Doing Democracy, You Know -- Like the Christian Right
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Feb 16, 2006 at 01:41:42 AM EST
"All politics is local." So said the late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill. I think he would agree that politics is also built on personal political relationships. Back in the day, when O'Neill was coming up, everybody knew everybody in the neighborhoods of Boston. Who you knew, who knew your family, mattered. But those kinds of neighborhoods and those kinds of relationships are rarer these days.

Society is more transient. Far fewer people live in the towns, let alone the neighborhoods where they grew up. Many of us are more isolated from the communities we live in. We are disconnected from politics and government. We don't know our city councilors or our state representatives. Voter participation is far lower than any other industrial democracy. Politics is ruled by big money, political consultants, ad agencies and television.

But there are deep rumblings and tremors in the body politic that may change that.

Society is different, and politics is different. What local means, is different. And yet, local and personal is, in the most important political sense, the same.

But the localities can be different. That's what the Christian Right figured out.

Linguist George Lakoff argues in his book Don't Think of an Elephant, that more than self-interest, people vote their identities. So, if more-and-more, people identify less-and-less with a neighborhood, or even an ethnicity, then what? The Christian Right has been able to make ones' identity as a Christian central to their political identities. From there, it has been a matter of organization, as I outlined in my post, Messages, Like Lawn Signs, Don't Vote. Simply put, the Christian Right was able to expand their pool of voters, identify and organize them into a voting bloc. The Christian Right, building on years of conservative movement political experimentation and institution building, has become the best-organized and one of the most powerful factions in American politics.

So what then to do?

Clearly a response that involves citizen engagement in ways appropriate to the many communities that are not the religious right is in order.

So how then to do that?

I don't claim to have all the answers. But I have some ideas. To get us started, let me tell you a story.

In 2002 we had an open seat for governor of Massachusetts. I was induced to abandon my longstanding identity as an independent and run for delegate to the state Democratic convention in order to support former Secretary of Labor and progressive economist Robert Reich for governor. I did it, and I won! Reich needed 15% of the vote at the state convention to get on the primary ballot, which he got. (Ultimately, he came in second, in the primary, and Republican Mitt Romney defeated the Democratic candidate.) Reich's spirited, progressive reform candidacy inspired a lot of people who had not previously been engaged in electoral politics to get involved in his insurgent campaign, including me.

But one thing that became clear soon after the party caucuses. Most of us had absolutely no idea about what it meant to be involved in a campaign.

I was shocked and embarrassed by this. Speaking personally, here I was, a student of politics, a writer a published author, and I was amazed at how little I knew. When was the voter registration deadline? What were the rules governing absentee ballots? How do you organize a phone bank? And much, much more. But I was not the only one who was ignorant. Most of the other volunteers knew even less. Some of the people I am talking about were lawyers, or otherwise held advanced degrees. I knew about a lot of stuff in theory. But I had done little of it myself. So for all of our education; for all of the relative wealth of the areas we lived in; for all of our literacy and college town sophistication -- we didn't know the basics of electoral democracy.

This, to me, was a revelation. Many of us talk a good game about democracy. But the embarrassing truth is, many of us don't really do democracy.

The way power is awarded and distributed in an electoral democracy... is through elections. Seems so obvious, doesn't it? Yet, there we all were, ignorant about how to be effective in getting our candidate elected.

It is this very ignorance and inertia is what the Christian Right has been able to overcome among the constituencies they sought to mobilize. They have gotten good a doing democracy. Whatever else one may think of this movement -- they do electoral democracy well.

Well, we muddled on through the campaign, and learned a lot along the way. After the general election, a number of us founded a new organization -- Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts. Our primary goal would be to elect a progressive democratic governor in 2006. We knew from Reich's experience that whether the candidate was Bob again (it wasn't), or someone else, that person would have an uphill battle. Inevitably most of the big money and the party establishment would be backing someone else. (It did.) So persuading someone to be the candidate under such circumstances could be tough. Would the hell of campaigning, the fundraising, and so on.... be worth it? And given the difficulty and the odds, what then, could we offer a candidate considering a run?

We realized that all we had to offer.... was us. So we decided to become a statewide network of knowledgeable and skilled electoral activists: People accustomed to working together; people working over the longer-term towards a common goal. We oringally had a big, and admittedly grandiose vision that I will not bother to detail here. Suffice to say we did not get that big and powerful. But we did become the organization that we set out to be, with chapters and smaller groups of activists all over the state.

We thought that if we had a de facto field organization already in place -- one with a track record of competence and accomplishment, that this would be recognized as valuable to our prospective candidate. And indeed, it was.

All through 2004 and 2005, every possible progressive contender dropped out. No one was willing to challenge Democratic front runner, Attorney General Tom Reilly who had raised $3 million and seemed to most observers to be the inevitable Democratic nominee. No one, that is, except Deval Patrick.

Deval who?

Patrick is a civil rights lawyer and businessman who had never run for elected office. But he had worked death row cases for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and headed the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department under Bill Clinton. He went on to work as the general counsel for Texaco and Coke. While he was thinking about running, he spent an evening with about 20 activists from all over Western Massachusetts. We liked him. And we thought he was viable (and he is). Most of the people in the room were members of PDM. We had indeed, become the organization we set out to be.

Eventually, Patrick declared his candidacy and PDM endorsed him. In my part of the state, three state senate district coordinators for the Patrick campaign are PDM members. PDM chapters and activists are playing key roles in the Patrick campaign all over the state. Some are 2002 Reich campaign veterans like me. Some supported other candidates that year, or came into PDM fresh from the presidential campaigns, especially the Dean campaign. We come to this with different experiences, but we are working toward the common goal of electing Patrick -- and continuing to build our organization and our capacity to elect good candidates for offices at all levels.

We approach politics, informed by the political organizing philosophy of "relational organizing" articulated by Marshall Ganz, the top organizer for the United Farm Workers in the hey day of Cesar Chavez. Ganz, who now teaches organizing at Harvard, emphasizes the need for the development of personal political relationships over time. Indeed, we find that it is a key to how we develop our capacity to be an independent political force within the Democratic Party, and to provide coherent and ongoing development across the election cycle. Candidates, win or lose, come and go. But we are still here. We are still learning; still developing and honing our electoral skills; engaging in promising campaigns; seeking to live up to the best of what electoral democracy can be. We are growing in our capacity to train others, to grow our organization, and to play an ever larger role in electoral politics.

Meanwhile, the movement that has best-adapted to the contemporary social circumstances and trends in America, and crafted a successful electoral movement out of them -- is still the Christian Right.

It is up to the rest of us to learn how to be skilled and knowledgeable practitioners of electoral democracy. If we do not do this, we are ceding the playing field to those who do.

for us to change our ways.

Too much television.

Too much sports.

Too many diversions.

Not enough knowledge, skills, and involvement in electoral politics.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Feb 16, 2006 at 03:27:03 AM EST

Too many people have taken it for granted that others will do the work of organizing for them.

That is a luxury that people committed to democracy can no longer afford.

by Mainstream Baptist on Thu Feb 16, 2006 at 03:56:19 PM EST

or they wait for the Democratic Party to tell them what to do; or for an outside group like ACT to show up. In both cases, you might have a long wait. And in the case of ACT, by they time they show up in a hotly contested situation, it is already too late.

It is important that we do it for ourselves.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 18, 2006 at 11:06:49 PM EST

We also need some way of counteracting the tactic of unfounded attack ads.  You probably remember Willie Horton.  We all remember the Swift-Boaters For Falsification.

The republican "rapid-response" team is too strong if left unchallenged.  It's like a bully; you have to stand up to him (or them).  It is how they operate, and how they determine who gets respect.

by MikeTheLiberal on Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 11:44:46 AM EST

I didn't even know about the ProDemMAss, and I'm one of them!

BTW: this was a featured article on, which is how I got here.

And you're correct; we have too many diversions.  Worse, we have an entertainment industry that focuses on peddling conflict, even in "news" shows.

by MikeTheLiberal on Wed Mar 15, 2006 at 11:40:42 AM EST

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