John Buell

Meeting Trump’s Challenge at the Grass Roots

Republicans now hold control of the US Congress, the Presidency and the judicial branch. This well-known fact often obscures another equally troubling trend. Democrats now hold only 18 of 50 governorships and 31 out of 99 state legislative chambers, leaving Republicans almost enough power to remake the Constitution.

In “A Guide to Rebuilding the Democratic Party, From the Ground Up” at (Jan. 5), Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol points out: “Democrats tried to win on demographic change. Democrats put all their chips on a bet that demographic destiny would sweep Hillary Clinton into the White House on the backs of the ‘rising’ Obama coalition of young, minority, and female voters.” HRC won a large plurality. Were this a parliamentary system she would be prime minister. For Skocpol one lesson is that in a federal system like ours, “electoral geography matters more than ethnic or class aggregates.”

Some radicals might be inclined to say good riddance to the Democratic Party, but Skocpol argues: “… social science research has long shown that majorities need strong organizations to prevail against wealthy conservative interests in democracies. The real problem in US politics today is hardly too much unified organizational heft on the center left; it is too little. Unless the Democratic Party becomes stronger and more effective, a radicalized Republican- conservative juggernaut is likely to take over for decades.” The key priority “should be strengthening the Democratic Party at state and local levels, even as liberals also build a mass movement to demand universal voter access and devise new formats for unions and other dues-based popular associations.”

Democrats, however, must eschew false leads, such as emphasis on Putin, Comey letter etc. It is important to know if Russian interests hacked DNC computers, but HRC should have won anyway. Other steps, like electoral college elimination, are utopian.

How does a political party or movement build institutional power? On the center left side of the spectrum one sees single interest lobbying by professionals. Supporters both large and small make contributions, but leadership is from the top down. The Democratic Party itself is organized at the national level, but exists primarily as a fund raising mechanism most active and evident around presidential elections. Political movements have advanced their cause via highly visible demonstrations and media presence, but movements such as Occupy Wall Street have not tried to connect themselves to the levers of power within our federal system.

Democrats might take as an example the Tea Party, which managed to thwart the political agenda the last time in D.C. one party had all three branches of government. Successful movements in American history have been within and across state lines. The Tea Party example of 2009-10 “shows how effective largely spontaneous, grassroots local groups can be in challenging an incoming president’s agenda and shifting political conversations … roughly a quarter of a million conservative citizen activists managed to use largely voluntary methods and shoestring resources to create some 900 regularly meeting local Tea Party groups from 2009 through 2011. Those groups …took over or influenced local Republican Party committees, and pushed state and national elected representatives to oppose changes they did not want.”

Organizing is about listening as much as talking. And it is about curbing even our own tendencies to pigeonhole or demonize. In a recent series of CNN reports, Van Jones argues that Trump voters are not all cut out of the same cloth. There are some hardened racists and xenophobes, but others are “not blind to his flaws. They simply rank and balance his shortcomings differently than do his detractors … More empathy and understanding can keep us from needlessly inflaming one another, and this should create the conditions for a better understanding of our differences. Democracy doesn’t just happen on Election Day at the polls … Our future depends on our ability to have these kinds of conversations all across the country.”

In this regard, part of the process of reviving the Democratic Party must be a reexamination of the role of polls, both by party organizers and social scientists. As Skocpol puts it: “When it comes to what people will do in politics, as opposed to what they say they believe, non-polling research tells us that social network ties and feelings about ‘who we are’ versus ‘who they are’ may matter much more than individual demographic characteristics or discrete attitudes. Consequently, the messages that matter most in politics may have to be delivered through social contacts. And they should focus not just on issues and policies but on conveying a sense of respect and connection to specific groups and communities.”

The emphasis of current polling on questions intended to shape the voter’s consciousness or merely to assess who is ahead prevents campaigns from gaining a deeper sense of the concerns that motivate voters. I will suggest some messages that might best address these concerns in my next column.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2017

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