Even though the Women’s March represented the largest outpouring of progressive activism in decades, most of the leading candidates for chair of the national Democratic Party skipped it, instead opting to hob-nob with wealthy donors at a retreat.
Such misplaced priorities are all-too-typical for contemporary Democratic Party leaders. Starting in the 1980’s, Congressional Democrats – having been in power for decades – decided that, to maintain their dominance, they needed to win the big money race against the Republicans, mostly by ingratiating themselves to corporations and the nation’s financial elites.
Since then, the most frequent task for Democratic elected and party officials, by far, has been to raise money, then raise some more money – just as it has been for their G.O.P. counterparts.
It’s illegal to make fundraising calls from federal offices, so incumbent Congresspeople and Senators – even very senior ones – must often leave their government offices to travel to “call rooms” to spend hours and hours of “call time” begging and cajoling donors for support, and then spend most of their nights and weekends at fundraisers.
Upon retiring from Congress in 2016, Steve Israel described the demeaning process: “I’d sit next to an assistant who collated ‘call sheets’ with donor’s names, contribution histories, and other useful information. (‘How’s Sheila? Your wife. Oh, Shelly? Sorry.’) … Since then, I’ve spent roughly 4,200 hours in call time, attended more than 1,600 fund-raisers just for my own campaign, and raised nearly $20 million in increments of $1,000, $2,500, and $5,000 per election cycle. And things have only become worse in the five years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which ignited an explosion of money in politics.”
Senator Al Franken has explained that, since candidates spend most of their time raising money, their time isn’t spent “kissing babies or shaking hands or having serious policy debates”. New candidates are often urged to spend 80 percent of their time on raking in bucks.
A 2013 presentation to incoming freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suggested that, out of a nine or ten hour workday, Congresspeople should spend four hours in fundraising call time, and another in “strategic outreach,” which includes fundraisers and press work. Only three to four hours were suggested for the actual work of governing – voting, attending hearings, and meeting with constituents (especially ones who are donors).
Fundraising requirements turn all politicians, no matter how esteemed their offices, into pathetic supplicants. In 2014, I received a fundraising e-mail from then-US Senator Kay Hagan with the subject line, “Joel, I’m begging.” She lost that race.
Campaigning and governing is now indistinguishable from fundraising. The vast majority of e-mails and letters that I now receive from elected officials are either thinly veiled fundraising pitches or overt ones. The last e-mail I received from Obama as President was a fundraising pitch.
Not only does the obsessive focus by leaders on prostrating themselves before the wealthy and well-connected in order to pan-handle strip them of dignity – and make a mockery of democracy by relegating low-income and middle class voters to mere bystanders policy-making – it often fails to win elections.
Most of the piles of cash raised go to TV ads (and the pockets of political consultants who produce them), but fewer Americans than at any time in modern history now watch live TV, and voters are now more likely to get campaign information from news and social media than from ads. Plus, when ad buys are so massive that they pass the saturation point, voters tune out even more.
Hillary Clinton and the PACs that supported her raised and spent nearly three quarters of a billion dollars – more than double what Trump and his supporters spent – and Trump still won the Electoral College handily. Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate raised $374 million in in 2016 (an amount equal to the cost of 218 million school breakfasts) – nearly as much as their G.O.P. opponents – but still lost six of the ten toss-up races.
Much of the campaign cash not paid media ads is spent on avalanches of direct mail (which few voters read), paid phone banks (at a time when even fewer people answer phones), and busing in out-of-state (usually extraordinarily young) campaign field staff who are often clueless about local politics.
Last fall, as a volunteer in my vacation time, I spent a week campaigning for Hillary out of a campaign field office in Redding, Pennsylvania, a former manufacturing hub with one of the highest urban poverty rates in the nation (40 percent) and a population that is 58 percent Latino. While the office was overflowing with idealistic Hillary staffers, most of them were from out-of-town and a few didn’t speak Spanish. There seemed to be very little presence in the office of local Latino leadership, union chiefs, sympathetic local clergy, or representatives of the city’s Democratic mayor. In the county in which Redding is located (Berks), Hillary lost by 10 percent, even though Obama in 2008 won by nine. The suburban, white voters surged to Trump, while the inner city people of color failed to turn-out for Clinton as much as they had for Obama; both types of voters were working class and united in believing that the Democrats no longer stood up for their interests.
So what would work? If Democrats want to win again, they will need to go back to the basics and build true grass roots political party structures in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the U.S. – created, led, and staffed by long-time local residents. To get to the future, Dems most go back in time to re-build old-fashioned political machines from the precinct-level up, but without the corruption and cronyism of yore. These local structures should forge long-term partnerships with all the key local constituency groups and community leaders, and serve as a liaison and problem solver between constituents and government, as was the case with the old machines. Fixing neighborhood potholes and helping local kids locate college scholarships would do a heck of a lot more to earn voter loyalty than buying a ton more of TV ads they won’t watch.
Most of all, Democratic leaders should slash their time in call rooms and at donor receptions and use those extra hours meeting with—and actively listening to – middle and low-income families on their porches and in union halls and community centers. Then they should fight their guts out for policies that will concretely respond to those concerns. Not only would most Democratic officials likely prefer spending their time solving the problems of working people instead of toadying up to fat cats, they would start winning elections again.
Moreover, aiding the working class instead of the plutocrats would be good for the nation as a whole. If Democrats can learn from their own history – and return to their traditional values of standing up for the working class – then political victory and national prosperity will go hand in hand.
Joel Berg is the author of America, We Need to Talk: a Self Help Book for the Nation, to be published by Seven Stories in February 2017. He is also CEO of Hunger Free America, a nonpartisan nonprofit group, but the views expressed here do not represent the views of the organization.