A while ago, I asked, “What does it mean to be a Democrat?“:
Being a Democrat isn’t like joining a union. In a union, there are formal benefits, such as group negotiation, union legal representation, and so on. There are often informal benefits, such as getting help from your brothers and sisters when you face a personal crisis, such as a family tragedy, or unemployment. But what do I get for officially being a Democrat, other than a shit ton of junk snail mail and email? It makes me laugh to think that my local Democratic party is going to show up and help me when I face a crisis. From a rank-and-file perspective, the Democratic Party is an electoral brand, nothing more. Even the Democratic Socialists of America will fix your tail light for free. But Democrats?
This isn’t just a problem for Democrats, but also for Democratic-aligned (sort of, sometimes) movements (boldface mine):
Third, for gun-rights groups, the work of engaging with identity and getting people to associate rests on a choice leaders made to invest in building the capacity of ordinary people to participate — and lead — in politics. When I studied groups that were most effective at building a grass-roots base, I found that the key factor to success was the nature of the relationships they created. The most effective groups used relationships as a vehicle for bringing people off the sidelines of public life and teaching them to speak truth to power. You can’t convince someone to rethink who they are or what responsibility they want to take for their community through a mailer.
I have two young children. After Sandy Hook, I joined several gun-control organizations in a desperate effort to do something. These organizations asked me for money and sent me links for places to send emails or make phone calls. But none introduced me to anyone else in the organization or invited me to strategize about what I could do. Instead, I felt like a prop in a game under their control. I eventually asked to be taken off their lists…
Building a movement will require organizations to invest in the leadership of ordinary people by equipping them with the motivations, skills and autonomy they need to act. Most organizations never give people that opportunity.
It’s not just a matter of “investing.” To be blunt, organizations, including the Democratic Party, will have to learn to relinquish–which is to say, lose–(some) control to their rank-and-file. Otherwise, your organization is just another consumer product that can be dropped when something shinier comes along.