The Democratic Party: Evolution Or Extinction

In any election, victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is the Party's fault. Or so they say.

The Democratic Party has begun the time-honored tradition of self-examination and self-immolation that comes with electoral defeat. As well it should. While believing in the righteousness of our cause, and the wrongness of our opponent, we failed to see, or simply refused to see, the voters.

Voters lived in a different world and understandably, saw this country and the candidates differently than the national Democratic Party and its leadership. They lived in large swaths of the country where we never went. We missed the mark and we missed it badly.

This loss hurts. We did not lose to a self-proclaimed conservative policy wonk like Jeb Bush, or a competent "economic" conservative like Mitt Romney. Instead the whole world saw us fall to a snake oil salesman, reality TV star who most grandmothers would call "all hat and no cattle." Every morning we judged his false Twitter views while sipping our cappuccinos and scrolling through our own Facebook bubbles. We learn nothing from false facts. It is time to close this path of error and open the road to truth.

To be clear, this is not a call for another task force, autopsy, or commission. This is work for clear-eyed and honest leaders who can admit defeat, evolve, and get back to the actual job of leading this great Party: providing strategic direction, message support, and financial resources to the states who actually live next door to the American voter. The states, where the races are we need to win again and where the road back begins.


Adaptation

While we may not agree with every individual voter, they do get the last say. As Democrats, we seem to have become tone deaf to too many American voters. It's our fault that we are out of power. We are out of touch.

And we have made matters worse by projecting a sort of conceit that assumes voters should just know we are better for them than the other team, a "don't they know we are better?" kind of attitude. There has never been a democracy, and never will be, where voters just wake up one day and coolly, rationally decide your party is "just so damn smart and capable that you guys should be in control." This conceit is what leads a campaign or party to talk about what we want to talk about and not what the voters actually want to hear about. Essentially, we have been branded the party of the elites?

As a political institution, the Democratic Party has built a set of false facts we considered true about voters hopes, wants, and beliefs. We have blamed voters for not knowing their own interests, not understanding how much better a Democratic government and agenda would be for them, or for simply not voting. In doing this, we have allowed the Republican Party to take pleasure in proving how wrong we are.

We are only now realizing the full impact of the greatest economic crisis to grip the country since 1929. Since 2007, voters have desperately wanted change. They are angry and they are scared. How, in fact, are they going to keep their job, send their kid to college, or take care of aging parents? They do not necessarily want more policies, more programs, or more pamphlets. They want leaders who acknowledge their anger as valid, their fear as real, and then address it, directly and with emotion. We have failed to adapt to these circumstances.

Voters believe it is their constitutional right to be heard by their elected officials and not the other way around. Voters want to hear their concerns addressed rather than what we wished got them out to vote. The best political leaders have always acknowledged the voter's fear and anger, recognized their daily struggle to provide their families with the best opportunity possibility, and projected confidence in their ability to lead the entire nation.

Democrats have led this great nation while staying accountable to the voters whose future and tax dollars they were responsible for protecting. Leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama - leaders who were responsible to all the American people and did not demonize once group and express favor for another. As Democrats, don't we believe that it is through equality of opportunity supported by the government that knocks down barriers and moves Americans forward? Great, but at the same time, we can't ignore the fact that people are scared that the deck is stacked, the system is rigged and that government just doesn't work. We have to listen. Only when we listen will they be able to hear us.


Natural Selection

The Democratic Party has a second, equally serious problem. Our strength in Presidential campaigns, they have all been close since 1992 and we win the popular vote more often than we lose it, have papered over systemic weaknesses in the states, where conservative candidates have been ascendant for eight years, and the progressive agenda is under siege or non-existent. Our party has suffered immense losses, from governorships to statehouses, since 2008. Over 900 legislative seats nationwide. Our bench is in tatters.

Democratic presidential candidates have captured the imagination of American voters in the past, and they can and will do so again, but the real challenge facing our party is not that Hillary Clinton narrowly lost Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If we're going to truly rise as a party from this point forward, we have to start by addressing the things that make us weak locally and in the states. This is not a new problem, but it is one that we as a party can no longer ignore. We have to get back to winning in the states.

Tactically, we think we are strongest and we are confident of it. Too confident, clearly. We need to get better at the use of big data, voter file platforms, social media, and online communications. And almost all of these tactical advantages have been solely geared toward winning the presidency or U.S. Senate seats. Democrats need a clear plan to continue to be at the forefront of campaign technology and communication delivery, but do so in a way that makes these tools relevant at the local and district level. We have to be smarter about how we use data. It is a critical tool, but it is not the entire toolbox. We are not as good as we think we are - but we can be better than we currently are.


Cooperation

Democrats, we need a plan for the next 20 years and it can't begin with the White House. We must break out of the cycle-to-cycle thinking that has hampered our long-term planning. We need a plan that encapsulates a strategic vision that builds at the city, county and state level; one that understands that power in Washington flows from the states and not the other way around.

Democrats, perhaps by the nature of our heterogeneous coalition, have been a classic all trees, no forest party when it has come to strategic vision. We seem always focused on the next election like it was the most important election of our lifetimes. Democrats have essentially depended on two political superstars, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for the last 35 years to lead our Party. But depending on a Cam Newton to come along every other year is not a plan.

We do this first by realizing we have to earn the voters support and, most importantly, their trust. It is not given. This applies to every voter of every demographic, class and region of the country. African-American leaders have rightly complained that the Democratic Party takes their voters for granted. We have to do more to earn the respect and the votes of African-American voters every year, every cycle. We can't expect their support; we have to earn it. The same goes for Hispanic voters, Asian voters and young voters. And the same goes for white voters of every class and education level who, as the largest voting bloc in the country, we are losing at an alarming rate.

We have allowed evidence to be presented against our candidates and our party that defines us as anti-American, anti-military, anti- police or anti-business. And we wonder why it is hard to win? We must engage in these big picture messaging frames together and begin to totally re-frame our party. It is the only way we begin to win again up and down the ticket. Patriotism, national defense, public safety, free markets matter to voters. And they matter to Democrats, but as this election has shown us Americans do not always believe that.

Our systemic challenges are the clearest - redistricting, voter rights and voting procedures. And it is around these systemic needs that we have the most consensus. Former Attorney-General Eric Holder has already formed a group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee with the help of Elisabeth Pearson at the Democratic Governor's Association, to create a long-term political and legal approach to redistricting through 2030. We need a similar approach to promote a new 21st Century Voting Rights Act and a tandem effort that focuses on the state and local level to promote both the nuts and bolts of voting and legislation that promotes access and availability. Basically, Democrats need an all-out national lobbying effort for voting.

Luckily when it comes to planning, the Democratic Party does not have to start from scratch. There are a number of good organizations focused on message development and policy like the Center for American Progress and the Truman Project. American Bridge on the research and press front. Organizations like the Democracy Alliance and the Committee on the States have focused for years on progressive infrastructure -- both tactics, messaging and systemic.

But let's be honest: we need to be more deliberate and more collaborative in our efforts. We are so busy fighting internally for a seat at the Democratic table that we have forgotten why we dove into this work to begin with. During the 2016 presidential nominating process, Democratic Party leaders spent more time talking about why the early states deserve to go first, why caucuses should stay in place, why we should have more debates, or less, when they should have been talking to the American people about our values and ideals.

Instead of this never-ending infighting, we should be working to create a party that is more transparent and less antiquated. A party that at every level - local, state and national - has easy to understand rules, transparent decision making, and uses all the tools available to drive people to participate rather than turning them off.

This is not the sole job of the Democratic National Committee. We can't win from Washington, but the DNC can play a critical leadership role in this overall project. The DNC can serve as the compass of any "Democratic Plan," ensuring that all the efforts are pointing toward true north and those efforts are fully funded. This plan should include a new organizational model built to spend the next 20 years working with state parties and state legislative caucuses to go deep down the ballot in every state. Helping every state update its by-laws and organizing structure to bring it into the 21st Century and encourage membership, not exclude it. Every state has opportunities, we have to find them, work them, and win them from the ground up.


Evolution or Extinction

Now for the upside. Hillary Clinton did win 2 million more voters than Donald Trump nationwide. We have seen bright spots in 2016 from California to New Hampshire.

Democrats know how to listen to the American people, project confidence, and win elections. Gov. John Bel Edwards did it masterfully in 2015 and has continued to project confidence leading Louisiana through crisis after crisis while protecting public education and promoting the rights of LGBT Americans. Gov. Jerry Brown has done it in California; taming a fiscal crisis and governing a state that many wrote off as ungovernable and unfixable eight years ago. Sen. Cory Booker, first as Mayor of Newark and now as a U.S. Senator, has shown the confidence to tackle the hard, intractable problems. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is doing it by showing through a controlled, but simmering anger, that never boils over but is never not there. She has the confidence to fight. Sen. Mark Warner did it first as governor and now as a Senator; leaders like Rep. Stacy Abrams in Georgia and Sen. Tammy Duckworth in Illinois are doing it. We can get this done.

We have tens of thousands committed, dedicated campaign staff and volunteers who poured their heart and soul into the 2016 campaign. Campaign staff, from every Field Organizer to state director, should have a voice in our party's future and in who leads our party next. They are the strongest of all possible foundations from which to build.

We owe the people we fight for to get this right. We owe the people who worked on Democratic campaigns, at state parties around the nation and, most importantly, people who voted for our Party to get this right. We must listen to voters, project the confidence to lead those voters, and have a plan to continue to lead well into the 21st Century.

As Charles Darwin once noted, "One path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened." Forward Democrats.