no, we can't afford not to -- pay attention way down the ballot.

That's where the Electoral College is won or lost now. The two parties have so finely divided the nation through gerrymandering and abject pandering that we're down to a county by county fight for winning vote combinations. That we can win a seat by two and a half million votes yet lose the election is an embarrassment.

So here's a comprehensive plan, a road map for a new direction home, for the Democratic party.

1) Identify the blue dots in the red seas and encourage those blue dots to meet up for coffee and birthdays, and have star-power visit them in off-years. Barack & Michelle Obama, Hillary and Bill. Create a buzz about the Democratic party where it's not seen as "I need your vote" but "I want to listen to you".

Hillary did this to great effect in 2000 across New York State and she performed admirably even in rural counties against a candidate who was basically a lightweight version of Trump.

2) Find and develop those local officials who can persuade people, either through their charisma or their office, to think differently about Democrats. Imagine some small town in Idaho has Barack Obama show up to the church one Sunday. You think those people won't turn out to listen? And if the President talks about the pastor or the sheriff or the principal and endorses his commitment to the people of the county or town, you think that might carry just a little weight with that town? What if those people talk about how, you know, the farm subsidies were an invention of the Democrats who didn't want people to lose their homes when drought happened or when food prices plummeted?

3) Fund them for further pursuit of politics. So there's Barack Obama talking about this local resident and what a great job he did finding money to redirect that damned creek that kept overflowing.  Now that man or woman runs for town council or school board, and then state legislature. And then Congress. And then run on the local issues he or she has been talking about for years. Suddenly, we change a red bulb to blue on the board.

California, New York, those states will take care of themselves. Texas will likely turn blue by 2024, Virginia is nearly a certainty as well now, but we can take Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin regularly if we stop forcing the national party down people's throats are start listening to the people on the ground there. And we might scrape a few more states into play by just talking to the people who get their hands dirty and reassure them that we're listening.

The benches of both parties are mighty weak, but the Democrats have a slightly stronger one, one that can continue our grand tradition of winning the Presidency. We have the Castro twins. We have Corey Booker. We have Tulsi Gabbard. We have a nucleus for the immediate future but beyond that, we are starting to run thin. A clinton victory would have bought us time but not that much in the grand scheme of things.

We as a party can offer an alternative to politics as it has been now, right now, if we're willing to climb up onto the high wire and walk across. It's going to take money, but we have that behind us now, what with the massive train wreck that we will see in the next four years and even the wealthy realizing that things are in dire straits.

While Trump dismantles all we hold dear, we need to be out there, reminding people who put those programs they love in place and who will do their damnedest to fix them up again.