Are you discouraged by our national political nightmare? Looking for a project for the new year? Great: Your local Democratic Party, which may not be worth a damn today, is just waiting for you to revive it.
Do you live in “red” America? Are you surrounded by Trump voters? Have you spent the past year asking yourself what dark stroke of fate has plunged you into this nightmarish world, making you question whether your friends and neighbors are your sworn enemies? Have you, in past months, cast about vaguely for some sort of project to help “The Resistance,” before falling back on donating a few bucks to the ACLU and tweeting out some hashtags? Do you wish that you could be doing more, but don’t really know what that would consist of? Allow me to introduce you to a project called “Take over your local Democratic Party, please, we beg you, for the good of America.”
There are plenty of problems with America’s broken democracy. Gerrymandering and campaign finance issues and voter suppression and more. Yes, these exist. Yes, these will each require concerted action for years or decades to fix. Even so, it is important to do what we can in the meantime. The silver lining of Donald Trump’s election is the incredible groundswell of will among people on the left to do something. For some, that urge to become more politically active has led them to the Democratic Socialists of America. This is a fine group and their resurgence is doubtless a healthy trend. But if I may, let me try to convince you that—depending on your personal circumstances—you may get the most bang for your buck by seizing control of your local Democratic Party and injecting the sort of energy that the DSA already has into it, like a (healthy!) virus invading a host.
Outside of major cities, it can be shockingly easy to take effective political action. In many small towns, a little handful of committed people willing to make phone calls and mail fliers and knock on doors and wave signs and write letters and attend public meetings and generally make a very visible ruckus can get a lot of things done, because the competition for attention is not so great. Much of the actual work of politics is this sort of mundane, labor and resource-intensive stuff. Money helps, yes, but on a local level, what you really need is a band of committed people, a useful list of contacts, and a name recognizable enough for people to pay attention.
If you can bring the committed people, you can plunder your local Democratic Party for the rest.
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. There is no reason to spend all your time and energy forming a new group if there is a perfectly good group that you can take over and save yourself years of work building infrastructure and name recognition. The truth is that most of us are disgusted with the Democratic Party because it hasn’t been doing what we believe it should do. One response to that is to give up and leave the party in favor of another. Another response is to figure out how to seize control of the party and make it do what it should. I mean... imagine having a Democratic Party that was acting in a way that you could get excited about. It would be nice!
That is not just a dream. In many, many counties across America, local Democratic parties are ripe for the seizing. This is particularly true in states that vote Republican. In the less urban parts of Alabama (62% for Trump) and Kentucky (63% for Trump) and Oklahoma (65% for Trump) and West Virginia (69% for Trump), you could effectively become a force in local Democratic party politics with the number of people that you would invite to your birthday party. The national Democratic Party is unlikely to devote a ton of resources to very red states, which they tend to regard as lost causes. That means that local activism is that much more meaningful. And this is not a lost cause, or a quixotic quest doomed to fail. The purpose of taking over the Democratic Party today is to make it a party that will actually fix people’s problems. “Populism,” the mysterious force credited with sweeping Donald Trump into office, is actually more effective when channeled to the left, rather than to the right. Many of the people in fading, poor, forgotten counties who voted for Trump could just as easily be persuaded to vote for a left-wing candidate if that candidate were able to demonstrate a real understanding of their problems and a real passion to attack those problems boldly, using the power of government on behalf of the people who need it most, rather than on behalf of the rich and well-connected. There is a reason why West Virginia, which went more overwhelmingly for Trump than anywhere else, also went overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. It is because the underlying sentiment is one that is sick of an establishment that has failed millions of people. We know that the real problem is inequality, and that the real solutions for that problem lie on the left. It’s not easy to get DSA candidates elected to county commissions in small town America (though I’m all for trying). But everyone knows the Democratic Party. Even in a red state, the Democratic Party is starting from a base of 40% of voters, rather than zero. Keep the name, change the politics.
Far away from the media and financial centers of NYC and LA and DC there are millions and millions of smart people who live in Republican states who are freaked the fuck out by what is happening in America. If you are one of these people, and you do not believe that your local Democratic Party is a bold and effective bulwark against what is happening, take that shit over. Strong local parties—working hard for equality everywhere without being owned by the local business community or falling into uselessness and malaise—are the institutions that can show people that there is a better solution than Trumpism. It will take some work, but I guarantee that it will be easier than you think.
This and unionizing your workplace are good new year’s resolutions, if you don’t have one already.