Photo: Andy Brunner via unsplash

10 Years of emptywheel: Many Happy Rabbit Holes

Wow, it’s been ten years! Time sure flies when you’re having fun — and yes, some of us have a rather perverse sense of amusement, editors, contributors, and readers alike.

I’ve always enjoyed falling into yawning ‘rabbit holes’ begging for investigation. It’s often as frustrating as chasing an actual zippy white rabbit, the target evading capture. But following the trail, finding new leads, seeing the prey so far and so near — it can be exhilarating. Or it can be incredibly exasperating. No two investigative searches are ever the same, and emptywheel has offered some intense and heady chases over its ten years here.

Unlike the rest of my fellows here at emptywheel, I don’t have a Top 10 favorite posts. I do have three things which I am happy I had a chance to post here — my four-part series for The Angry Left, the timeline on Flint’s Water Crisis, and the post I wrote this past spring on WannaCry.

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The Angry Left series was originally posted at Firedoglake but it needed to be revisited; it needs revisiting again even now as we work toward a revitalization of civics during resistance. Many new political groups have emerged, operating in parallel with the existing political parties. Their members need institutional knowledge from past organizing efforts to avoid making the mistakes of the past to become a more effective political force.

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Flint’s Water Crisis timeline isn’t complete and remains a work in progress; there are a number of pieces still needed, and much of them come from this site’s community members who offered them in comments (I’m looking at you, harpie, especially — thank you). But even in its current condition, the timeline demands answers: what city and state officials were involved in the key decision on the night before the cutover, when Detroit’s water system made a last-ditch offer by email with a rate cheaper than the new Karegnondi pipeline’s water? Why was a pipeline to Saginaw, ~30 miles north, never suggested or evaluated, instead of the ~60-mile-long Karegnondi? How many Flint-originated cases of Legionnaires’ disease actually affected the state of Michigan besides the 12 known deaths in 2014-2015?

A new question emerged recently: why does Michigan’s attorney general Bill Schuette think he stands a chance as a gubernatorial candidate after failing to hold Governor Rick Snyder and his office accountable for the poisoning of an entire city, let alone failing to protect their interests before the poisoning began? Why has the state failed residential property owners in Flint after their property values crashed thanks to Snyder’s crappy governance?

The timeline was personal, too; my oldest adult child lived in Flint during the first two years of the water crisis, suffering a number of unusual health problems after the city’s water supply was cut over to the Flint River. We don’t know if or when health risks from exposure will end, for my eldest or the hundreds of children and their families who lived and continue to live in Flint.

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This WannaCry post still haunts me; there are open questions which beg for answers, threats still hanging over head — this is one of the rabbits which has slipped away yet teases me to this day.

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What do you think was the best of this ten years of emptywheel? Share your favorites in comments; we’d love to hear what you’ve found most interesting, educational, worthwhile.

And if you can afford it, please chip in to help keep the work you enjoy at emptywheel as independent as it has been this last ten years. We don’t take advertising dollars; this is a labor of love for our team of contributors. But bandwidth, server space, software maintenance and development cost money, and the more important our work is, the more likely it is to need more bandwidth and additional security to keep our work online, uninterrupted.

Thank you for making this ten years so worthwhile. We hope we’ll continue to see you in comments into the future at emptywheel.

Flashback: The Road Ahead

Last of a four-part series. In this piece I’d laid out what needed to be done in a local organization which was, well, not organized. This is equally applicable for any other political party if any Greens, Pirates, Libertarians, etc. want to make a credible attempt down the road to local party development.

The Angry Left: A Starter Map for the Road Ahead

I’ve already published a 50,000 foot view, a personal look back, and a personal account of getting to this point in the rather bumpy road.

And now here’s a “road map” used along the way, stripped down for use by any local Democratic Party, third party entity or activist organization wanting to start their own journey.

Shortly after I took Howard Dean’s recommendation to heart and joined the local Democratic Party in order to change the system, I read the work of another progressive activist in Maine. They were kind enough to share a basic plan they were using to turn around their local party, based on a plan yet another had used in different state. I guess you could say this is a very old meme which I’m willing to spread around.

It was this same plan, customized for our county, which initially was welcomed by the local party, and which they began to push back against as too radical, too aggressive, and a bunch of other not particularly nice adjectives and adverbs to boot depending on which faction one belonged to in the party.

These goals are the kinds of things that every local party organization should consider carefully as a goal, even if not realizable now. One example is a local office: if you live in BumFrick, North Dakota, you may not have the means to have a permanent office, let alone the traffic to warrant one. Table it for the future in case things change, but it’s probably the very last goal your group needs to be concerned with. But if you live in a much more populous area of the country, setting up a permanent office may be one of the key and early objectives to establishing a brand identity in the mind of the voting public in your locale. A permanent office tells voters the organization is serious, not a fly-by-night, it’s going to be there to serve voters; it’s hard to put a price on that. If you build it, they will come.

Take a look at these and evaluate the circumstances in your county or parish; which ones will work inside the first year? Which ones are most critical? What kinds of numbers in terms of quantity you think belong in such a document for your area?

And how many people can you muster up to do this work, now, and year after year?  . . .


Communications Groups:

  • Fully develop communications groups, both at the city/township and County levels.
  • Develop strategies to cover properly the issues, media and frequency needed to be most effective.
  • Plan the strategy for the campaign re: supporting specific candidates.
  • Contribute articles and support to the [Group Name] newsletter.

Voter Lists:

  • Maintain lists for County, and city/towns/townships/villages in adjoining counties (for our dual-county candidates), at the County level with the commitment to provide key data elements to the State Data Base.
  • Add voter histories whenever elections occur.
  • Completely update voter lists for all County and non-county municipalities by January 1 of the next year.

Absentee (Early) Voting:

  • Continue to develop a process that includes City/Township Clerks.
  • Insure the presence of sufficient Notaries on Election Day (where applicable).
  • Include an “early voting” question in our Voter ID scripts (where applicable).
  • Continue to strengthen our process for tracking applications and resulting early votes (where applicable).
  • Start our planning earlier to insure a strong early voting program (where applicable).
  • Better training for our Voter ID callers to insure proper emphasis on “early voting” (where applicable).

Candidate Development:

  • Strengthen the Candidate Development and Support Subcommittee.
  • Survey all 20X0, 20X1 and 20X2 municipal, county and State office openings to determine the offices we need to focus on.
  • Define attributes of desirable candidates.
  • Develop a list of potential progressive candidates in the County.
  • Use all potential contacts to find potential candidates and screen to find most qualified.
  • Help potential candidates get exposure and experience.

Candidate Support:

  • Develop training session for new candidates.
  • Develop candidate orientation and training program.
  • Train and mentor all candidates, especially new candidates.
  • Provide candidates with advice regarding the recommended campaign organization and offer help to create the needed organization.
  • Increase efforts to communicate County support capabilities to candidates.
  • Provide Voter ID calling results as soon as available, especially undecided voters.
  • Have town sign captains and a County coordinator to handle candidate sign distribution, maintenance and retrieval.
  • Provide volunteers from County list to candidates to support all desired activities – literature distribution, drive candidates around, canvassing on behalf of the candidate, persuasion calling and canvassing, etc.
  • Provide “walking around” lists when needed for previous tasks.
  • Do preliminary research like a district profile.
  • Provide forums, house parties and fundraising events for each candidate.

Voter ID Calling:

  • Using the HQ phone bank and municipality quasi-phone banking, make Voter ID calls (including all candidates and all parties) during the period from August 1st (or date immediately following primary) to September 15th. Include a volunteer question and an early voting question. An estimated [XX,000] calls will be needed to achieve at least a X0% hit rate on our list of phone numbers in each town.
  • Improve phone caller training.
  • Provide data to candidates ASAP.

Volunteer (or member) recruiting:

  • Recruit XX,000 volunteers over the course of the next two years.
  • Recruit and train a volunteer coordinator and volunteer coordinator assistants.
  • Develop more “key” volunteers who can run HQ on their own to enhance the effectiveness of current leadership.


  • Develop canvassing teams in each town able to do literature drops, informational canvassing, persuasion canvassing and candidate support.
  • Over the next two years, have these teams visit each voter at least three times and hopefully more, to insure the accuracy of our lists and knowledge about town voters.

Persuasion Calling and Canvassing:

  • During the period from September 15th until October 25th pre-election, provide persuasion work for any candidate desiring support.
  • Use canvassing teams and phone bank capabilities already developed.
  • Do extensive training in persuasion techniques during the next two years.


  • Utilize town GOTV captains to coordinate GOTV calling during the week leading up to the election, recruit poll watching teams, recruit poll runners, sign up drivers, and oversee the GOTV activities.
  • Develop a list of lawyers who will be available to assist during that period, especially on Election Day.
  • Establish the procedures for interface with towns regarding poll watching and early voting early in the process so there are no misunderstandings.
  • Prepare detailed calling sheets including all 1’s and 2’s (1-Identified as supporter and 2-Identified as a leaning supporter).
  • Prepare detailed poll watching sheets for Election Day.


  • Develop an approach to a County Database.
  • Develop the County website and publicize effectively.
  • Expand the County and municipality email lists, automate sign-up and sign-off and utilize email and social media communications more fully.

Events Calendar:

  • Recruit municipality coordinators who will keep coordinator informed regarding upcoming events in their city/township/town/village.
  • Establish a County coordinator who will insure that event information is put on our web site and communicated to all our candidates.

Community Outreach and Issues Development:

  • Establish and invigorate an Issues Subcommittee.
  • Develop a strong message/vision statement.
  • Help candidates develop their own message to the voters.
  • Call on High Schools to reach future voters.
  • Develop special events.
  • Develop more media contacts/opportunities.
  • Nurture strong town leadership.
  • Host forums for candidates.
  • Host issue-based house parties/forums.

Municipality (City/Township/Town/Village) Committees:

  • Insure that every municipality has a functioning committee with strong leadership.
  • Conduct education-training session with each municipality committee individually (e.g., Wellstone) as many times as necessary to support their development.
  • Expand the regional municipality committee meetings throughout the County to insure proper coordination in Headquarters.
  • Year-round presence – A headquarters office with volunteer staff open 2-3 days per week for part (ex: 1pm to 6pm) of the day with staff and open other times as needs become clear.
  • A campaign office which ideally will be open for 5 months (Mid-June to Mid-November) in campaign years – 7 days per week, 12 hours each day (8:30am to 8:30pm).


  • Raise a total of [$XXX,000] over the two-year cycle, [$XXX,000] to finance the off-year and [$XXX,000] for the election year. Be realistic with this plan. [NOTE: If this is a new organization, be sure to research and establish legal entities according to local, state and federal regulations. All fundraising must be compliant with local/state/federal laws.]

Issues Forums:

  • Have an issues forum in each municipality or grouping of municipalities to develop “What it means to be a [Group Member]” and the “Three Principles that will be our message for 20XX”. Have a County process to create a consensus document.
  • Have regular monthly issues meetings around the County.
  • Have an issues portion of the monthly [Group Name] meeting.

So there you have it, a general template “road map” to building your activist organization should you choose to accept it. There are a few items which aren’t included in this list of objectives; they’re what we might call “advanced activism” and the kind of thing we’d consider “proprietary knowledge” unique to the locale and to the organization. Once you get a handle on this map and begin to make some traction on the items, you’ll soon figure out what the “advanced activism” components are for your area.

Oh, and for those of you hungering and yearning badly for a third party: Get going. I can’t make it any easier for you short of spoon feeding while holding your hand.

I’m too damned busy to do that for you.
And that’s it for this series. I sure hope we continue to have a representative democracy for which this map still works. Best of luck to us all in the days ahead.

Flashback: Rougher Roads

Part Three of this four-part series looking back at popping my activist cherry. So not a virgin any more, and a damned good thing given how much rougher the road ahead.

The Angry Left: Rougher Roads Steeper Challenges to Get Here

I’ve already offered a 50,000 view of the road to here for some of the angry left — the road some of us who were progressives in 2003 took as we sought to wrest the country away from conservatives. And I’ve shared my personal journey up to the 2004 presidential election.

The next leg of the journey was harder and the challenges steeper.

In late November 2004 after the election, while many of us were still shell-shocked by the outcome of the election, former candidate Howard Dean traveled the country to talk with supporters to figure out what to do next. I explained already the decision-making process, but one of the most important points which came out of his sessions was the call to become more active in the Democratic Party and to leave no seat uncontested.

Most of us new activists had discovered the hard way during the campaign that the Democratic Party was facade-like; it was not democratic (little d) and it was hardly a party. If we were going to generate the kind of critical mass in numbers we needed to reach our goals — like ending the war in Iraq and getting a national health care program — we were going to have to go inside what was left of the beast and take it back. Dean was certain that if we could articulate clearly our populist progressive agenda that we could win voters, but we had to have the organization from which to do it.

In a matter of days after Dean spoke with activists in my state I went to my first local party meeting. I’d received a little coaching from a high school friend’s dad who’d been involved in the party; he’d explained how their monthly meetings typically ran and what to expect so I’d be more comfortable.

The meeting started at 7:00 p.m.; they said the Pledge of Allegiance, went through what looked like a time-worn agenda of going through acceptance of minutes from the last meeting, treasurer’s report, new mail, old business…by this time it was 7:20 p.m. and some of the folks were already beginning to look at their watches. The chair held his gavel aloft and asked for any new business before he gaveled the meeting adjourned.

That was it? That’s all they were going to do after getting their asses kicked a mere month ago? I thought I’d faint.

My friend’s dad was there and looked at me encouragingly. I raised my hand. The chair started and stared as if to say, Who the hell are you? And I introduced myself, said it was my first party meeting, and I had two questions to ask. Where was the party’s website, and what were their goals and objectives for the coming year?

You could have heard a pin drop.

Two other folks across the room raised their hands and said it was their first meeting as well, and they had come wanting to know the same thing.

There was a bit of a rush after that, an explanation that they had no website, questions as to whether I knew anything about creating one and would I discuss it next month, did I want to become a member, could we table the question about goals, gaveling out the meeting.

A more senior member of the party offered to pay for three memberships to get us started; we three newbies managed to get connected with each other. Inside the next three months we were plunged into communications and memberships committees and started on projects which made sense to us as persons with corporate and academic experience. Like updating membership databases, and creating a website with information about the local party — really elemental stuff.

And at first it seemed easy. It was almost too easy. The first twelve weeks went by and we thought things were going smoothly.

But then we ran into push back after push back on what should have been some of the easiest things, including goals and finance. By the end of summer it was clear there were factions within the local party who were pissed off at us for rocking the boat, other factions which did little or nothing and didn’t want to, and yet other factions who wanted to do something constructive but were clearly disenfranchised and dis-empowered.

In short, it was a dysfunctional mess. We just didn’t get a bead on how dysfunctional for several months while they waited to see how serious we were.

We learned as we compared notes about the problems we were running into that the party chair had actually kicked volunteers out of the office during the final stretch of the presidential election season for using the phone excessively. The volunteers had been phone banking, for crying out loud; of course they’d be using the damned phones. They ended up at a different site set up across town by another group because they couldn’t work at the Dem Party office. The problems were clearly systemic from top to bottom of the local organization, and toxic to candidates.

It became clear that we were going to have to find a different way to operate so that we didn’t run into roadblocks at every turn, before the election season began. We agreed to pursue chartering a separate Democratic club, one which would have a bias toward action and results, whose mission would be to get more progressive candidates elected to office.

The squabbling about the chartering process was ugly, because the local party had to sign off. (Pulling the charter has been a threat at least one chair has used since the charter was issued.) But in the end we managed to start an organization.

A couple of our team found a sympathetic landlord who agreed to “rent” office space to us if we agreed to improve the property. We pooled our resources and painted and patched a decrepit 150-year-old place, each of us doing what we could to create an entity which would get people elected. In my case I cobbled up a network and a fellow Deaniac cobbled up some computers so that we could begin to phone bank using VoIP. We identified candidates to support, knocked on doors, dropped literature, made thousands of phone calls, raised money and made donations to candidates.

And by the end of election day 2006, we knew what we could call our wins.

By the end of 2007 candidates called us.

By the end of 2008, after winning and losing control of the Democratic Party chairmanship, we won it back.

We are the local party now, although it was messy getting here. I’ve spared you the ugly part of losing the party and having our club charter threatened. I’ve spared you all the dull, tedious long hours of work doing mailings and working on voter data and membership drives and slow, dragged out meetings about resolutions and bylaws.

But we got here because we planned, we executed and we delivered. We didn’t always win; one of our hardest fought and most painful losses was for a state seat for which one of our own ran. But we learned a lot from the experience, and the state party now knows what that candidate and the club can do. And right now they are grinding away working for Democratic candidates, several of which are truly progressive.

So what did I learn along this leg of the road?

— It takes a lot of motherf*cking actual work to build a grassroots political apparatus. I cannot understate this. One must be willing to do some really tedious, grotty scut work to make it happen. I’ve cleaned toilets, washed floors, painted, vacuumed, swept, cooked and cooked, licked envelopes and stamps, fixed computers and printers, set up wired and wireless networks, babysat, made phone calls, typed and printed and folded and collated, you name it, and I’ve only done a small portion of work that others have done for our team.

— In every county of my state there are roughly 25 people on average that are hardcore activists who are willing to do the work. Half of them do the majority of the work. Which means in a state of roughly 10,000,000 residents, roughly 2,000 people do it all for the left. And that’s not just Democrats, that’s the entire left. (Many Greens, Libertarians and unallied environmental and peace activists overlap with Democrats, so I think I can say my estimate is pretty solid.) I would bet right now the ratio is pretty much the same for all but the most populous states.

— There are people who will cling to their old perception of the party until they die. Some will not relinquish that vision without a bloody fight. You can expect to be bruised in such battles; develop emotional callouses and find a good source of mental Kevlar. And quite frankly, you may have to outwait some of your detractors quite literally until they die. We euphemistically call this “a generational shift.”

— Once you have some success, you will be attacked. You will also find others attempt to co-opt your success. You are doing it right if you have candidates calling you for help while you are being insulted by the remaining old school machine members.

— And the attacks will show up in the local media. You will see distortions of everything you’ve done through a conservative lens, and everything reported will draw multiple letters to the editor from conservatives.

— There are not enough candidates in the pipeline. There are races up and down the ticket right now where we cannot field a candidate, where a conservative is going to have a cakewalk to a win. A substantive number of our candidates are Hail Mary passes which won’t succeed; the candidate is either willing to run simply to force the conservative opponent to spend down money, or the candidate is simply not prepared enough or the right caliber for the race. I can think of one candidate who is just plain dumber than a box of rocks, hasn’t won in three attempts and won’t win again, but they are all we have in that district. We’ve had many training sessions to encourage folks who may be thinking about running, at least two sessions a year and we still don’t have enough candidates.

— Money is chronically short. This is another truth which can’t be understated. In some highly specific cases, where the population is denser, the till may have a lot more money, but the money must be spread over even more candidates. It’s never enough.

— There are not enough people who have the skills let alone the commitment to do some of the necessary work. Being an officer sounds like it’s prestigious and a lot of fun, right up until you are the one having to deal with the angry callers or the stupid media, the one having to record all the donations and file the financials on a timely basis, the one having to take all the meeting notes and record them religiously. Parliamentarians are a pain in the ass, but they are also one of the most critical roles in the organization. Think you can cut corners and do without all this stuff? Good luck earning the trust of candidates and incumbents who need serious, reliable people.

Before I began this journey on the road of activism, I believed there were adults in charge, that I could simply show up and vote at mid-terms and presidential elections, and those trusted adults would make sure that our democracy continued to run smoothly.

What a stupid and naive notion that was.

One of the most important things I’ve learned along the way is this: Leadership is showing up.

Things don’t change, progress isn’t made until leaders show up and do the damned work. For too long nobody showed up, and there are still not enough people showing up.

The corollary lesson is this: Leadership-by-default runs this country.

In other words, the person that showed up, did the work or spent the money to get the work done, got elected. They may have been the biggest, stupidest asshole on earth, but they showed up. And they were assisted on the road to victory by people who showed up. The folks who get more people to show up to work for them are far more likely to win. This is the case in the overwhelming majority of races up and down the ticket across this entire country.

More about that in my next installment.
Part Four, the final installment of this series, will post tomorrow.

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, 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.

Flashback: This Miserable State

This is the first of a four-part series first written in September 2010. It was apparent then only weeks before the mid-term elections the Democratic-majority in Congress would end due to well-funded tactics by the Tea Bag Party and their sponsors, and the Dems’ loss of momentum. Conditions were simply miserable. I took stock at that point, looking back at what I had learned as a new activist, and what actions might be taken to correct the future’s course. You might as well call me Cassandra for all the good this did, but let’s look and see if anything might be different today if one were to jump in and become a political party activist.

The Angry Left: How We Found Our Way to This Miserable State

For the last several weeks there’s been an increasing number of posts which bash all manner of Democrats, from the president to the party itself and plead for alternatives. The anger driving this bashing is understandable since the country’s economy has floundered and promises made and values shared haven’t been kept under a Democratic president with a Democratic majority in Congress.

The anger also stems from disillusionment; after the great double-emotional high of the first person of color and Democrat winning the White House in 2008, there was the expectation that winning could continue, sustained in terms of legislative initiatives.

But unfortunately, much of this anger is poorly informed. There’s backstory which explains in part why we are here today.  . . .

In 2003, Howard Dean began a run for the White House, as most folks are already well aware. For the first time in history a campaign utilized the internet for the purposes of organizing and for fundraising, tapping into a segment of the population which until this time had felt disenfranchised and dis-empowered. Quite literally the Dean for America campaign reminded citizens that they had the power to take their country back.

In spite of energizing a new group of first-time activists, the campaign’s innate flaws thwarted Dean from obtaining the Democratic nomination. Granted, it was not these flaws alone which resulted in John Kerry’s nomination; rather the Dean campaign’s limitations prevented other challenges from being surmountable.

Over the course of the next several months between the time Dean folded his bid for the White House and the disastrous 2004 election, the Dean campaign morphed. There was still a lot of latent energy demanding something more and better; the members had tasted some success if limited, still had the bit in their teeth. It became clear this was more than a presidential campaign but a movement born of people with shared values and goals. Dean for America became Democracy for America.

Almost immediately after the election, Howard Dean toured the country to meet with DFA supporters, to discuss next steps. It was clear that without drastic changes, the 2008 election would turn out as the 2004 election had, in the hands of the Republican Party to extend the same conservative policies. What were the options we had to turn this around? There were essentially three choices:

Option 1: Dean would run again for 2008;

Option 2: Dean would run as chair of the Democratic Party, to turn it around and fix the problems found during the 2004 election season;

Option 3: A third party would be formed to run a candidate in 2008.

Each of these choices was evaluated and feedback offered. Supporters were unstinting in their assessment of the limitations they’d experienced during 2003-2004. The pros and cons looked like this:

Option 1: Dean could only expect the same headwinds he faced during the 2004 election season. The party machine viewed him as an outsider, the local party apparatus was down at the heel and unprepared to support anybody but a machine candidate, and there existed no mechanism to push back against the media’s conventional wisdom, nor could a single campaign push back against the money behind conservative candidates and issues.

Option 2: Dean could not run for the White House in 2008 if he accepted this option, but then without an improved Democratic Party, no Democratic candidate would win in 2008. The party’s infrastructure was rotted out from neglect and could not deliver a win.

Option 3: The numbers simply weren’t there. For a third party candidate to win, they would have to muster against the other two parties, drawing down from both. In 2004 nearly 50% of the population identified as conservative, making it highly unlikely that a third party could reach critical mass. Frankly, a third party would have to subsume the Democratic Party’s numbers to win.

It was clear that there was only one way to assure that a candidate on the left could win in 2008 — and that was to take back the Democratic Party and install Dean as its chair.

Mind you, this was not the only topic covered at these meetings. It had become entirely clear to Dean and his supporters that the conservatives’ death grip on government was because they ensured conservatives would run for every single seat from top to bottom of the political food chain, from the presidency to local dog catcher. It had also become clear that the Democratic Party needed to be reinvigorated with fresh blood in order to win a 21st century campaign; without an infusion, they would continue to do what they’d done all along, relying on traditional constituencies to vote for them by default, mustering only tepid old school techniques to get out the vote while the opposition used every possible means to get their voters out. Quite literally the left was up against people who felt no shame in organizing at churches every week and busing church-goers to the polls. The left had no such institution for getting out the vote.

These things were all entwined and interrelated, too. Without becoming more active in the local Democratic Party, Dean would stand no chance at becoming chair. Without becoming more active in the local party, the same numbers would defeat candidates running for all manner of office.

In 2004, the former Deaniacs began their takeover of the party from within. Dean became Democratic Party chair in early 2005, upsetting the party machine which had planned to hand down a name to the rank-and-file and expect them to ratify them as chair instead. (Democratic operative James Carville was quoted as angrily demanding, “Why didn’t somebody fix this thing?” when it became clear the grassroots activists within the party were pushing hard for the upstart Dean.)

During 2005 the Dem’s infrastructure was rejuvenated under Dean’s guidance; the Democratic wave of 2006 when the party took a majority in Congress was due in no small part to the early efforts of the takeover.

Under Dean the party worked on a new strategy, to leave no seat uncontested, to leave no voter untapped. The 50-State Strategy was implemented to increase the numbers of Democratic voters incrementally across every precinct, in order to win in 2008.

You know the rest of the story; the Obama campaign was able to use the same techniques scaled up to organize and increase turnout, informed by the earlier work of Deaniacs who’d worked together so earnestly in 2003-2004 to take back the country.

And now, a postmortem…this is where the wheels came off, and the rest of why we are where we are today.

First, tradition damaged the gains made between 2004 and 2008. It is tradition that a Democratic president is able to name a new Democratic Party chair. It’s not an appointment per se, but the party respects the wishes of the president and defers to them and generally approves a new chair selected by the president. Hence Tim Kaine, whom many Dems identify as a moderate, ended up as chair.

Second, the open hostility the president’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has for Howard Dean meant that Dean would be marginalized during the Obama administration. There was no way that Dean, even after all his work to ensure a Democratic presidency, would be realistically considered for any role in the White House’s team let alone permitted to be party chair to continue the work of moving the party towards a progressive majority. (The marginalization continues to this day; links to Dean’s 50-State Strategy have been excised from the Democratic Party website.)

Third, the fruits of the work done by the progressives within the Democratic Party were co-opted at every turn, while placing a thin number of elected progressives in compromising position. There were not enough progressives elected during 2006 and 2008 to assure a solid voting block which could hold together; there was not a progressive leader within their ranks who could leverage progressives’ numbers to force the remaining Democratic electeds to hold their ground. This left the progressives drifting and at risk of being used by other stronger forces within the party. At the same time, co-option also whittled away at moderates, encouraging them to make choices which pushed them ever more to the right while alienating the left.

Fourth, the failure of the White House, the former Obama for America campaign leadership and the new party chair to give new and effective marching orders to the campaign’s supporters left a mass of first-time activists and voters adrift without goals at a time when the economy was savaging their spirits. These neophytes had little institutional memory to help them find their way; they drifted off and now have personal needs which occupy them, not having been called to serve a higher cause like developing our democracy. Organizing for America — the entity which emerged from the Obama for America campaign — did not begin to work on a cohesive national goal across its remaining membership to focus on health care reform until September last year, at a point when the handwriting was already on the wall for health care reform, after the White House had already compromised itself in making deals with Big Pharma, after the Tea Party had already done considerable damage during August at town hall meetings.

Fifth, there remains an insufficiency of institutional memory combined with strong organizing skills. There are not enough folks within the ranks of progressives within the Democratic Party who can wield institutional memory with organizing as a cudgel to move the party. Many of the newer progressive candidates and electeds operate in isolation, without adequate network or other infrastructure to ensure they stay together and to ensure they are leveraging knowledge towards the same goals. There is a corresponding lack of institution — far too much of the left continues to rely on virtual organization, which cannot replace organizing on the ground, cannot compete against conservatives who organize at church and bus their voters to the polls.

Lastly, the rest of the left which did not identify as Democratic has not been organized. It has changed very little since 2004 except that it has a few more internet-based bells and whistles. Its proponents still have no plan to develop a critical mass across folks who identify as left on the political spectrum. It talks a lot; it does less.

And that’s how we’ve found ourselves in this sad state, marginalized by the people we elected to office and referred to pejoratively as the “fucking retarded” “professional left,” our hands bitten by the dogs we’ve reared and fed.

There’s much, much more to be said. Watch for the next part of this series.
Republication of Part 2 will post tomorrow.