It was refreshing to hear virtually every candidate for Democratic Party Chair recently call for a greater effort to reach a broader base of voters, specifically white, working class voters and voters in the inland states. I spent much of my adult life working with Democratic campaigns in that part of the country -winning tough races. It's the corner of America I was raised in, and it's still what I call home. Hearing my Party admit it has failed to communicate in those regions is reassuring that things can eventually get better.
This moment of introspection happened in a recent debate for the candidates for Democratic National Committee Chair sponsored by Huffington Post and streamed on Facebook. Some contenders for Chair hail from places where they have seen painful consequences of our Party's losses up close and personal, repeatedly - states like South Carolina, Indiana, and Idaho.
After the devastating loss of the White House to Republican Donald Trump and a general drumming at the ballot box at every other level, recognition that there is a problem is the first step towards a solution. But taking the steps that come next will be the most critical part if Democrats are to again connect to white working class voters and non-coastal parts of the country.
First, those who would be part of the solution for the Democratic Party must understand that the Party is not led solely by a Committee Chair or leadership structure. Our Party is led collectively by numerous people and organizations, including the other Democratic Committees (Democratic Governors Association, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Committee, Democratic Attorneys General Association, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and the like). Our Party is influenced by groups that have come to play integral roles in the electoral efforts and progressive thought world - groups like Priorities USA, the Center for American Progress, Progressive Policy Institute, Third Way, The Hub, Democracy Alliance, organized labor, SIX, and David Brock's numerous organizations (full disclosure, one of which I was affiliated with for three years).
The fact is, the leadership of both national political parties is made up of various organizations and individuals - not just a Chair and committee structure.
The second part of this first step will be to build some level of consensus among these various entities and their leaders in recognizing that the problem is real and critically important to address and resolve. That is a tougher task than it sounds. Even after the devastating electoral losses of 2016 and the losses in the eight years prior that cost Democrats 11 seats in the Senate, 62 seats in the House, 12 governorships, and 958 state legislative seats across the country, not all will agree the issue should be addressed proactively. There will be some thought leaders who may not be bothered by the concept of the Democratic Party becoming a "Party of the coasts." There will be others who say that it is just a question of demographics and that if Democrats wait, eventually the problem will resolve itself. Nonsense. Republicans are watching demographic trends as closely as Democrats, and Republicans are not yielding that their Party is in its final death throws. There will be others amongst the Democratic elites who call for an ideological purity test, as though it is the Party's role to set ideology, rather than platform. Democrats should stop squabbling over "wings" of the Party and start focusing on building back. The issue before us is not a question of "identity politics" versus "economic populism." The issue before Democrats is a question of focus. Specifically, our next Democratic Chair must build a consensus among Democrats for focusing on the states between the coasts and the voters there.
If you want to compete in a state, you need an infrastructure there. That means electing local and state Democrats. That means Party building in non-election years. It means a new and greater focus on non-federal politics and politics in non-coastal states. It means dedicated resources if changes are to be made.
Second, our next Party Chair must break with what has become the norm among national Democrats: talking at our fellow Americans rather than talking with them. This means we must have more than a listening tour. It means the next DNC chair, along with the major political entities in the Progressive world, must begin a dialogue with people of all backgrounds in all parts of our country. An honest dialogue will not only proactively define what it means to be a Democrat, but also dispel Republican false narratives. More importantly, it will bring thoughts, ideas, tactics, case studies, and a bench of political and campaign talent not only into the process, but hopefully leading the process.
Our next chair must facilitate the development of a clear and salient vision for the country in conjunction with Democrats and Americans of all walks of life, from every part of the nation. This should not be "our" vision. It should be "America's vision" for our future. In this time of being a minority Party in every capacity, Democrats must not fall into only being the opposition Party of "no" without its own vision or just a glorified fact-checking operation rebuking Trump Republicans but offering no alternative. Our Party must not be reduced to a stoic clearing house of policy ideas and programmatic proposals. We must renew our vision, a vision which in the end won more votes on Election Day 2016 than that of Republicans.
Third, we must move beyond the Beltway. Our ranks of strategists, tacticians, and leaders of the Party must not be exclusively creatures of Washington. Washington is not where elections happen. We need to look to the leaders - mayors, governors, strategists, and operatives - who have learned how to accomplish that which our Party must now accomplish and where it must be accomplished. We must effectively communicate that the Democratic Party is a Party of people who believe every person should be treated fairly.
Too many Democrats now search for solutions within the Beltway. They look to "messaging" and "issue platforms" as though they will magically bridge the gap with voters and geographies without actually engaging them and communicating. That is not to say that our Party, its stalwarts, or its identity should be thrown to the scrap heap. We must remember that far more Americans voted for the Democrat for President, not the Republican, in 2016. We should not look to fix the parts of our Party that are not broken, but we must shift our approach in how we fix those parts which are broken.
The next chair of our Party -- indeed all the leaders of the Democratic Party - must focus on a new genuinely national and distinctly local effort. If they are to be successful, the path ahead for the Democratic Party and its leadership is a path that leads out of the Beltway and across the country, a path that must be endeavored together.
Isaac Wright is an award-winning political strategist and veteran of countless campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. He is currently a strategic communications, campaigns, and public affairs consultant based in Washington, D.C. A Tennessee native, Wright founded a successful political consulting and advocacy firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, before returning to Washington, D.C. in 2013 where he served as executive director of Correct The Record until its conclusion following the 2016 Election.