Politicians, Movements, and Democracy

Politicians, Movements, and Democracy
By Wade Lee Hudson

These days Democratic politicians often talk about building “movements,” but they rarely talk about how they want to help build those movements. Most of them only talk about gaining supporters for their campaigns and then mobilizing those supporters from time to time, as did Barack Obama. The same applies to Bernie Sanders. But to a considerable degree, Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a member of “the Squad,” is an exception.

During a recent Pod Save America podcast, “Our lawless, wall-less president," at the 42:10 mark, Pressley reported: 

I want to be in coalition…. Evicting this President...is all about movement building. It’s about organizing and mobilizing.… These times demand unprecedented activism and unprecedented legislating. And that’s not work we do alone…. When our democracy is working again on behalf of the American people [we will need] pressure on the outside that activists and agitators continue to exert….

The way I’ve been getting at the issue of housing, which is my number-one constituent concern, is that I’ve been convening, since well before I was in office or elected, the Equity Agenda roundtable discussion where we engage the community. They’re not a traditional town hall. We have breakout sessions. It’s a two-way dialog. I’ve always maintained that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policy making. So I take my cue from the community…. I’m cooperatively governing….

Another instance of Pressley’s support for grassroots organizing was her participation in an April Green New Deal public forum convened by Jamaica Plain Forum and sponsored by 27 community-based organizations.

Pressley indicates the potential for turning the Democratic Party into an activist organization, as I address in “Transforming the Democratic Party.” The Party is already a multi-issue, inclusive, relatively democratic, national coalition. The Party’s structure includes bottom-up representation, and can be amended to make it even more democratic. The Party, however, is  geared to elections — supporting Democratic candidates and backing or opposing ballot measures. In between elections, the Party forgets about its platform. 

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) could regularly recommend to all Americans that they communicate a specific message to their Congresspersons, Senators, and President on a top-priority, timely issue. At the local level, the Party could engage in year-round precinct organizing, build face-to-face community among its members, and ask them to consider the DNC’s monthly recommendation. In this way, we could transform the Democratic Party.

Following his 2008 victory, Barack Obama could have done that by encouraging his supporters to become active in their local Democratic Party. But, as Maggie Haberman reported, after lengthy discussions, Obama officials decided to transfer only “some voter information to the Democratic National Committee [and] and retain its email list and rent it out,” particularly to Organizing for Action (OFA), the reincarnation of the Obama campaign. OFA proved to be a periodic, top-down mobilizing effort, not a real grassroots organization, as many of his staff wanted.

Bernie Sanders has taken an even worse approach. He won’t even join the Democratic Party as a member, much less help build it as a grassroots force.

This history led the Association of State Democratic Committees to circulate to the current Presidential candidates a pledge “vowing not to create any parallel political or organizing infrastructure that would compete with the national or state Democratic parties,” as reported by The New York Times. The pledge also includes a promise “to share all of my data collected during the presidential campaign with the D.N.C. and with state parties.” Their intent is “to ensure that the nominee’s political organization is housed within the architecture of the party.” Party leaders expressed concern about Sanders and Obama and said they want “to ensure that its nominee has no designs on creating a competing political entity in the mold of Mr. Obama’s Organizing for America…. Many Democrats fault [OFA] for weakening the party infrastructure because it diverted money and focus from the committee.” Elizabeth Warren is supportive of this approach.

More fundamentally, we need to cultivate a new definition of leadership, as indicated by Congresswoman Pressley. We don’t need leaders to mobilize us to do what they want us to do. We need leaders who fight for what we want to do. 

We need a Purple Alliance that pushes for compassionate improvements in public policy supported by majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, not what some vanguard deems most important. Vanguards can still play a role, but we need more. 

We need a President who will convene (and pay) a randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies to agree on solutions to particular problems — and promise to fight tooth and nail to implement those solutions. Ireland has demonstrated the potential of this approach, as Elizabeth Anderson discussed during her inspiring appearance on the Ezra Klein Show.

We need elected officials who will meet monthly in Community Dialogs (during which randomly selected constituents communicate with those officials and hold them accountable to their promises), convene problem-solving roundtables like Pressley’s, and honor the results of deliberative polling that involve in-depth discussions that reach informed conclusions gathered in confidential questionnaires — such as America in One Room, which will be convened Sept. 19-22, 2019 by the nonpartisan institution, Helena, and the Center for Deliberative Polling.

We need a global network of small, holistic support groups whose members share a vision and support one another in their efforts to: 1) improve themselves; 2) build community, and; 3) engage in effective political action. Everyone will not choose to participate in such groups, but everyone can support their development. As Cory Booker has said, “Nothing will change unless we change.”

We need these and other new structures that will facilitate the development of a more compassionate, fair, and democratic society.