The Democratic Party needs to embrace grassroots organizing

by Andrew Solender

With the various protests, marches and rallies following the election and inauguration of President Trump, young people and liberals have served notice they wish to be a vocal and active opposition. However, their chosen method may not be the best one for defeating Trump and putting power back into the hands of progressives. If that is what these protesters wish to accomplish, they must change course.

With Donald Trump as president and Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, the Democrats are fully in the minority for the first time since 2004 (and not, as claimed by conservative pundit Ann Coulter, 1928). With this status, liberals have a new role to play, and so far they are playing it with all the skill and finesse of a drunk Steven Seagal.

It is understandable that it would take Democrats a while to find their feet after ten years of at least partial control over government; however, with the fast-paced vitriol of the Trump administration, there is no time to lose.

Three factors determine the effectiveness of political opposition: tactics, leadership and ideology. To explain how each of these factors can lead to success, I will describe several historical case studies.

The power of strong and coherent ideology and leadership can best be demonstrated by an example from Britain. From 1979 to 1996, Britain faced an unprecedentedly long stretch of one-party rule under the Conservative Thatcher and major governments. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party floundered on the backburner. Their extremely long tenure in the minority is widely attributed to their leadership, reputation and ruling ideology. As for leadership, they consistently chose floundering, uncharismatic liberals from the party’s base regions: Scotland and Wales. These leaders, who were far to the left of the general public, failed to achieve broad appeal among the English electorate, especially when compared to the charismatic populist Margaret Thatcher.

So it was that the Labour Party remained in the minority for many years. That was, of course, until it made the brilliant decision to select Tony Blair as its leader. By electing Blair, a centrist Englishman from a middle class family, the Labour party finally adopted an ideology with broad appeal. Throughout the world, the “Third Way” movement, a surge of centrist progressive leaders such as Bill Clinton, Paul Keating of Australia and Matteo Renzi of Italy, came to power. Labour watched this shift of global politics to the center and followed it.

Under the leadership of Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, the Labour party remained in power for 11 years and were only defeated after the leftward shift of the party under Brown and a disastrous financial crisis. They have since remained in the minority, elevating the uncharismatic Ed Miliband and the far left Jeremy Corbyn to leadership, both of whom have failed to effectively make labour’s case to the public.

Lessons for The Democrats

So what does example this tell us? For one, an effective and charismatic leader can appeal to a broad electorate. These qualities can be said to be lacking in Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi (though the impact of an intrinsic societal bias against women leaders should not be easily discounted).

Then there is Bernie Sanders. I imagine that many Sanders supporters ask themselves why so many in the Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton over their man who so clearly represented the ideals of true liberals and had the necessary charisma to be an effective leader. The answer is quite simple: Bernie Sanders was far left of center in the American electorate even in the Democratic party, and thus would have been neither electable in a general election nor effective as President. While some may dispute this, it must be noted that Hillary Clinton, who was to the right of Bernie Sanders, may have won many establishment Republican Trump detractors had it not been for her image as a “radical liberal” by many on the left. How would a socialist have fared?


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So who could lead a modern Democratic party in a country experiencing a strong rightward, or at least populist, shift in ideology? Some centrists like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris or Chuck Schumer have both the charisma and the ideology to appeal to a broader electorate, though Schumer and Booker may have unwanted baggage considering the lengths of their tenures. Joe Biden would also meet many of the requirements, though his age may make it difficult for him to appeal to the younger generations (although his status as a prominent meme may help).

Then we have the Senior Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, who has the charisma and strong populist left-wing views. What she is missing is an ideology with the potential for broad electoral appeal. So far, however, she is looking like the frontrunner to be the Democratic standard bearer. This would be a monumental mistake. Compromises and concessions will have to be made to abate the evil that is Donald Trump, and they must be made soon.

An opposition party must be efficient in countering the agenda of the government and making the argument to the public why they would be more effective governors. Furthermore, it must be able to defeat the government in the political arena and in the eyes of the public.

The recent protests demonstrate just how lacking the opposition is in organizing to achieve this. Protest movements have often been effective, and I in no way wish to disparage the gallant intentions and noble efforts of protesters. I myself have joined in protests to express my overwhelming opposition to our hateful new President.

A movement cannot simply consist of a protest. It has to stand for something that has broad appeal to the electorate.

Take, for example, the two major American protest movements of the 1960s: the opposition to the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights Movement. The former galvanized the opposition to the war and gradually won over the public, but whatever impact it had in actually ending the war took very long to take hold. The latter changed the way the government treated an entire race of people, and gained them their much desired civil rights (at least technically), again however after a protracted struggle.

These movements, while both having large protest aspects about them, had crucial differences. The Vietnam War protesters were often disorganized bands of young baby boomers who came of age in a time marked by a liberation and revolution of ideas and ideology. However, they failed at least at the outset to communicate their message, did not organize a broad base of support and had only the backing of a few Senators and politicians, none of whom had the power to push the movement forward. After 11 grueling years, the war finally ground to a halt. While some historians consider the protests to be successful, nearly all agree what success they had was due to politicians sitting up and taking notice, thus affirming the point that political patronage is needed for a successful movement.

Civil Rights protesters under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP achieved an historic political victory against huge odds. However, they only accomplished this because of King’s ability to work with and whip politicians such as Lyndon Johnson, formerly a Southern Democrat, somewhat sympathetic to segregationists, and Hubert Humphrey. In recruiting these charismatic and powerful politicians to their cause, the Civil Rights Protesters succeeded in both turning American opinion and legislation in their favor, and by the end of the ’60s the movement was deemed generally successful in its goals.

So far, the anti-Trump movement is shaping up to be a lot more like the Vietnam movement than the Civil Rights movement, and this could be very problematic. Though confidence in the government has declined since that era, the power of government has not. Sandernistas and Warrenites have generally expressed suspicion in mainstream media and establishment figures, particularly the ones that run the Democratic Party. This is a mistake, and I would advise those people to use their better judgment and work with the people with whom they have at least some common ground.

Even the Tea Party, though a radical movement, managed to seize significant power by backing and funding candidates for congress, many of whom went on to be elected and serve to this day. Millennial liberals have, more and more, started to find their political voice, and have started registering to run for office, calling their congressmen and volunteering in campaigns. This is a positive step forward. Democrats must get back to grassroots organizing, fundraising and coalition building if they are to seize power from Trump in four years.


Andrew Solender is a student at Vassar College. Andrew’s article was originally published in The Miscellany News, Vol. CXLIX, No. 13.  


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.


The photo above was taken at the 2017 Women’s march on President Trump’s inauguration day by Mobilus In Mobili. It is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license and can be found here

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