Posted in Rants on January 8th, 2017 by Ed

One of the most well known contemporary political scientists attempted to provide a practical guide to rebuilding the Democratic Party on Vox over the weekend. As these Vox-style wank pieces go it's not bad, and does indeed deliver on what the title promises – a guide with some specific recommendations for action. For that reason alone it's a useful piece, since the liberal tendency is to make an argument and assume that its logic or fundamental correctness will win over hearts and minds if repeated enough. The author correctly points out that a big part of the success that groups like the Tea Party have had is the less glamorous stuff. Here's a spoiler: it involves showing up to a lot of meetings.

Does that paragraph read like a setup for a "But,"? I guess I hide my cards poorly.

Two statements in the article, when taken together, point to a flaw in the underlying logic.

Compared with previous presidential contests, the partisan gap between big-city and non-big-city voting patterns widened. Trump won because he rang up unusually high margins (although not unusually high turnouts) among voters across all social strata in suburban, small-city, and semi-rural counties, especially in the Midwest. In many of those places, Democrats are not an organized presence at all.


On the left, labor unions used to be the most far-reaching federated organizations cooperating with and bolstering the Democratic Party. But both private and public sector unions are now in sharp decline after years of conservative attacks — and their current dues-collecting arrangements face legal deathblows under the incoming regime. Unions aside, most center-left organizations are professionally run advocacy groups headquartered in New York, DC, or California and devoted to many separate causes and constituencies. Democrats tend to organize across the entire country only temporarily for presidential campaigns.

Neither statement is false, but the problem of the second is embedded in the first. We've talked to death the fact that America's rural areas have been emptying out and filling up the big urban areas across the country. Within those urban areas, liberals are not well represented in the suburbs in most cases; voters there tend to be older, married, white homeowners of a distinctly reactionary bent. In other words, the author is right that there is little organized liberal presence in a lot of these places…because most of the liberals are gone.

Where, then, are these liberal ground-up organizations supposed to come from? As the second quote reveals, Democratic campaigns have a kind of "surge and recede" dynamic; they fan out across the country for election years and then pack up and return to California and the East Coast until the next election. That's ineffective. The problem is that there's a reason all of those people live in California, New York, Boston, and DC – they're probably from the Muncies and Rockfords of the world and they got out the second they could. Going back simply reminds them of why they left.

Not to make the author personally responsible for solving this problem, but there must be some reason she's at Harvard. Certainly University of Illinois would be equally happy to have her. Oh, right, I forgot: central Illinois sucks. That's why she's not there.

Who's left on the liberal side of the spectrum in these unorganized places where the Democratic presence has atrophied? You've got younger people who are itching to get out and generally do so at the earliest opportunity. Then you have the 30-55 aged liberals who are living in a sea of red for job-related or personal reasons. Most of them are pretty tired of showing up to school board meetings in Keokuk, being outnumbered 25 to 1 and ostracized for suggesting that maybe the Bible isn't a science textbook. If you've never had the experience of being in a small town and being one of a small percentage of educated liberals, you very well might believe that it's possible to rally these people into action. But if you've had that experience, you're probably not eager for more of it.

In short, none of the logic of this argument can deal with the fact that the problem of the collapse of Democratic ground organization in the rural and suburban South and Midwest is a natural outgrowth of the lack of liberals living there in critical masses. Democratic campaigns function as temporary affairs manned by staffers who fan out from the Beltway and Bay Area and Chicago and Brooklyn and then retreat to their safe spaces because that's where Democratic campaign and liberal group operatives live. It makes sense for political groups to headquarter in DC, but when they try to establish a nationwide network of local orgs FreedomWorks is a going to have a vastly easier time than (insert liberal org here) setting up the local chapter in Paducah. The reasons for that reality are not necessarily a failure of liberal / Democratic organization. It's hard to build a base of support in a place your most likely supporters want nothing to do with for good reason.