What follow are the scariest words I’ve read since I first saw President Donald Trump.
“Unless the Democratic Party becomes stronger and more effective, a radicalized Republican-conservative juggernaut is likely to take over for decades,” Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, wrote in Vox.
Skocpol is co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, one of the definitive books on the movement that to many Trump opponents exemplifies the widespread reach and sustained opposition necessary for the left to match — if it is to contain and then reverse the new president’s agenda. She’s rightly seen as a guiding light for insights into effective mobilization from the bottom-up, which she regards as the most significant aspect of the Tea Party story.
Of course, top-down support from Koch-brothers backed groups and Fox News should not be understated, but Skocpol’s research shows that whatever its leaders and funders did, the Tea Party movement sparked a genuine explosion of activism among the party’s base.
“These grassroots activists, pretty much on their own, ended up organizing 900 regularly meeting local Tea Parties spread all over the United States,” she told Democracy Journal‘s Michael Tomasky. “And a lot of the impact they had filtered up from local Republican Party committees, from pressure on elected representatives and candidates, and the effect they had on galvanizing people to vote and participate in Republican primaries.”
And most of these groups were brand new to politics, not rebranded versions of existing groups as many — including your pal @LOLGOP — assumed.
So how can Democrats match the right’s exponential expansion of its activist base?
She believes that while outside efforts like the Indivisible Groups are “right on,” they won’t be enough.
“But here’s the problem in just imitating—even if you get it straight that it wasn’t the Koch brothers and it wasn’t all a bunch of marches, which were the least of it in some ways—it’s hard for the left now, for the center-left now, to imitate what the Tea Party grassroots people did,” she told Tomasky. “Because they were spread out across the country.”
With Skocpol’s help, it’s easy to identify the left’s biggest immediate problems: (1) its geographical density in a Constitutional republic designed to empower well-distributed minorities; and (2) the understandable urge to burn it all down. (Effective messaging, including the lack of a clear contrast to the GOP’s “GOVERNMENT BAD” rallying cry, is the third biggest problem, but this requires a much more concerted long-term effort to match conservatives’ decades-long framing advantage.)
“Anti-institutional tendencies in today’s culture make the idea of dismantling the existing order attractive to many people,” she wrote in her post, “A guide to rebuilding the Democratic Party, from the ground up.” “But social science research has long shown that majorities need strong organizations to prevail against wealthy conservative interests in democracies.”
Skocpol argues that the Democratic National Committee is our best — and possibly only — hope to combat the “strong possibility of a long-term authoritarian right turn in US politics.”
This is a terrifying thought for several reasons.
You have to start wetting yourself when you consider the reality that America has likely been in a “feedback loop of growing inequality and Republican rule” for decades, with conservatives using their victories and the billions of dollars in gains they’ve secured from those victories to firmly establish their political dominance by shrinking the tax base, hammering organized labor, and making voting more difficult while buying elections, especially local elections, only gets easier.
Almost equally underwear-spoiling is the prospect of having to depend on the DNC, which has seen its reputation shredded both due to its pro-Hillary Clinton leanings and concerted attacks on the institution from foreign interests.
The contest to lead the Democratic Party’s central organ now seems to be verging on repeating the trauma of the 2016 presidential primary between frontrunners Rep. Keith Ellison, the choice of most Bernie Sanders supporters, and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the choice of most Obama-and-Clinton-leaning factions of the party.
Especially when compared to the ruthless, increasingly autocratic opposition Democrats face, the differences between Ellison and Perez are subtle, stylistic, and somewhat hard to find. Yet these differences are still easy to magnify.
Skocpol believes Democrats need to “embrace a year-round, face-to-face organizational style.”
Both Ellison and Perez are capable of pulling off such an organizational and functional transformation. Both candidates represent groups targeted by Trump’s overreach. And both can appeal to the sort of genuine populism that the president effectively faked during his campaign.
Yet despite these affinities it’s easy to imagine the Bernie-wing taking a second straight rebuke as proof that it is not welcome in the party. This would be a disaster for the United States and the world.
There is simply no other organization on the left that can match the “well-entrenched networks” of the right including “the cross-state federated networks of the NRA, the Christian right, and the centerpiece Koch organization, Americans for Prosperity.”
With 2017 and 2018 elections rapidly approaching and likely to establish the momentum for 2020, Democrats need to quickly move on to effectively combatting the GOP and its concerted efforts to prevent non-conservatives from voting by “checking and adding voter registrations.”
And the DNC has to be the beating heart of this effort, regardless of who wins the chairmanship. Or any hope of defeating Trump may be DOA.