After a campaign season spent obsessing over divided allegiances within the Republican Party, it is now the Democrats who find themselves in an existential crisis. They lost the presidency and the Senate and trail Republicans in the House, as well as in state legislatures and governorships across the country. Worse, in the 2018 midterms, Democrats are defending 25 Senate seats, 10 of them in states that went for Donald Trump. After that, if the Dems can’t gain ground in state legislatures, the 2020 redistricting process is likely to hurt them even more.
Where did Democrats go wrong, and how can they rebuild? At this point, can they?
Roughly a month after the election, Glenn Thrush, Politico’s chief political correspondent and a senior staff writer for Politico Magazine, convened four smart observers of Democratic politics for a conversation about the future of the party. Two participants had close ties to the Clinton campaign: Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and a Clinton policy adviser, as well as Guy Cecil, who ran Priorities USA, the biggest pro-Clinton super PAC, and is president of Every Citizen Counts, a nonprofit working to boost African-American and Latino turnout. They were joined by Thomas Frank, author of the political classic What’s the Matter With Kansas? and, more recently, Listen, Liberal, about how Democratic elites lost touch, as well as Matt Barreto, professor of political science and Chicano studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions.
The group acknowledged the party’s missteps—failing to sell its message to voters feeling left behind by the economy and alienated by the government; neglecting local party organizers and unions—but also offered solutions, many of which, in a post-Clintons era, will require rebuilding the party not from the top down but from the ground up.
Glenn Thrush: On the evening of November 8, when I was sitting there and it became apparent that Secretary Clinton wasn’t going to win, I had two experiences. The first one was saying, “Holy hell. We have a different way now of thinking about the entire political universe.” And the second thought was, having covered her for 12 to 15 years was, “Oh, she’s gone now.” So not having her as a factor or having her as an encumbrance, as some people would believe, really changes the dynamics. What does a Democratic Party without Hillary Clinton look like, Neera?
Neera Tanden: I think the issue of where the Democratic Party goes is a much bigger question than the personality of one particular person or group, even as big as the Clintons. In my view, the biggest issues in this election—obviously, it was a change election. If you look at the exit polls, Hillary won all of the variables except change. But going forward, I think the challenge for the party is to answer bigger questions about political and economic reform for the country. I think Donald Trump was successful in capturing “drain the swamp, change Washington, a big screw-you to the status quo”—which has already been ironic since election night. But it was one of his big messages, and there’s a broader sense of how to address the feelings of so many people left behind by the economy. Now, I think we have to be honest if those are both economic and, in some sense, cultural senses people have. People feel left behind by a whole slew of forces in the country. Economics is definitely a part of that, but I don’t think all of it is economics. And those are important issues for us to confront.
Thrush: I had conversations with many advisers to Hillary Clinton over the course of the campaign, and in moments of candor, people would talk about the difficulty she had taking this very large set of issues and programs that she wanted to pursue and putting them in terms of a message that would resonate with a broad cross-section of people. Trump was brilliant at hitting that particular mark. In retrospect, do you think Clinton’s candidacy was an issue of messaging, or do you think it was an issue of her not addressing these issues that resonated with white working-class voters? Was it technical or was it existential?
Tanden: Well, everything feels relatively existential now. I don’t know. She talked about a higher minimum wage and infrastructure spending and shadow banking and higher taxes on the wealthy, but obviously, it didn’t pierce in the same way as, “I will get a job for you.”
Thrush: Do you think to some extent, she talked too smart? All of those things that you’re talking about are specific deliverables.
Tanden: I think, honestly, she prosecuted a case on his character, right? Mostly. She definitely talked about her economic agenda in the debates. But she seemed to prosecute a case on his character, and he prosecuted a case on her character. It’s not like he was all positive. So they both brought each other’s negatives down. But I don’t know what the answer to that question is.
Thomas Frank: Existential is a big word, Glenn Thrush. I would use the word “historical.” It’s simpler. But the Democratic Party has been changing for a long time, and by the way, this is important when you’re talking about where they’re going to go because historical changes don’t just happen on a dime. They don’t just happen overnight. But the party that I grew up with and that I remember from the 1970s—Democrats have been drifting away from that for a very long time. And Hillary Clinton—Neera is absolutely right. On paper, she looked really excellent. The things she was saying were the right things to be saying, and she wasn’t able to make that sale.
Now, Trump—he’s done one massively important thing in this race, and that was when he went against the Republican Party stance on free trade. For decades in this city, Democrats and Republicans have had this kind of consensus on the trade issues. It was Democrats that got NAFTA. It was Barack Obama that was campaigning for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was Republicans that originally negotiated NAFTA. This was a consensus arrangement, and because it was a consensus arrangement, it allowed Democrats to do things like to get NAFTA passed and then go to organized labor—who were very bitter about that and are bitter to this day when you talk to them—and say, “You’ve got nowhere else to go.” If you go back and research the Bill Clinton era, this was a very common saying in Washington in the 1990s. Trump completely changed that dynamic. All of a sudden, these people did have somewhere to go, and it was kind of a genius move. But it’s not clear that he understands what he did or that the Democrats are going to play along with it.
I don’t think that there is any sort of crisis for the Democratic Party. The Democratic candidate won by almost 3 million votes now.
Thrush: The other issue that really galvanized Trump supporters was the wall, and the issue of immigration, right? Which we can, I think, in a very polite way, describe as cultural, right? Matt, to what extent do you think that those crosscurrents really had an impact in terms of turning people out and creating this really hidden pull that we saw on Election Day, particularly in some of these exurban counties in Florida? To what extent do you think the “cultural” aspect of what Trump was doing with immigration was important?
Matt Barreto: Well, he certainly was talking about it from the first day of the campaign, sort of cultural immigration-related issues, and he was quite consistent on those issues throughout the entire campaign. If you look at the election results in these handful of states that were very, very close, it does seem that there was a higher vote for Trump in a lot of rural and exurban counties that he gained on the advantage that Mitt Romney had. Hillary Clinton got almost the exact same number that Barack Obama did in 2012, 65.9 million in the popular vote. And Trump got about 2 million votes more than Romney did in 2012. The question is where did those 2 million extra votes fall in? And it seems like they fell in from the sort of voters who were concerned about those immigration or other cultural issues that Trump was talking about.
But to go back to the start, I don’t think that there is any sort of crisis for the Democratic Party. The Democratic candidate won by almost 3 million votes now. You’re talking about a very small handful of votes in a couple of counties, and it’s very important to understand those voters. But a couple of thousand votes shift here and there, and we would have had a different outcome. The country has been very, very closely divided in presidential elections and now four of the last five, 2008 being the exception. And this is very consistent with where our country has been.
Thrush: The Clinton campaign had modeling where they needed to compensate with Latino voters in order to make up for the loss with millennials and other cohorts. But you don’t think in general that there needs to be a shift in tone or a shift in messaging on the part of the Dems? Do you think they just need to sort of have a supersized version of kind of the David Plouffe-Barack Obama 2012 model?
Barreto: Well, I think they absolutely need to understand where those additional 2 million votes that Trump got over Romney came from, and try to understand what motivated those voters and how to reach out to those voters. There’s no question that the party wants to reach more voters and to reach any voters who feel disaffected. But the Democratic candidate won, as I said, almost 3 million more votes nationally, and so to suggest that the national mood of the country was to reject Democrats and the narrative they were putting out this year—and the same thing happened on the Senate side by an even larger margin because of California—is misguided. What we have is a result of the Electoral College. And that’s fine. We agree to those rules, and I think we can go in and try to understand what’s happening in those areas—those counties in Florida and Michigan and Wisconsin that trended more heavily for Trump than they did for Romney—and find out what messages could play better there for Democrats. But I don’t think it’s a wholesale change of what the party is doing.
Tanden: I think I can split the difference between these two. It seems to me it would make a lot of sense for Democrats to try to do better with white working-class voters. Obama was negative 14 with white working-class voters, which is not so great, and Hillary did worse than that. She did a lot better with college-educated whites. So we don’t want to lose the voters she had, but there are obviously groups that she could do better with or that Democrats need to do better with. And I do think there’s an economic and political reform message that’s important for that. We have to wrestle with the fact that some of that is—I think a nice way to say it is cultural or racialized or whatever. When you look at Romney, he did not run the kind of race that Trump ran. He did not racialize the race in the same way Trump did, and so I think we have to cope with that fact. I am all for a stronger position on trade. I worried that it was Trump’s immigration position that did a lot of work for him, but I think we have to try. My view of this is that—and the Center for American Progress has written about this in the past—we need to figure out what we call the “Bobby Kennedy Coalition,” a coalition of the rising demographics of people of color, Latinos, African-Americans, but also a greater share of white working-class voters who can be united on economic issues. But we have to recognize that Trump throughout his presidency will be racializing a lot of things.
Thrush: And you believe also genderizing too?
Tanden: Yes, I think he definitely used gender against Hillary. How he does that without a foil like Hillary, I don’t know.
Thrush: One of the things when I was talking to Clinton staffers early on in the cycle was just gaming this stuff out, and the fact that Trump gave you so many targets of opportunity. He did so many outrageous things that he, to a certain extent, disoriented people. You felt like you had so much to counterattack with. And we were hearing, by the way, that Hillary wanted to really pivot to a much more positive and simple economic message in the last couple of weeks. She got knocked off that by FBI Director Jim Comey’s letter about her emails. To what extent do you think Trump distracted Clinton and Democrats at large from more acutely developing a message on economic opportunity? Did the fact that Trump was the guy you were facing screw you in terms of developing a smarter core message?
Tanden: To be honest, I think the issue here was that the gettable votes were white college votes. That was a group that was most open.
Thrush: And what were the issues that were available to get them out?
Tanden: It could be character-based issues, but I think a lot of those voters, particularly white college women and even men, were repulsed by character—the things he did on a regular basis. I wasn’t in the campaign. I’m just saying what I heard when you would say, “Why don’t we hit on some of these other issues?” But obviously, those voters bled away, so obviously that did not make super sense as a strategy.
The thing going forward is—he had very high negatives in the race. They both had high negatives in the race, and now, as president, he still has relatively high negatives for a person who’s just been elected.
Thrush: Forty percent approval, according to one poll.
Tanden: Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the vote, and at this time—different years, obviously—but 60 percent of the country was feeling good about him. And Trump is still in the 40s because he’s governing in a very different way than Bill Clinton even sounded at this point. So he’s definitely transformed politics. But I would say people don’t forget the campaign that was run. He ran a divisive campaign, where he pitted Americans against each other, and people still feel that. And part of the issue with “Stronger Together” was that people felt under attack. Hillary’s voters felt under assault.
Thrush: Guy, you’ve seen an awful lot of polling, and you were active in Senate races. In 2006, I remember, it was the stem-cell issue at Claire McCaskill’s Senate race in Missouri was used to sort of wedge the white working-class away from the more educated whites. It didn’t seem like Democrats had an issue set this time. They were stuck with personalities because they didn’t have issues.
Guy Cecil: Well, I think to say it’s “personality” probably minimalizes the character—as you put it, not how I would put it—attacks on Trump. I think to say it was “character” simplifies the argument that was being made against him in the same way that saying “character” simplifies some of the arguments being made against her.
But for the survival and the health of our party, to be able to hold a majority in the United States Senate, we cannot become a reductionist party that decides we’re going to continue to use data and analytics not to expand the universe of people we’re talking to but to shrink it down. And what I mean by that is when you look forward to 2018, we have Senate races in Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio—all states that have less diversity than the national average. And so this “either/or”—we either talk to African-Americans or Hispanics or we talk to the white working class, which is how much of the dialogue has been portrayed up until this point, in terms of the analysis of the election—is pretty defeatist.
Neera said Trump hit Hillary on character, and he, in terms of his, to the extent you can say positive message, was about economics, about getting you a job, raising your wages. And in some respects, though I obviously disagree with his approach to governing, I think if Democrats had broadly had done the same type of thing—where our argument against him was on issues around character and temperament and danger and national security, and our positive message was on jobs and wages—then that would have gone part of the way.
The other thing I would say is the issue of it being a changed electorate is not just about the change from Democrat to Republican. Yes, African-Americans supported Hillary by a large margin, but turnout was down. And yes, there were millions of people that voted for Barack Obama and then voted for Donald Trump. You can’t simply write that off as culture, although I think there’s a big part of that. To me, African-Americans in urban areas, Latinos where I grew up, in Miami, white voters in rural areas—by the way, there are a lot of African-Americans in rural areas—feel alienated by their government or don’t think their government or their country is helping them. And so it is much easier to connect and to engender trust with those voters when you are not part of the entity that they distrust. And our candidate, who I supported fiercely and thought would be a terrific president, was part of that. And their candidate wasn’t. And I think fundamentally, the reason you saw a lot of Obama-Trump voters is because Romney did engender that establishment thing in a way that Trump didn’t.
Now, there was a cliff, and there was a fall off of the cliff, but this dynamic has been happening certainly over the last 10 years, when you look at the performance of our party in many of these places. I believe our focus in terms of how you build a modern Democratic Party is not to walk away from our commitment to combating racism, not to walk away from homophobia and not to walk away from our commitment to immigration reform. It is, however, to rebuild trust with people who don’t trust the government and don’t trust the country to speak up for them.
Thrush: In the primary, the great pivot that Hillary Clinton made where she put Bernie Sanders away was in South Carolina and New York, where she racialized the argument. There was a great moment where Bernie was asked in one of the debates about the legacy of slavery and racial inequality. And he attempted to broaden it out, and Hillary Clinton said, “No, I want to talk about the specific ills of racial injustice.” So in order to win the primary, one of the things that she did was to narrow that argument down from the larger umbrella that Bernie was doing.
Cecil: I don’t view it as an either/or. I believe Bernie used it as an either/or.
Thrush: Bernie did?
Cecil: Yes. I don’t want to speak for Bernie, who I have worked with in the Senate, and I have a lot of respect for what he did in the primary. It is possible to have a compelling message that connects to working-class voters, regardless of whether you are white or black. That doesn’t negate the fact that African-Americans face a different set of circumstances or that women do. Sixty-seven percent of tipped workers in this country are women. That is an economic issue, but it is impossible to divorce the economics of tipped wages from the fact that 67 percent of women are the tipped wage earners. So my point is these are all interconnected. It is not simple enough to say it can be either/or, and to me, we should not dumb ourselves down with an endless set of polling data to come up with the 17 policy positions. We should speak from a position of moral strength and figure out a way to communicate with working-class voters, period.
Thrush: What Guy is talking about, that is where the cultural stuff comes into play. We know that the term “political correctness” is a freighted term in a lot of ways. It’s about white people in some instances not being able to say the things that they want to say, right? The NRA is a religion in parts of this country. So the question is: If you want to build what Guy is talking about—a larger message that encompasses white working-class folks, white upper-income folks, African-Americans, rebuilding this coalition, but pushing it towards the center of the country—how can you do it when you have these cultural impediments?
Frank: A lot of the really hard-core culture warriors—you’re not going to be able to win over. But a lot of the lesser committed people are just looking for a party. For the people who live in those areas and vote for Republicans, the culture wars are all they know of about politics because that’s what they hear on the radio all of the time, and that’s what the newspapers talk about all the time. There’s a lot of these people that could easily be won back to the Democratic Party and, by the way, not by the Democratic Party denying the theory of evolution or siding with the NRA or something like that, but offering them a competing message that has to do with economics, appealing to them on their class interests.
And this is what the Democratic Party obviously used to do. This is not even hard to look up. This is very recent. You look at a place like Missouri. I grew up in Kansas City. And when I was a kid, Missouri was a very Democratic state. Harry Truman is from Missouri. Dick Gephardt is from Missouri. But you look at the map now, and Trump took every county except for St. Louis, Kansas City and the college town, Columbia. And it is a wipeout for Democrats out there. You go to these small towns, and there is no Democratic presence in these places.
Thrush: I want to know what the issues are. Because it has always struck me that in the absence of a really charismatic …
Frank: Oh, can I give you an idea?
Frank: Small towns, all over America, boarded up, the businesses are all gone, the kids leave as soon as they can, the family farms are dying. OK, what do you do about that? Well, one thing that’s really easy is antitrust. You know, you start going after the agricultural monopolies. Every farmer I’ve ever met knows about these companies, and is furious about them. And those people—I mean, this is a very Republican cohort now—but, you know, you start talking about their one obsessive concern, and you might be able to win some of them over. You start going after Wal-Mart, which has destroyed the businesses in every small town in America. Do you remember when Barack Obama won Iowa over Hillary Clinton in 2008? It was a big surprise, a big shocker. And the way he did it was by promising to use the antitrust laws against agricultural monopolies, or that was one of the things that he said.
Thrush: I think there were a couple of other things, too.
Frank: Yeah, of course, but this was very important to rural voters. And he never did anything on that. And, by the way, this gets us to a larger problem. Hillary Clinton actually, as I said earlier, looked pretty good on paper on economic issues. But there was not a lot of credibility there, and one of the reasons is because you have this man in the White House who, while Hillary is out there saying, “I’m against the TPP,” and here is her president pushing it.
Thrush: I was in Iowa. You know that Barack Obama played footsie with rolling back NAFTA, too.
Frank: That’s right. Go back and look at the debate with Obama and Hillary in ’08 in Cleveland. NAFTA was the No. 1 issue. Both candidates promised to renegotiate NAFTA, and they pointed out in the debate that they didn’t need Congress to do it; the president could do it unilaterally.
Thrush: If we’re talking about an up-and-coming element of the working class in this country, we are talking about Latinos. Matt, given this sort of cultural war that is taking place and some of the incredibly intemperate things that this president-elect has said about Hispanics, how do you kind of integrate the Hispanic working class in with the white working class in a way that is politically powerful?
Barreto: Well, I think, in the communities where both are of a sufficient size to work together, you do see those coalitions. In places where you have that symbiotic relationship, where Latino and white working-class individuals are working together—whether it’s in factory industry or wherever—you do have that. Because they recognize that they have the same issues at stake, that they care about the same things—good opportunities and making a better life for their families—and that there aren’t that many differences.
Where you have the challenges are in places where the Latino population is rather small, in fact, but it’s growing. And if you look at the map and the areas where Trump did well, it’s in those pockets where there aren’t a lot of Latinos yet, but there may be some immigrants or the immigrant population may have doubled from 1 percent to 2 percent, and so it’s becoming visible. So we need to find opportunities for that integration, for people to get to know each other, to tear down those barriers between people and whatever fear and anxiety might be there in the communities, including some communities in Central Iowa.
It was very disappointing this year to see Trump attempt to play up the differences and to say that these immigrant or Latino communities or Muslim or Arab communities were not part of his core vision of America. And for many people in those rural and exurban communities in America who perhaps did not have a lot of immigrants or Muslims around them, they bought into that argument. But I’m quite hopeful when I look at a lot of these communities throughout the Southwest or even in pockets in the Southeast where the Latino population is growing, and outside of Atlanta, outside of Charlotte and other places. Where it is large enough and where it is integrated, you’re starting to see those relationships forged. I think that we need to work together to create those messages of similarity and reject any messages that attempt to divide us.
There does need to be more energy and effort, and that is done in recruiting new faces to the party.
Thrush: There are two matters of pragmatic importance for the Democratic Party, as I see it, in terms of the problem here. One is on the local political level, which the Republicans have dominated in terms of the statehouses and subsequently redistricting. The Democratic dominance of local political organizations is in the past right now. What do you think, Matt, from your experience can be done to rebuild the Democratic Party at the grass-roots level? Do you see any possibility, given the fragmentation of society, that that’s really a realistic possibility?
Barreto: There does need to be more energy and effort, and that is done in recruiting new faces to the party. And that starts at the state and local level—recruiting new candidates to be running for the state legislature, even city councils and county party structure, to get those new faces in. If you go to parts of the country, you still have an incredible mismatch between the elected representatives and what they look like and what their background is and what their experience is, and the average everyday worker and the average everyday voter. And that’s something that came up in this election, of course. Not that Trump necessarily embodied any of that; he didn’t. But he was somehow able to make that stick. We definitely need to win back these state legislatures in the next few cycles to have a say in the redistricting process. So I’d like to see more energy put into bringing in new voices, new faces, and to make the party more diverse at that local level.
Thrush: Guy, you raised close to $200 million in this cycle through Priorities USA [the main super PAC supporting Clinton]. If I’m not mistaken, the red-state redistricting project that Ed Gillespie did raised $50 million. And you could argue that it was the best $50 million that’s been spent in American politics in a very long time. What do you think needs to be done by the Democratic Party and donors in order to compete at the local level?
Cecil: Well, I think we actually have two very different states that have been very successful at doing this: Nevada and New Hampshire. Nevada elected the first Latina ever to serve in the United States Senate. They elected two new Democratic members of Congress. They’re looking at a state legislature that is Democratic. They represent two of the things that we’ve been talking about here, which is a growing Hispanic population, but also, remember, Nevada was one of the hardest hit by the ’08 crisis. They have a larger-than-national-average percentage of non-college whites, which is what everyone talks about. Yet Hillary won the state. They elected Democrats up and down the ballot in large part because they built an infrastructure there. Granted, they had Harry Reid. It helps when you have the Senate majority leader and then the minority leader fully committed to raising the money, to investing in real talent. Then, you take a state like New Hampshire, which is not an ethnically diverse state, which Hillary won, which defeated a popular incumbent Republican woman senator, and now the whole federal congressional delegation, I believe, is women.
So in some ways, you know, the purpose of the Democratic National Committee should be to decentralize our efforts and to empower local parties and local activists and state parties with the tools that they need to build robust digital operations, to give people the tools they need to organize their own areas, to speak in their own voices. Part of the way you address these challenges in a place like Ohio is not only by poll-testing a bunch of language to place on top of Ohio to run a race, but rather to empower activists to develop their own organizations to do some of that important work and to invest in the resources locally. And so none of this is magic. It’s all hard work. And we’ve allowed the fact that we’ve had a Democratic president—and, for a good portion of it, a Democratic majority in the Senate—to paper over the fact that we have not been investing on the ground in these places. We have not been investing in state parties.
Thrush: But how do you get Democratic donors to commit to building something as mundane and unsexy as party infrastructure?
Cecil: I think that there are donors that are willing to invest in this type of work, willing to invest locally. In some ways, not having the White House is going to bring many of these issues to the forefront in a way that they been allowed to be papered over, over the course of the last eight years.
You know, in 2010, I worked for Michael Bennet [the Democratic Senate candidate who won in Colorado]. We defied the odds. And then in 2014, the Democrats got swamped in the Senate. In both of those cases, the single largest funder of field activities in the Democratic Party was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; it wasn’t the DNC. It wasn’t outside infrastructure. Somehow we have to figure out a system through which we can empower local infrastructures with the resources to make good decisions, how to pool our resources together digitally to share best practices, go back to a system where we were supporting the active recruitment and training of candidates locally.
And, by the way, you see new types of candidates emerging in some of these states. I mean, Illinois has a Republican governor, prime opportunity for a pickup in 2018. New Mexico has an empty seat, but held by a Republican governor. Florida will have an empty seat held by a Republican governor. There are going to be some enormous opportunities for us to invest on the ground locally to rethink how we’re organizing. And we must rethink how we’re approaching Donald Trump. If we’re just going to do the same stuff that we’ve done with former presidents, we’ll lose.
Thrush: Trump has hijacked a lot of the issues that you, Tom, have identified as being traditional Democratic Party issues. Let’s dovetail that with this notion of rebuilding local party.
Frank: Well, he pretends to appeal on these issues. We’ll talk about that some other time. But for me the answer to all of these questions is just incredibly simple: get people to join unions again. Think about it. Unions turn people into Democrats. People get in touch with their economic interests. It’s a way of pushing back against the culture wars. It’s the exact demographic that we’re talking about. It not only turns people into Democrats when they join a union, but the more union members you have, it obviously changes the nature of the Democratic Party itself, as they have a greater voice. It’s going to change the way the party works. And they also do something about inequality. And they don’t do it from the top down. It’s not, you know, “Let’s redistribute things with taxation.” They do it via civil society, by negotiation between management and workers.
Thrush: But correct me if I’m wrong. In Ohio, for instance, you had an even split or even Hillary was underwater with trade union households as opposed to public union households.
Frank: No, that’s right. This was a very bad election. But traditionally, I mean, the union leadership are almost all still aligned with the Democratic Party. But it’s very hard to organize a union in America today, very hard. And Trump is going to come down on them like a ton of bricks.
Cecil: Look, for the last two decades the Democratic Party has been looking to unions to help build the Democratic Party. In many ways, the Democratic Party should be thinking about ways they can help rebuild unions. And then the whole paradigm needs to change.
Frank: The thing is that we had it in front of us. And the Democrats dropped the ball.
Cecil: There’s one other real-time example that’s not a Midwestern state. Despite the fact that Hillary lost and the Senate candidate lost in North Carolina, the Democrats won the governor’s race in North Carolina—by the way, in the midst of a maelstrom around a social issue that turned out—
Frank: The bathroom thing?
Cecil: Yes. And I think one of the other things besides unions, which I totally agree with, besides the infrastructure of the Democratic Party, is you look at what Reverend William Barber did down there with his Moral Monday movement. He is a civil rights leader from North Carolina who understands the connection between economics and race and identity. He has been traveling all around the country over the last six months. But, really, when he saw what was happening in the North Carolina state legislature, long before HB2 [the state bill requiring people to use bathrooms based on their biological gender at birth]—when they were gutting funding for college public education, when they were gutting funding for the state university system, when they were refusing federal dollars for expansion of different projects, when they were really moving away from sort of the moderate approach that North Carolina had become known for compared to the rest of the South—he built a coalition of people that every Monday showed up. Sometimes it might be 100 people; sometimes there might be 50 people; sometimes there might be 1,000 people who consistently brought attention to these issues and organized across identity, organized across interest group. He didn’t do it alone. It wasn’t the sole reason. Yes, we need unions; yes, we need party establishment people, but we need local people; we need progressive religious leaders; we need others who are standing up and doing this type of work in all of these states and, frankly, doing the work here in D.C.
Thrush: Matt, one of the things that struck me as one of the few really great Democratic organizing tools was OFA—used to be Obama for America, now Organizing for America. It did not turn out to be the great game changer that it was billed to necessarily be. But one area where it was tremendously effective was Affordable Care Act registration in a lot of Latino communities and African-American communities. And a lot of those organizers went on to become effective political organizers, or they perhaps were to begin with. To what extent is that kind of organizing around ACA and around immigration issues in the Latino community a potential seed for effective political organizing?
Barreto: Oh, certainly. I think over the last 10 years, really since the 2006 immigration rallies and marches in the spring of ’06, you’ve seen a rebirth of mobilization and grass-roots organizing in the Latino community. And out of that have come the Dreamers, have come many other advocates, not only for immigration but for health care and many other issues in the Latino community.
Now, what we need to do is to get them integrated into the Democratic Party, into the political system. They have an important role as organizers, as grass-roots activists in protest and demonstration. And that needs to continue, certainly, over the next four years. But we also want to see those groups brought into campaigns, into elected officials’ offices. And I think you’re going to see that. There certainly are more and more people. The party has been talking about increasing the diversity of its staff and vendors and everything down the line. And now is the time to hold them accountable and to see if that happens.
If you look at places in the campaign that were the most diverse—Nevada and Colorado had the most diverse staffs from top to bottom on the Clinton campaign. Both states had Latino political directors who were not in charge of Latino outreach; they were in charge of the entire state of Colorado and the entire state of Nevada. And they hired very diverse staffs. And they relied on a lot of these local talent, people who had been organizing. And those were bright spots for the Democratic Party. So I think the more that we can integrate these folks, these movements, they can help bring along other people like them; they can help reach out to new voices, those new people they signed up for health care or people who they helped register for naturalization. And we can turn those people into voters.
Thrush: Who do you want to see as DNC chair, and what do you want to see the DNC be over the next couple of years?
Frank: Come on. That’s not what I write about. I’m a historian. (Laughter.) It should be Keith Ellison, and I don’t know what they should do. They have an enormous, enormous task in front of them. Enormous. I mean, they’re wiped out as a party across the country. They have to start over.
Cecil: I have no preference in terms of chairs. I think there could be other candidates that get in the race. The thing that is encouraging is that all three candidates, Jaime Harrison, Ray Buckley and Keith Ellison, are all talking about rebuilding from the ground up, are all talking about revitalizing things like recruitment and training, empowering state parties, helping rebuild infrastructure, and have done so. The role of the party chair is fundamentally different when you have the president of the same party versus the president of the opposing party. And so it’s going to be an incredibly important job.
Barreto: Of the folks I’ve seen out there, I think Jaime Harrison represents a lot of the future. You’ve got a young person here who has good state experience, wonderful endorsements from Congressman James Clyburn and could get at the diversity in a changing America. So I’d like to see someone like that. I think Harrison would be a very strong pick to lead the party and, you know, to get a new vision and some new blood, so to speak.
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