There’s only one way to make the Democratic Party better

Since the election, there has been a snarling fight between Democratic centrists and progressives over the political path forward. On one level, it's a simple contest over whose ideology is to blame for Democrats losing much of their House majority and not winning the Senate. (As I've written before, the result is muddled, but at the end of the day it was a centrist presidential candidate who ran the campaign he wanted to run.)

But there is another less-noticed argument happening about the state of the Democratic Party — namely, whether the problem is actually about organization. Of course, the party establishment has little interest in this critique, while some leftists argue that the entire party structure is rotten to the bone and should be burned with fire. But on the other hand, an ideologically diverse group, ranging from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Beto O'Rourke to Sen. Doug Jones, says it simply needs to be rebuilt. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee "would lunge from candidate to candidate," said Jones in an interview after he was defeated for re-election for a Senate seat in Alabama. "They don't do the work at the grassroots level."

I am certainly sympathetic to the idea that the party is irredeemable. But on close study AOC and company are correct. There is probably no getting rid of the Democratic Party — it is basically a part of the American government — but it is more of a disorganized mess than a ruthless tyranny. It can be changed and is being changed across the country. Better still, ordinary people can do their part to defend American democracy by breathing new life into party structures at the grassroots level.

As Luke Elliot-Negri demonstrates in a smart piece at Jacobin, while it definitely is true that the Democratic elite will move heaven and earth to defeat the left in primary elections or other contests — doing so is practically the only time they display any energy or coordination whatsoever — it does not constitute the entire party. The elite is dominant in the party committees in the House and the Senate, as well as the national party committee (now moribund because the loyal insider Tom Perez, installed to keep leftist Keith Ellison out of power, is a lousy organizer). But more importantly for the purposes of reform, there are also 50 state parties, numerous city- and county-level parties, and a vast network of local party chapters and clubs, which are theoretically supposed to exist about everywhere in the country. In reality, in most places these lower-level party organizations are varying degrees of decrepit or nonexistent. The only time the vast majority of rank-and-file registered "Democrats" actually participate in party activities is when they vote.

However, there are a few places where the party is actually a reasonably thriving organization, or in the process of being rebuilt after years of neglect. In Colorado, for instance, back in the mid-2000s several wealthy liberals, heads of local activist organizations and nonprofits, and ordinary folks made a major push to revitalize the state party so as to contest GOP domination of state politics. More recently, in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, the rise of Trump inspired a massive surge of organizing among suburban women, who surged into creaking or non-existent party structures. In Georgia, both local Democrats and outside groups have been conducting a massive voter registration and mobilization campaign for years. Minnesota actually has a separate affiliate, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is famously efficient. Additionally, unlike any other democratic nation, party primaries are carried out by state and local governments instead of the party apparatus. That's how many insurgent challengers, like AOC, have managed to defeat powerful party insiders.

This revitalization makes an enormous political difference. Both Colorado and Virginia are now reliably blue states, while Biden won his Electoral College margin thanks to massive swings in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia. By contrast, in Florida the Democratic Party is a horribly disorganized mess, and there Biden got rinsed. (It's not the only factor, of course, but it matters a lot.)

It's important to realize that the rotten state of party structures is not an accident. A general decline in civic participation over the last several decades played a part, but moribund party structures are also very useful to the aforementioned elites, who gain a lot more personal power as a result. An organized mass party base tends to develop life and opinions of its own, and can discipline its leaders much more readily. Democratic elites want to give bloated consulting contracts to their incompetent insider friends, who are usually fresh off their last dismal failure (hello 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook!), and make vast sums going through the revolving door, not listen to annoying demands like "could you please get the police to stop shooting us?"

In New York, for instance, a hilariously corrupt and incompetent party machine — in Queens, for instance, it "appoints" elderly people to its local party committees without telling them — is perfect for Governor Andrew Cuomo. He's a guy who pushed Democratic state senators to work as disguised Republicans, so he could hold the balance of power and blame legislative gridlock for not passing things large majorities of New York residents want. Similarly, President Obama let his vast campaign organizing apparatus fall apart the minute he took office. New suburban organizers report that Democratic elites and consultants tend to respond to their questions about party structure with blank incomprehension, because they want occasional campaign volunteers and docile small-dollar donors who will cower in terror of Republicans, not a revved-up base ready to hit the streets.

Yet even in New York, reformers are battling the machine with some success. Leftists turfed out Cuomo's fake Democrats in 2018, and the New York state legislature now has a growing and viable socialist caucus. Cuomo's grip on power is fading, though slowly.

Now, as Matt Karp argues, there are many reasons to be be suspicious of the heavily white, upper-middle class suburban base that Democratic elites like Biden are plainly eager to cater to, because this group seems to be resistant to the kind of major reform the country needs so badly. But that doesn't mean people in the city or the hinterland, or non-centrists in the suburbs, can't pull the same trick. And it's not out of the question that faced with crises hemming the nation in on all sides, suburban voters might be more amenable to radical solutions than they might have been in decades past. In any case, there is a big difference between liberals who might have good faith disagreements with people to their left but still perceive the danger of the far right, and corrupt insiders who lie about what they think to advance their careers.

I know a lot of people who are frantic with worry about the parlous state of the country, but for lack of any perceptible way to achieve anything, spend most of their energy reading the news and scrolling social media. I would suggest you grab some friends and check out the local Democratic organization (as well as outside groups like the Democratic Socialists of America). Chances are it is small, or doesn't exist at all, and the rules may be deliberately obscure.

With some persistence and discipline, you can likely start turning it from a private club into a functioning political party. The new socialist Pennsylvania state Senator Nikil Saval, for instance, came up from being a local party ward leader. It might even be fun! Many newly minted organizers went from simply trying to do something to stave off Trump to working for political campaigns or even running for office themselves. With collective purpose comes the confidence needed to beat back the threat to America's democracy from the extreme right, and to begin fixing the emergencies afflicting this country on every side.