Flashback: A Personal Journey

Part Two of a Four-Part series, originally written and published in September 2010 during the sweet, sad, waning days of Democrats’ last Congressional majority. What a journey it was from 2003, and what a trip since then.

The Angry Left: A Look Back at a Personal Journey

I’ve already offered a 50,000-foot view of the road to here for some of the angry left — the road taken by some of us who were progressives as we sought to wrest the country away from conservatives during the first term of the Bush administration.

I’ll share now is a more personal view of the last seven years on this road; what follows documents my experience from 2002-2005.

In 2002 I began blogging; I was disgusted by what had happened during the 2000 election, horrified by the events of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks resulting in curtailed rights and abuses, frustrated by the turn of the 2002 mid-terms, and fearful of the mounting pressure to go to an ill-advised and illegal war in Iraq. Except for the blogging part, many of us have traveled these events and emotions together. Blogging gave me an outlet I needed to vent about them.

I found while blogging that there were other folks who were just as frustrated and looking for solutions — like Markos Moulitsas and the folks at MoveOn and a host of other voices on the left. And I learned about Meetup.com, used to organize supporters by the new presidential campaign by a governor out of Vermont. The more I learned about the governor, the more I felt I needed to take the plunge and do something I’d never done before. I was going to meet complete strangers in person and see if I could do something to help Gov. Howard Dean become president, and change the course of the country.

This was completely out of my comfort zone. I’m a privacy freak and meeting strange people with whom I had little but a single idea in common was disconcerting. But I was so bloody angry and frustrated I couldn’t stay at home and do nothing. After signing up in Meetup and watching as things unfolded for a few weeks, I sucked it up and attended my first Meetup in late summer of 2003.

Everyone else at the event seemed as uncomfortably new at this as I was, which was a relief. And we were all of us very angry about the direction our country was headed. It was refreshing to be able to talk out loud with people who felt the same way I did. The person who launched the Meetup site and organized the event was a natural leader; after talking for an hour we were all committed to doing this again and doing more.

Over the course of the next several months we met more and more often, working on tasks together like writing letters to potential voters in other states. We felt more bonded as we worked together, had become an entity with a life of its own. We began to feel more joy than anger as we worked together, believing finally that yes, we did indeed have the power to take our country back.

As we neared the date of the primary, the Dean for America campaign sent organizers to work in our region. They were fresh-faced college boys that a volunteer offered to put up in his home for the couple of months they were going to work in our area. They began to assume leadership of our group; our assignments became more complicated, like trying to inveigle ourselves into local call-in radio programs and writing letters to the editors of multiple news organizations to plug key events.

But it became clear none of us knew what we were doing — not even these kids sent by the campaign. We needed lists of voters who were likely to lean left, tended to vote Democratically. Who had these across a three-county area? How would we get a list of all voters from the county clerk, if this was even possible? Who were the key contacts in the local Democratic Party that would provide us with an assist?

Hell…there wasn’t even a phone number or a website for the Dem Party in my county. As far as I could tell they didn’t want to be found.

When I did finally locate folks, they acted like they’d never heard of Howard Dean. They wouldn’t return phone calls; they acted like I was an alien from outer space when I asked questions about finding information we needed to organize and get out the vote. A neighboring county was written off altogether because we never found anybody who identified as a Democratic Party member there at all. The other county in the region was clearly sewn up by union folks who wanted either Gephardt or Kerry depending on which union they were affiliated with. They were polite but not particularly helpful.

Primary Day came; I remember working a particular polling place, my car covered with Dean signs and standing in the freezing cold handing out cookies I’d just baked to voters asking them to vote for Dean. At one point I was asked by a local party member if I could provide a ride for an elderly gentleman who lived at a nursing care facility. I discovered on arrival at the facility that he was a priest well into his 80s; I spent the next 20 minutes during our ride talking about the relative merits of John Kerry and Howard Dean, hoping I could persuade this one voter. It wasn’t until I dropped him off at the polling place that I discovered the gent was a civil rights activist who was very well-known in the area and actually knew Kerry. So much for that vote.

And of course Dean lost the primary. We tried to rally on until he dropped out of the race, members gradually starting to peel away now that the impetus was gone. At some point later in the summer Democracy for America began to form nebulously; as DFA firmed up, I decided I become an organizer for a local chapter, hosting a Meetup once a month.

(All these years later we still meet once a month.)

So what did I learn on this portion of the road?

— A substantive number of progressives who came together united by a few common issues were naive about politics, both local and national. They were united in their passions about key issues, but struggled to discuss local and state politics and how those were related to national races and their issues. They could be delaminated from the effort by fall outs over their personal passions.

— We knew little about the nuts and bolts of democratic process; most of us assumed that one just showed up and voted and that was it. We were rather clueless about the workings of local clerks’ offices and the secretary of state’s office. We assumed folks at national HQ were handling all the campaign finance filings and therefore learned nothing about them.

— We had not a clue in the world about the operations of the parties, whether Democratic or Republican or other. The Democratic Party had been on automatic pilot for years, making it harder for new activists to connect with it.

— Institutional knowledge would vaporize from election to election. There might be a handful of folks in a county that knew everything about the political and democratic process, but God help you if one of them died between now and the next election. There were a larger number of people who possessed pockets of specialized knowledge, but they frequently didn’t share information out of some misguided sense of ownership or need to be a gatekeeper.

— Learning the rules and the limits has taken years; they aren’t in any one place, they often aren’t written or accessible, and just when you think you’ve got it figured out, some fresh hell will pop up.

— And the media. They were opaque and they were biased and they sucked — same then as today, except we had very few skills to manage media.

— Skill sets across the loosely-knit organization were not identified and the information not well shared. If the organization needed a network or a website set up immediately, who to call? Good luck with rapid response.

— Don’t even get me started on relationships. What a nightmare; between juggling advocacy groups and unions and political factions, local party and state party apparatus, it’s a wonder anything gets done. And ego — oh my God, the egos.

— Robert’s fucking rules of order. Need I say more? Yes? I can think of an organization which split in two simply because of Robert’s rules of order.

But during this time I made lifelong, steadfast friends I’ll cherish forever, people I would die for. They made slogging through what seemed like constant head-butting bearable. Who couldn’t use a few more progressive friends to share a beer with when things get really rough?

And they did get rough. I’ll discuss that in the next post.
Part Three of this series will post tomorrow.

7 replies
  1. Rayne says:

    Six years later:

    — Some progressives are still naive. Still too trusting, still too unable to transcend a single issue. Still too eager to grab a knife when heading into battle against those armed with automatic weapons, figuratively speaking.

    — Local party is now much savvier but what about the rest of the country after the 50-State Strategy was yanked? Especially under ineffective leadership like Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I have my doubts.

    — Institutional knowledge is still spotty and stuck in silos.

    — In some ways, media improved; access is easier given social media. At the same time it’s worse, damaged by the paradigm shift from print to digital business models, now undermined by fake media combined with users reaching info-overload.

    — Still need more parliamentarians to guide formal meetings with Robert’s rules of order.

    And now some bad news: I dropped out of certain groups because of a growing insistence on groupthink combined with complacency. No government is perfect; it must be open to criticism to allow for improvement. Its politically-aligned supporters must understand that one can be both loyal and in opposition at the same time. I still have some friends I will cherish forever from this process. We’re going to need each other badly as we enter the dark ahead.

  2. lefty665 says:

    Your tale of Dem disorganization and ineffectiveness combined with newbies parachuting in with little practical political experience sure rings true.

    The state of the local Democratic Party in many places is a shock isn’t it? That to me is the really frightening part of the neglect the Dems have shown to state and local parties (and unions) since at least ’92. There is a lot to learn, and then when you’ve learned that you’ve discovered what else you need to learn. At least that’s the way it worked for us.

    In late ’02 we were fortunate in helping to revive a County party that had disbanded.  The state party recruited several old hands as a core and a few of us showed up when they sent out a mailing about an initial meeting. One had served a couple of terms in Congress, another’s brother was the Country Registrar, and a third had been part of the Dem structure for nearly 50 years.

    I had geographic roots near her (the third) childhood home in the next county as well as being a long time supporter of a lifelong friend of hers in the State lege.  We hit it off with her, she took my wife under her wing and became her mentor. In addition to encyclopedic knowledge of how the State party worked, and where the bodies were buried, she greased the skids for my wife to replace her on the state party central committee.  She died close to a decade ago. We still miss her quick wit, keen political eye and bottomless well of Virginia political knowledge. The Registrar’s brother provided chapter and verse on the voting process. The ex-congressman was very bright, but didn’t like the State party at all, they’d helped redistrict him out of his seat. Any time someone suggested asking the state party for something he’d respond “F**ck those SOBs, anything we do we’re better off doing ourselves. And we would, good, bad or indifferent. He’s gone too, scary how time moves on.

    Well meaning but downtrodden folks started showing up for meetings. What most wanted to do was drink coffee and eat donuts on a Saturday morning and bitch about how there weren’t any Democrats in the County and variations on “Oh ain’t it awful”.  After several rounds of caffeine and sugar the conversations would get pretty vigorous, but not very productive. I think folks felt better afterwards.

    Just as you found, it was a hard process. Virginia has off year elections, initiated initially long ago by the then Democratic political machine to keep Federal election voters from mucking things up, and to not show cooperation with yankees. Now it is useful mostly to the Repubs, a lesson in be careful what you wish for. We fielded no candidates locally in ’03 (one reason the Repubs held every local elected office, you can’t beat even the worst jerk with no one). In ’04 we worked our butts off, became acquainted with the Combined State/National campaign and watched Kerry single handedly  convince the country they’d prefer (another) four years of someone they didn’t like. Humm, sounds a lot like a couple of weeks ago.  OTOH, it gave us the experience we needed to be ready for ’08 and to play our part in helping to turn Virginia Blue for the first time since ’64.

    Sounds like our local party experiences were different children of the same dysfunctional mother.  Nice stuff Rayne. It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.

    I’m looking forward to part 3. Trust you’ve got some ideas about going forward.

  3. pdaly says:

    Thanks, Rayne. Enjoying you series.

    Has there been any development in “un-silo-ing” the important information for organizing and running a campaign? My first thought is creating a wikipedia stub to which helpful pearls of wisdom can accumulate and active links to relevant websites (like emptywheel.net !) could be appended.

    • lefty665 says:

      That would help. But, that’s part of what the campaigns are supposed to be providing with the folks they send. Sounds like Dean sent people who were as clueless as the folks they were parachuting in with.  When the Obama folks showed up in ’08 they were checked out, knew what they wanted and how to get it. In many cases they bypassed the local Party which caused a certain amount of friction. The 50 state effort in ’08 also sent folks who were generally well checked out, at least in our area.

      The Party is supposed to be neutral during the primaries, exactly the reverse of what we had this year.  As participating Dems, we were Edwards delegates to the State primary convention in ’04. His positions were arguably better than Dean’s and his profound creepiness was shrouded in the mists of the future, but his hair was too pretty. In retrospect that may have been a warning. The Party would not provide us voter lists or anything beyond general primary information. In an area like ours, 75% Repub, using County registered voter lists meant a GOTV effort, phone banking and canvassing primarily, would hit 3 Repubs for every 1 Dem. That is not a successful ratio.

      Rayne’s put together a good series so far. I’m looking forward to seeing the next installments.

      • Rayne says:

        Your one reply this thread:

        The Party is supposed to be neutral, but it also must focus resources effectively. I’ll say from the outset of this comment as I have before that I think Wasserman Schultz was a crap leader for the DNC. But she’s also bound by some institutional challenges — like a decades-long Democrat who has already held elected and appointed offices as a Democrat, run in presidential primaries as a Democrat and placed a strong second place, versus a candidate who identified as an Independent until 2015. Allowing anyone who simply showed up at the beginning of an election season to claim they were a Democrat to obtain party resources could pose a threat to future races.

        Imagine in 2019 if Evan McMullin showed up, claiming he was now a Democrat, wanting to run as as a Democratic presidential candidate. Or gods help us all, Joe fucking Lieberman coming back after leaving the Senate as an Independent, claiming he was a Democratic presidential candidate.

        Considering the circumstances, Sanders did pretty damned well. He’s also returned to the Senate as an Independent. How should the Democratic Party treat him, regardless of who is DNC chair, if he does not help build the Democratic Party between now and 2019, but then chooses to run as a Democratic candidate again?

        If we want a truly effective Democratic Party with both the critical mass, ample resources, and political clout to beat down a GOP representing 49% of voters, fragmentation will not help.

        • lefty665 says:

          You’re absolutely right on Wasserman-Schultz.  It was telling that she stepped from being fired from the DNC for corrupting the primary process directly into Hillary’s campaign.

          Sanders may have returned to the Senate as an Independent, but he’s doing more than caucusing with the Dems. Schumer has created a leadership position for him, outreach. As with Warren it’s a fig leaf to co-opt him.  Sanders, Trump and Clinton were too old this year. The idea of Sanders running again at 77 is laughable.

          Fragmentation will not help, but you miss the core of the problem, the neolib, elite, Wall Street, fat cat, corrupt Dems have no connection to voters. Even with unity and resources, they will not beat the GOP. That was the message a couple of weeks ago. A powerful Democratic party is worse than useless if it has no vision and its mission is, as it has been, simply to beat the GOP and to preserve the status quo.

          “Your one reply this thread” Bwawk, bwawk, chicken.

          This group of postings has been great. I am looking forward to Part 4, and being able to support it as I have the first three sections. I hope it can have some impact on the conversation about how the Dems reform and go forward from here.


    • Rayne says:

      There are several different attempts at un-silo-ing historic information, organization and operational information. The challenges:

      1) Unlike the right-wing, the left does not have umbrella organizations which ensure those who identify with its ideologies are encouraged to work together and in the same direction; the right, whether they want to admit it openly or not, has co-opted Christian churches as well as its dominant political party to assure everyone on the right rows together in the same direction.

      2) There is a tendency toward open, flat organizations which encourages infiltration, co-option, and disruption. I am certain (as are others I know) we have been infiltrated locally at least once to determine what we were doing to organize. This leaves the left exposed to agents provocateurs who can and will sabotage its efforts.

      The problem with using a wiki stub is the same as with other open and flat structures. It’s at risk for misuse in some way if every Tom, Dick, and Harry can get to it. I know of one organization which is working on a comprehensive collection based on a subscription plan — I think this is a pretty good model as it ensures the users are invested and vetted, and it distributes the cost of the plan’s work to those who use it.

      And of course sites like emptywheel do gather and publish information necessary to the left — including my series — even if it isn’t necessarily comprehensive.

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