Organizational Mobilization

Mark is right that Democrats should be thinking of how to undercut the extra-governmental mobilization that continues to advantage republicans. For example, there’s just no way that Democats can expect to continue to win control of the House if they give up even 2 or 3 percent of the vote to the Republicans on accountof the turnout apparatus. But I’m not sure I completely buy Mark’s implication that the main piece of the puzzle here is trying to dismantle what the Republicans have built. I think there are parts of their apparatus that can be challenged. Certainly there is every reason to believe that the businesses who form the members of major industry groups are going to be asking themselves whether they feel comfortable being headed by so many Republican ex-Delay-staffers. Most of the continuing (but declining) electoral money advantage should be balanced by Democratic control of Congressional committees. That’s a big piece of the pie. I also think that some of the Republican organizational nexus can be challenged through investigations–any serious set of investigations are going to come up with even more Abramoff-type collaboration between interest groups and the former Republican majority, and the Bush White House. Some important parts of the think tank world will probably get pulled into this as well.

But as important as weakening our Republican opponents is, it has distinct limits. The most important piece of the Democratic organizational agenda is positive–building up our own capacities. This is why I think the calls for Howard Dean’s resignation in favor of Harold Ford are almost unbelievably stupid. I was NOT a fan of Howard Dean in the 2004 primaries, but I actually think he’s been quite a far-sighted DNC chairman.Those who say that the Dems could have won even more seats if Dean had just devoted even more money to winning Congress are substantially missing the point. Whatever else happened, the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress under Dean’s DNC chairmanship. You don’t fire someone after something like that. And most important, the Democrats won control of Congress while simultaneously making very important long-term investments in improving the party’s ability to compete across the country–investments that the party will begin reaping the benefit of over the next few years. If anything, the Democrats need to do even more of this, even more intensely. As Democratic wins in places like Montana, Virginia, North Carolina, etc. show, the idea that we’re a permanently 50/50 nation, with all the voters locked up, is wrong. Much of the electoral map is actually in play, and even more of it could be if the Democrats put serious resources into candidate recruitment and party building beyond our near-270-electoral-vote core of states. Even if we don’t win in some of the states where we continue to be weak, we can force the Republicans to defend as much territory as possible–don’t let them act as if any flank can be left undefended. So, the first order of business is to put as much money into state party-building as possible. Don’t fire Dean–give the man a raise.

Second order of business, in my mind, is gerrymandering. Republicans have done this quite effectively in a number of places, and Democrats need to do so as well. To do that, we need to win control of state legislatures. I think this fits very well with the Dean strategy of putting money into state parties. Where Democrats win complete control of a legislature, we should gerrymander the hell out of it. Where Democrats only win one house (or a governorship) they ought to veto any plan that does not come along with a state constitutional amendment to establish some form of non-partisan Congressional districting (which I think is preferable from the point of view of a citizen, rather than as a partisan).

Finally, and to some degree connected with the first order of business, is to rebuild the popular base of the party. This is where simply replicating what Republicans did is not such a brilliant stategy. Conservatives (as I argue in the book that I’m just weeks away from putting to bed) built the network of elite organizations we now know and love because they were in a state of profound organizational disadvantage vis a vis liberals. That is, they built the Federalist Society, conservative public interest law, think tanks, etc. because liberals had such substantial control of much of the country’s elite institutions, while conservatives’ strengths were mainly at the grass roots. This is the opposite of the problem faced by Democrats, who continue to be strong at the elite level, but whose grass roots are still fairly weak. “Netroots” don’t really serve as an adequate substitute, because they don’t translate as well into ground level action (like turnout). I think the Democrats need to find ways, as part of Dean’s state party building project, of rebuilding the Democratic party as a genuine source of solidaristic benefits at the local level–to make the Democratic party a more profond part of people’s daily lives–more Democratic softball teams, drinking clubs, speed-dating scenes, church social issues discussion groups, hunting and fishing groups, etc. These are going to vary across the country, which is one of the advantages of having a more decentralized party. The basic point is that Republicans have a durable advantage because their party has more of a real social role in more people’s daily lives. Democrats need to find a way to match that, and NOT just among college-educated, upper-middle-class people, but especially among the citizens who continue to be somewhat suspicious that Democrats really are ordinary people like they are.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

31 thoughts on “Organizational Mobilization”

  1. Disenfranchisement.
    The Democrats have a long way to go to catch up with the Republicans at systemically disenfranchising voters. But they should get cracking. First, they need to get all the Republicans that have committed felonies to be charged with and tried for those felonies. They need to make sure that certain felonies, like vote tampering, prevent the perp from ever voting again. This little trick borrowed from the Republicans bag-o-tricks would go a long way to catching up with the Republican machine.

  2. The Democrats need to create a bill that works to guarantee voters the opportunity to vote within a prescribed time. Waiting for hours to vote is ridiculous and generally doesn't happen for Repubplicans. Do an academic survey on how long it took to cast a ballot this last election and I guarantee that there will be a statistically significant skew against the Democrats.

  3. It is all fine and dandy except that the Democratic victory will be short lived if it is not followed by a 2008 Presidential victory. If we again have a slow and grey candidate as we had in 88, 00 and 04 – as seems currently a real likelihood – the congress will have one arm tied at best.

  4. "I think the Democrats need to find ways, as part of Dean's state party building project, of rebuilding the Democratic party as a genuine source of solidaristic benefits at the local level …. The basic point is that Republicans have a durable advantage because their party has more of a real social role in more people's daily lives."
    I pretty much agree with this, but I'm not sure what the source of Republicans' grassroots support is other than their connection with the Religious Right. And that's a very strong thing that's going to be difficult to rival.

  5. "Where Democrats win complete control of a legislature, we should gerrymander the hell out of it."
    Amen.
    I'm so sick of this cr*p in the press saying that the Democrats must be "nice" for this reason or another.
    And Democrats need to do these things for a fundamental reason. People like to disparage it as a thirst for revenge, hence an emotional disturbance that can be poo-pooed. But in fact, it's simply a good strategy: tit for tat. An agent that repeated cooperates in the face of a long string of defections in an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma is going to get wiped out.
    People in the press are too stupid to understand or too disingenuous to admit that. Of course, this is the same "fourth estate" that largely treated the amazing amount of Republican dirty tricks in the election from a "they both do it" or "he said/she said" vantage point.

  6. I should make clear that I think non-partisan districting commissions, as a general matter, are vastly to be preferred to competitive gerrymandering. That's the first-best, and Democrats should always state that. But until there is some sort of general mechanism to encourage this across states, playing hardball is the second best, and Democrats shouldn't apologize for it.

  7. "Second order of business, in my mind, is gerrymandering. Republicans have done this quite effectively in a number of places, and Democrats need to do so as well. To do that, we need to win control of state legislatures."
    Whew, it is nice to see the mask come off. All that pretense about being worried about how anti-democratic gerrymandering is must have gotten really taxing.
    For the record, I am a Republican who was against gerrymandering when Republicans were in power. It would be absolutely trivial to design a non-partisan algorithm that defines districts. You don't need "non-partisan districting commissions" The fact that states don't do so is a travesty. The party in power will always cheat to maintain power. Sad to see that embraced whole-heartedly after less than a week.

  8. Well, I was for Dean for DNC chair, and he won the popular vote for that, precisely because it was clear that his vision was the right one and that he had the guts to carry it out. As all the other commenters have pointed out there are lots of other things that need to be done to make sure that the republicans can't suppress the vote again by simply neglecting and screwing poor areas and threatening voters. I'd like to see some serious enforcement of laws against lying to voters, fake flyers, robo-calling etc…
    And as for gerrymandering districts, sebastian, it was nice of you to be against it when you were not called upon to do more than wring your hands and clutch your pearls but simply benefitted from it. I'm opposed to gerry mandering even though it began in my state) not because I'm opposed to permanengly neutering the republican party–I think the War in Iraq and the massive fraud and corruption of the party as it now stands, the viciousness of its anti-equality agenda, and its t heocratic tendencies almost require us to ban it as anti american at this point–but because gerrymandering leads to incombent protection and I'm against races in which there are no challengers.
    aimai

  9. Sebastian: "For the record, I am a Republican who was against gerrymandering when Republicans were in power. It would be absolutely trivial to design a non-partisan algorithm that defines districts. You don't need "non-partisan districting commissions" The fact that states don't do so is a travesty. The party in power will always cheat to maintain power. Sad to see that embraced whole-heartedly after less than a week. "
    For the record, Sebastian, you *are* a Republican, who supports the Republican Party, even after the last six years of unmitigated sh*t from that party.
    You don't have a moral leg to stand on, when you claim to be against only specific things. This isn't a case of accepting 10% bad for 90% good, but of accepting 90% bad for 10% good.
    You've accepted so much that your claims to non-acceptance aren't credible.

  10. "And as for gerrymandering districts, sebastian, it was nice of you to be against it when you were not called upon to do more than wring your hands and clutch your pearls but simply benefitted from it."
    I'm not sure what you expected me to do more than speak against it. I'm not actually in charge of the world. Teles and I are personally in similar positions of non-power.
    Teles, however seems to have done a happy pirouette from loathing gerrymandering in Texas to loving it other states based soley on who is in charge. This is understandbly human, but also the precise "win at all costs" mentality which he thinks has been so damaging to US politics. Sad to embrace it within a weak of winning. The reversal in rhetoric is neck-snapping. It is mitigated slightly by a bone tossed in the direction of election commissions–but even that is deeply discounted by pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about implementing it every place at once.
    Gerrymandering is essentially about fairness to the electorate. It is far more disenfranchising than, ahem, voter ID for example. The thing about getting rid of it in some states (by initiative in the West perhaps) is that can be seen as an issue of fundamental fairness to the electorate of other states–you don't have to convince the entrenched politicos if you make their resistance seem as deeply crass as it really is.

  11. "Gerrymandering is essentially about fairness to the electorate. It is far more disenfranchising than, ahem, voter ID for example." I do not believe this to be true. Voter ID actually prevents some people from voting entirely by raisng the cost an extraoridnary amount. Gerrymandering lowers the benefit of voting by purposely creating non-competitive districts. Since the act of voting is, in general, a waste of time, in terms of actually influencing the outcome of the election, the disenfranchisement from not voting or by having to wait in an extraordinarily long line is much greater than going to the polls and knowing that your vote doesn't count for much. In addition, no gerrymander can address all of the offices that people vote for so the disenfranchisement associated with gerrymandering addresses one race while cynical voter ID laws prevent voting in every race. Are you unaware of this Sebastian or are your true colors showing through?

  12. I'm actually unaware of any significant non-anecdotal evidence showing disenfranchisement under modern voter ID laws. This is the same standard that Mr. Kleiman uses for "voter fraud". And I've been involved in a number of discussions of the topic both here and elsewhere.
    In order for someone to be disenfranchised by ID laws they have to:
    A) Want to vote (that excludes a huge number right there.
    B) Not engage in anything that requires an ID, such as cashing benefit checks, cashing checks of any type, driving, etc.
    C) Be incapable of getting an ID.
    In order to be disenfranchised by gerrymandering a person needs to
    A) Want to vote
    B) Live in a state where the people he is likely to vote for did not control the state after the census.
    Under a gerrymander, even people voting in a district where their candidate wins may be negatively impacted because they were concentrated in such a way to make it so that people with similar views only get one candidate instead of three.
    Wholesale vote denial of hundreds of thousands by voter ID could in theory be worse than gerrymandering. The dozens of people we are actually talking about in the ID debate don't even come close to the millions effected by gerrymander.
    Its all about the power. A consistent theme on this blog has been about the corruption represented by willingness to use any means to keep yourself in power.
    Less than six days after a Democratic Party win, we are already seeing that at work by its supporters.

  13. Your arguments are thin Sebastian and you must be willfully ignoring the evidence. In Georgia there would have been large-scale disenfranchisement had not the federal courts put a stop to it. There were reports of people in Arizona who lived innursing homes who could not obtain the required ID. Having worked the polls, I know for a fact that anything that slows down or impedes the vote will disenfranchise some people. The idea that there is a large amount of voter fraud at the polls is laughable; the voter fraud is in the absentee ballots. Several documented cases happened in 2000 with the military getting some late ballots in, but noone wants to talk about that.

  14. "I think the Democrats need to find ways, as part of Dean's state party building project, of rebuilding the Democratic party as a genuine source of solidaristic benefits at the local level–to make the Democratic party a more profond part of people's daily lives–more Democratic softball teams, drinking clubs, speed-dating scenes, church social issues discussion groups, hunting and fishing groups, etc."
    This is exactly right. I wrote something along those lines a year ago, and everything since has made me more convinced of the necessity of this kind of outreach. (I'll be posting a more detailed description of what I mean in the next day or two.)

  15. "In order to be disenfranchised by gerrymandering a person needs to
    A) Want to vote
    B) Live in a state where the people he is likely to vote for did not control the state after the census."
    "Losing an election, even when it was a relatively foregone conclusion due to the demographic composition of your district" is not "disenfranchisement." Having your vote cast and counted in a lopsided contest is entirely different from being prevented from voting at all.
    That said, I oppose gerrymandering no matter who it benefits due to the incumbent-protecting advantages mentioned above.
    "Wholesale vote denial of hundreds of thousands by voter ID could in theory be worse than gerrymandering. The dozens of people we are actually talking about in the ID debate don't even come close to the millions effected by gerrymander."
    Um, where besides your rectum are you getting these numbers?

  16. Your argument, though it doesn't say so specifically, is a powerful one for Dems working to revive the union movement. It was through unions that Dems were seen as the party of the working man/little guy. We'll never be able to rebuild a progressive consensus in this country until unions are powerful again, and unions are the logical organization for the party to be seen as a part of people's lives (the way the Republicans use churches).

  17. For the record, Teles has now said twice that he vastly prefers the total legal elimination of gerrymandering — but that, UNTIL that is accomplished, the Dems have as much right as the GOP to gerrymander during those periods when they actually do gain control of state governments (including the governorship). That really is tit for tat, and it is obviously justified (since both parties will continue doing it, rather than just one) until the superior solution is applied.
    It should also be noted that Schwarzenegger's supposedly "nonpartisan" anti-gerrymandering initiative in California (which he's now proposing to re-submit) contained a huge and carefully designed Trojan horse — namely, the requirement that district lines should follow city boundaries whenever possible, thus automatically reducing the strength of the Dems simply because their voters tend to be disproportionally concentrated in cities (the same factor that caused Labor to lose the 1952 British election despite getting a plurality of the nationwide vote, and the same thing to happen to Australia's Labor Party in 1996). There are a number of ways to minimize this; one of them, of course, is simply to ignore city/rural boundaries when defining districts.

  18. Democrats riding a wave of the anti-corruption vote appear not to have learned the lesson from the Republicans.
    Pelosi just lost credibility in my opinion by nominating Murtha to be her second in command.
    Pelosi is trying to create a leadership that is more in tune to her liberalism. I am glad the moderates are standing up and fighting this nomination.
    http://www.beyonddelay.org./files/Murtha.pdf

  19. Yes, I do think one implication of my argument is to encourage greater unionization. I have to admit to a large degree of ambivalence about unionization in the public sector, but mainly because I'm an advocate of government and am concerned about things that gum up its works or make it difficult to experiment or be flexible (and in the process diminish citizen's impression of the efficiency of government). I'm most concerned about encouraging unionization at the very bottom, for jobs like janitors and farm workers, where the possibilities of genuine employer exploitation, and the likelihood of low political participation, are highest. I think those are the areas where I'd focus first.

  20. "I have to admit to a large degree of ambivalence about unionization in the public sector, but mainly because I'm an advocate of government and am concerned about things that gum up its works or make it difficult to experiment or be flexible (and in the process diminish citizen's impression of the efficiency of government)."
    Blink. Blink.
    Are you saying that unions interfere with the ability to experiment or be flexible? That they decrease efficiency? That they gum up the works?

  21. "For the record, Teles has now said twice that he vastly prefers the total legal elimination of gerrymandering — but that, UNTIL that is accomplished, the Dems have as much right as the GOP to gerrymander during those periods when they actually do gain control of state governments (including the governorship). That really is tit for tat, and it is obviously justified (since both parties will continue doing it, rather than just one) until the superior solution is applied."
    Since gerrymandering is done on the state level and Constitutionally a function of states, saying that you support the status quo until there is a nationwide solution is just a round-about way of supporting the status quo while getting in some conscience-soothing rhetoric in. Furthermore the justification for that tortured stance is precisely the same "we have to do what it takes to win, so damn political liberty" justification that has been so roundly damned here on this blog for more than a year.
    The turnaround is positively whiplash inducing.

  22. "a round-about way of supporting the status quo while getting in some conscience-soothing rhetoric in. "
    A phrase that seemed to define you Sebastian before the latest electoral setback.

  23. So elliottg, if you are correct about me, am I a good model? 🙂
    But for the record, I don't think you are correct. There is a difference between not having the power to effect change (a position that Mr. Teles and I share) and being willing to advocate change only if it is proposed at some point in the future in an unconstitutional or otherwise deeply unrealistic fashion. For example it would be one thing to say that you didn't like torture and that it should be outlawed (even if you can't personally outlaw it), and a totally different thing to say that torture is wrong in theory but shouldn't be outlawed until it can be substantially proven that it never works. When you make a conditional statement where the conditional is virtually impossible, you aren't really coming out 'against' something.
    Saying, "I will support the Democratic Party when it stops worrying about corporations, advocates much lower social spending, and cuts taxes" does not actually count as support for the Democratic Party.

  24. Sebastian Holsclaw wrote, "Since gerrymandering is done on the state level and Constitutionally a function of states, saying that you support the status quo until there is a nationwide solution is just a round-about way of supporting the status quo while getting in some conscience-soothing rhetoric in."
    Uh, no—it's a not-so-roundabout way of saying that the issue is a Prisoner's Dilemma, one in which the Republicans have consistently defected, so under the morality of tit for tat the Democrats should defect in response.

  25. "Uh, no—it's a not-so-roundabout way of saying that the issue is a Prisoner's Dilemma, one in which the Republicans have consistently defected, so under the morality of tit for tat the Democrats should defect in response."
    Shall we apply this to the Geneva Conventions? Cutting people's heads off in the war on terror?
    And what is this "Republicans" have constantly defected? The 1970s and 1980s had Democrats gerrymandering freely away. The only time either party pretended not to was when forced by courts or when a sudden switch made the incumbents interested in protecting their own skins at the expense of other members.
    Once a good algorithm is in place it would be very hard to justify reversing it. So you do it one state at a time. That is how you fix things in the real world.
    Look, if you want to say that gerrymandering isn't a form of intentional disenfranchisement, so be it. We can argue on that basis. But saying that it is horribly sleazy and wrong, but that the ruling party should do it anyway is just silly. The ruling party will always be the party able to effect change, and will always be the party not interested in change. That is why people like me mistrust the government.

  26. "I think the Democrats need to find ways, as part of Dean's state party building project, of rebuilding the Democratic party as a genuine source of solidaristic benefits at the local level–to make the Democratic party a more profond part of people's daily lives–more Democratic softball teams, drinking clubs, speed-dating scenes, church social issues discussion groups, hunting and fishing groups, etc."
    I've been advocating something like this for years now. There's a simple way to put it: Let's put the "party" back in the Democratic Party.

  27. Just to clarify slightly. The option isn't "everybody stops gerrymandering or no one does." If you've got divided government, my argument is that Democrats should push for non-partisan districting commissions. This is the case fairly widely, so in practice I am in favor of non-partisan districting in a quite considerable number of cases.

  28. The basic point is that Republicans have a durable advantage because their party has more of a real social role in more people's daily lives.
    Ugh, down that road lies madness.

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