The Democratic Party has for far too long neglected local and state politics. Now, having given the pursuit of the presidency primacy over grassroots organizing — having chosen a top-down approach rather than a bottom-up approach — the party is virtually powerless at all levels.
"In addition to facing full GOP control in Washington," observes the political scientist Theda Skocpol, "Democrats currently hold only 18 of 50 governorships and 31 out of 99 state legislative chambers."
After years of watching passively as the losses mounted, and after years of outright denial, some party leaders are finally beginning to grasp the implications of the current state of affairs. President Obama, who has accepted some of the blame for the Democratic Party's recent defeats, has, in the days before he is set to leave office, placed special emphasis on the significance of organizing at the local and state levels.
In an interview with NPR last month, he noted the gravity of the question: "how do we do more of that ground-up building?"
Others, though, have been less willing to concede that a change of direction is necessary.
"I don't think the Democratic Party is in that big of trouble," said former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid in December. This sentiment was echoed by California Democrat and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In an interview with CBS's John Dickerson, Pelosi remarked, "I don't think people want a new direction."
Though this may be the prevailing sentiment among Democratic partisans, who seem to believe that there are no significant lessons to be learned from 2016, many of Pelosi's fellow Californians feel rather differently — and they are finding ways to voice their disagreements.
Over the weekend, thousands endured a bout of unfriendly weather to vote in their state's Assembly District Election Meetings, oft-neglected elections that determine who will serve as delegates to the party's yearly state convention, elect party officers, and represent their communities in the process of shaping the party's platform.
"After months of organizing and forming 'slates' of candidates, former Sanders delegates, union members, and volunteers have turned the enthusiasm sparked by the Vermont senator's national campaign into victories at the local level."
In counties across the state, from San Luis Obispo to Sacramento, observers noted an unprecedented surge in activity. Where there are typically dozens of participants there were hundreds; extra ballots had to be printed to accommodate the turnout.
"I was in San Luis Obispo where veterans told me usually these elections might have 50 or so people come out," Jonathan Tasini, a Bernie Sanders surrogate and long-time activist, told me in an email. "There were over 700 people who voted, cars lined the streets as far as the eye could see, the line looped around the union building where the caucus was held and people stood in the rain (in California!) to wait to vote sometimes for maybe an hour."
The uniquely high turnout, Tasini noted, was "directly related to Bernie people organizing."
Throughout his insurgent presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders argued forcefully that single-minded runs for the presidency are not sufficient — that there must be a grassroots "political revolution" accompanying any national objectives, and that this revolution must not merely adhere to a pattern of brief mobilization followed by apathy; political movements cannot succeed, he argued, if their activities are restricted by the peaks and valleys of our "quadrennial extravaganzas."
Sanders supporters and progressive activists have taken this view to heart. After months of organizing and forming "slates" of candidates, former Sanders delegates, union members, and volunteers have turned the enthusiasm sparked by the Vermont senator's national campaign into victories at the local level — including clean sweeps in many districts — with the ultimate goal of taking over the state party.
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"Quite simply, the old guard didn't expect to be so thoroughly out-organized, and it cost them big time," notes Ryan Skolnick, who was elected as a delegate over the weekend. "There were around 1100 or so delegate spots...over 600 of them were taken by Bernie Sanders supporters and progressive activists."
Though such local elections are rarely covered in the mainstream press, the work of activists and organizers in California did not go entirely unnoticed; Sanders applauded their victories in his recent CNN town hall. Also, Our Revolution, the organization set up by Sanders backers and volunteers last year, "sent more than 110,000 emails and 40,000 peer-to-peer text messages in January in an effort to mobilize Democratic voters for California's local elections."
But the groundwork for the remarkably successful weekend was ultimately laid not by a prominent political figure or by an influential organization, but by tireless local progressives driven by a desire for systemic change.
"Our Revolution did a great job helping us to get the word out, but we also had to go door to door, make printed materials, Facebook events, ads, websites and we reached out to the progressive groups we're involved with," Jon Schnitzer, who was elected as both a delegate and an Executive Board member in his district, told me. "Bernie brought us all together and we stayed together. Bernie told us at the DNC we need to run for low level offices because change only comes from the bottom up. And he was right, we're proof."
This bottom-up approach serves as a marked and refreshing contrast to the "fortress liberalism" of much of the Democratic establishment — embodied, most starkly, by the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.
As numerous post-election reports indicated, cries for help from local organizers in several battleground states were ignored by Clinton operatives who were convinced that their statistical "model" would carry them to victory.
"The populace is awake, once again encouraged to understand their power and use it." —Zenaida Huerta
The model, though, was abstract and detached, and these attributes seemed to seep into the psyches of the model's peddlers, who themselves became as disassociated with the facts on the ground as the numbers in which they placed their trust.
But far from discouraging progressive activists, the incompetence of the Democratic Party, along with the ascendance of a bigoted demagogue like Donald Trump, has spurred a unique sense of urgency; anger at the election results has morphed not into despondency, but into concrete political action. And when such action produces results, as it did over the weekend, momentum follows.
"We have a long way to get there," says Zenaida Huerta, a delegate from California's Assembly District 57, "but I feel hopeful for the future." Mary Yoon, a former Sanders delegate and an organizer with Our Revolution, agrees, noting that the weekend's results demonstrate "that the populace is awake, once again encouraged to understand their power and use it."
Outside of Democratic strongholds like California, though, progressives will undoubtedly face more daunting opposition. In states like Kentucky, where conservatives are moving swiftly to consolidate power and to dismantle the opposition (organized labor, specifically), the objectives that animated the Sanders presidential campaign — from single-payer health care to free public college tuition to higher taxes on the wealthiest to a higher minimum wage — seem particularly far off.
But though the obstacles may become taller, and the opposition fiercer, the formula for success remains the same.
"Bernie always said when progressives show up, we win. In just a few months of organizing, Berniecrats and progressives swept hundreds of the party committee seats in California," Tasini told me. "This is the precise manifestation of what we call 'the political revolution.' It's happening, it's unstoppable if people continue to organize — in every state."