Local Democrats, back in busi­ness

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY LARA PUT­NAM AND ROBERT D. PUT­NAM Lara Put­nam is UCIS re­search pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of His­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh. Robert D. Put­nam is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and au­thor of “Bowl­ing Alone: The Col­lapse and Re

Peo­ple emerged from the emo­tional hang­over of Trump’s elec­tion and sought state and county web­sites to join their local party, only to dis­cover that, in many places, it didn’t ex­ist.

TBEAVER FALLS, Pa. he work that used to be done here was out­sourced long ago, and only since Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion has there been rea­son to hope that might change. For decades, dis­tant man­agers have called the shots. Con­sul­tants made prom­ises about new tech­nol­ogy. Local con­flicts were too costly. De­sign could be done bet­ter, faster, slicker, far away.

The en­ter­prise didn’t shut down en­tirely. But it came to be run by a skele­tal staff. A gen­er­a­tion has grown up never imag­in­ing the front gates wide open.

We’re not talk­ing about the B&W tube plant that once em­ployed thou­sands on the out­skirts of town. We’re talk­ing about the Demo­cratic Party.

There was a time when the local party was as in­te­gral to civic life in Beaver County as the union and fac­tory. But then came the 1970s, job loss, ca­su­al­iza­tion — myr­iad trends that drove dis­en­gage­ment from pol­i­tics as they did across com­mu­nity life, from Bi­ble study to bowl­ing leagues. Mem­bers aged. Young folks didn’t step in. In­creas­ingly, tasks local cit­i­zens once did to­gether — call­ing neigh­bors to get them to the polls, or­ga­niz­ing events for can­di­dates — were out­sourced to cam­paigns based far away. How­ever so­phis­ti­cated the mes­sag­ing, the face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion was gone.

The Obama cam­paign, with its fo­cus on re­la­tional or­ga­niz­ing, of­fered a brief coun­tertrend. Sup­port­ers were urged to reach out to neigh­bors, hold house par­ties, take own­er­ship — and they did. Un­for­tu­nately, the les­son party lead­ers took away wasn’t that re­la­tion­ships work; it was that cam­paign-cen­tric pol­i­tics could work for the Dems na­tion­ally even when things didn’t look so good lo­cally.

The 2016 elec­tion made the mis­read­ing trag­i­cally ev­i­dent. The Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign dou­bled down on what had be­come the de­fault Demo­cratic strat­egy: mon­e­tize sup­port, treat vol­un­teer la­bor as in­ter­change­able, para­chute in to “turn out” your base. It didn’t work.

Across Amer­ica, peo­ple emerged from the emo­tional hang­over of Trump’s elec­tion and vowed to make a dif­fer­ence. In record num­bers, they sought state and county web­sites to join their local party, only to dis­cover that, in many places, it didn’t ex­ist — or at least not in the form of a face-to-face group wel­com­ing new­com­ers. While a few state par­ties pro­vide for char­tered Demo­cratic clubs, in many places, a hand­ful of elected com­mit­tee slots are the only spa­ces for be­long­ing. If you were try­ing to de­sign the least ac­ces­si­ble ver­sion of an or­ga­ni­za­tion with local chap­ters, this is what it would look like. And so peo­ple in­vented the groups they wanted to find.

The In­di­vis­i­ble Guide and Women’s March of­fered tem­plates, yet, from the start, even In­di­vis­i­ble groups cheer­fully ig­nored the guide’s ar­gu­ment for a de­fen­sive fo­cus. With­out co­or­di­na­tion, yet with strik­ing con­sis­tency, folks be­gan to map out up­com­ing local elec­tions and dig for in­for­ma­tion on how ward and town­ship com­mit­tee struc­tures work.

Within Pennsylvania alone, more than 550 new grass-roots groups have been iden­ti­fied by an um­brella coali­tion, Pennsylvania To­gether. (One of us — Lara — is in­volved in one such group in Pitts­burgh’s 11th Ward.) Each group has mem­bers across the Obama-Clin­ton-San­ders spec­trum, but no one is fight­ing those bat­tles. Groups are de­fined by ge­og­ra­phy rather than ide­ol­ogy, as hap­pens when you take for granted the need to meet reg­u­larly. About four-fifths of lead­ers are women. Na­tional data sug­gest sim­i­lar trends.

Me­dia com­men­tary on “the re­sis­tance” has fo­cused on whether new play­ers will siphon do­na­tions from the party or push it to the left. What should worry us in­stead is the op­por­tu­nity cost of mo­bi­liz­ing all this en­ergy out­side ex­ist­ing struc­tures, hav­ing to in­vent from scratch the pro­to­cols nec­es­sary to avoid the “tyranny of struc­ture­less­ness” or “tac­ti­cal freezes.”

There is a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive. The Demo­cratic Party still has the bones of a mem­ber­ship or­ga­ni­za­tion. It has by­laws and rules for precinct rep­re­sen­ta­tion, tax sta­tus and li­a­bil­ity in­surance, quo­rum re­quire­ments for the day when al­lies dis­agree — the in­fra­struc­ture needed to forge di­verse de­sires into sus­tained joint ac­tion.

By all vis­i­ble ev­i­dence, most na­tional Demo­cratic lead­ers have failed to rec­og­nize the mo­ment. Some of­fi­cials ask for “your” vol­un­teers’ help in get­ting “our” mes­sage out, not real­iz­ing that the very fram­ing pro­claims their in­su­lar­ity. Yet in sub­urbs, ex­urbs and mid­size towns, the re­an­i­ma­tion of the local Demo­cratic Party is un­der­way with or with­out a wel­come mat.

Look at Beaver County. Over the past decade, de­spite a nearly 2-to-1 reg­is­tra­tion ad­van­tage, Democrats’ dom­i­na­tion of local and state of­fices un­rav­eled. Trump car­ried the county by 19 points. It seemed a text­book case of the Democrats’ Rust Belt col­lapse.

Yet to­day, things look up. The Beaver County Young Democrats was re-founded by ur­gent new­com­ers weeks af­ter the Novem­ber 2016 elec­tion. The group hosts monthly happy hours at a local pub. Some Young Dems ran a 5K race as a team re­cently, then spent the af­ter­noon can­vass­ing to­gether on sore legs. They are work­ing hand in hand with the county Demo­cratic Com­mit­tee to re­cruit for com­mit­tee slots.

Beaver County cit­i­zens are not only fired up and ready to go; they found in­fra­struc­ture wait­ing, and they pow­ered the fac­tory back up.

Across Pennsylvania, the fruit of the Re­sis­tance was on dis­play last week as thou­sands of hours of door-to-door cam­paign­ing by new groups brought scores of first-time can­di­dates — many of them women — to vic­tory in school boards, bor­ough coun­cils and mayor’s of­fices. The un­der-the-radar rev­o­lu­tion re­flects a surge of creative local or­ga­niz­ing that is building po­lit­i­cal ca­pac­ity across a broad cen­ter-to-left spec­trum.

The real DNC scan­dal will be if no one at the na­tional level starts to think sys­tem­at­i­cally about how to open the gates.

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