Since the debacle of 2016, Democrats of all ideological persuasions have been vigorously debating how to return to power, in the states and the nation—while resisting the horrific rule of trump and his GOP enablers. But their arguments tend to dwell on who should run for office and what they should say, rarely on the structure of the party itself, which is run almost exclusively by full-time professionals.
Why not transform the Democrats into a truly democratic party? Invite any American who supports its policies and candidates to become a member. For a small annual fee, say $20, they would be able to take part in local meetings, organized by locality or congressional district. Members could participate in a variety of ways: educate themselves and then debate policies, interview aspiring candidates, organize grassroots fundraising and house-to-house canvassing, and stage community events (after all, “party” is a verb as well as a noun). Democratic officials would have to take their ideas seriously—or risk alienating their activist base.
In Europe, left parties have long depended on their members to generate excitement about ideas and programs—and to turn out the vote. A swelling membership indicates a healthy party that has the potential to win elections. Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour’s leader, over 300,000 Brits have joined the party, more than doubling its numbers. As I write in early December, Labour is leading in the polls.
In the nearly two centuries since its creation, what used to be known as “the Democracy” has never solicited members. However, eras when large numbers of Americans were eager to identify as Democrats were also times when the party dominated national politics—in the decades before the Civil War and, again, from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Local institutions, with national connections, have always mattered profoundly in American civic life. With the steady decline of unions and the ephemeral nature of mass protests like Occupy, leftists need to create new ones, where ordinary people can discuss their political differences respectfully and seriously instead of attacking one another on social media. Why not begin with the large, if troubled, institution that already exists, one that has the potential to wield state power?