Democrats Feel Good, Now Professional Democrats Need to Mobilize Them

Lara Putnam and Micah L. Sifry made a very good point a couple of weeks ago (boldface mine):

National Democratic and progressive groups together burned through the surge of liberal organizing under Mr. Trump, treating impassioned newcomers like cash cows, gig workers and stamp machines to be exploited, not a grass-roots base to be tended. Worse, research by academics and political professionals alike suggests many of the tactics they pushed to engage voters proved ineffective.

Some may even have backfired. Millions of dollars and hours were wasted in 2018 and 2020. And yet, as the party stares down a bleak midterm landscape, with abortion rights on the line, the Democratic establishment and progressive organizations alike are doubling down on the same old tactics.

For all the conflict between mainstream Democratic and progressive leaders, most share a common way of thinking about electoral politics. To the “Beltway Brain,” as we think of it, voters are data points best engaged via atomized campaigns orchestrated from afar.

The core role of supporters is to be whipped into panicked giving by messages like this one from Nancy Pelosi on April 28: “I asked — several times. Barack Obama told you the stakes. Joe Biden made an urgent plea,” she said. “I don’t know how else to say this, so I’ll be blunt: All these top Democrats would not be sounding the alarm if our democracy wasn’t in immediate danger of falling to Republicans in this election. I need 8,371 patriots to step up before time runs out, rush $15, and help me close the fund-raising gap before the End of Month Deadline in 48 hours.”

Inside Democratic fund-raising circles, this tactic is known as “churn and burn”: a way of squeezing money out of individual donors that reliably produces brief spikes in donations but over the course of an election cycle overwhelms their willingness to keep giving. Even worse, these apocalyptic messages fuel despair. If “democracy is in the balance” and then Democrats fail to pass restorative measures, voters inevitably must wonder, why keep trying?

…A political party that has few, if any, year-round structures in place to reach voters through trusted interlocutors — and learn from how they respond — can do no more than lurch from crisis to crisis, raising money off increasingly apocalyptic emails, with dire warnings “sounding the alarm” about a democracy in “immediate danger of falling.”

Republicans, of course, also treat the news as an endless series of crises. But their calls to oppose socialism or critical race theory or transgender-inclusive bathrooms generate energy that flows into local groups that have a lasting, visible presence in their communities, such as anti-abortion networks, Christian home-schoolers, and gun clubs. Right-wing activists are encouraged to run for local office by overlapping regional, statewide and national personal networks that conservatives have built with decades of sustained investment. When not connected to such networks, Democrats receiving apocalyptic messages can feel more battered than activated, leading to demoralization and despair.

If democracy is indeed on fire, the thing to do is to stop asking people to buy water bottles and organize them into fire brigades instead. Neither the national Democratic Party nor progressive leaders seem to have learned that lesson.

A couple minor points of disagreement. This patterns goes back to the Obama administration when they demobilized rank-and-file Democrats–it did not begin in the Trump era. When these grassroots organizations are successful, that means professional Democrats will cede (some) power to them. They don’t want rank-and-file Democrats, including the moderate ones, telling them what to do: it’s their party, and we’re either customers or the help (if we give a lot of money, we get to be members).

Right now, there is a lot of energy, but where does it get directed? Other than donations, has any Democrat pointed out where you can go to help turn out the vote or engage in other political activity? While rank-and-file Democrats, regardless of ideology, likely will turn out at higher than usual numbers due to abortion (and gun violence), how does the party harness that energy into activities that capture lower-attachment voters?

And does the Democratic Party even want to do so?

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