How to Revitalize Local Democratic Parties

Why this story is significant: The Scholars Strategy Network (SSN) has presented us with a useful blueprint for saving democratic norms and institutions by reinvesting in state and local Democratic parties. While their report is by no means a comprehensive plan, it provides useful first steps and serves as a reminder that the fight for equity and democracy is won and lost at the local level.

Many people may not remember the contributions of local and state-level organizers like Fanny Lou Hamer, but their contributions changes the lives of millions of people for generations.

The Scholars Strategy Network (SSN) just released their 2018 Annual Report that (in part) outlines an ambitious plan to revitalize local Democratic Parties throughout the United States. It’s definitely well worth the read, and it should be heartening to see so much work already in place long before the 2020 general election really gets up and going. Here’s a few of my key takeaways.

What Is the Scholars Strategy Network?

The Scholars Strategy Network is a think-tank of some 1,300 lefty researchers, policymakers, civic leaders, and journalists from all over the country. The group seeks to accomplish three things:

  1. Promote evidence-based policy and innovations in at the state level
  2. Communicate the effects of major shifts in federal policy on local people
  3. Strengthen democracy by explaining (in accessible language) the pernicious effects of creeping authoritarianism and how people can protect democratic norms and institutions

While most political think-tanks are located primarily in population and power centers (namely DC and New York), SSN’s researchers live and work in the places they study. Another notable trait is the group’s intrinsic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion—a commitment based on their belief that “Too often, people in disadvantaged communities report that scholars do research on and to them, but not with nor for them.” To counter this elitist trend, SSN doubles down on the value of identity politics by mobilizing an array of marginalized perspectives against the forces of oppression. This emphasis on the power and merit of disenfranchised voices helps explain how SSN came to the conclusion democracy must be saved at the local level first.

Laboratories of Democracy

In his 1932 decision on New State Ice Co. v. Liebmenn, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (citing the Tenth Amendment) stated that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risks to the rest of the country.” We’ve seen this belief put to action around issues related to healthcare, legalized pot, gun rights, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

We’ve also seen neo-Confederate Republicans in the South experiment with new ways of undermining democracy and disenfranchising non-white citizens. SSN is determined to reverse this trend by testing ways to expand and protect democracy within the states—or, in their words, by “promoting evidence-based policy and innovation in the states.”

According to their report, SSN’s commitment to state-level innovation has already produced some significant wins. In Maine, they partnered with Maine Equal Justice Partners to help pass legislation that increased higher-ed accessibility to low-income families. In Colorado, SSN members allied themselves with immigrant and labor organizers to persuade Denver adopt a more aggressive stance towards preventing wage theft. And in Georgia, two SSN members convinced the Statesboro City Council to pass an ordinance to reduce penalties and eliminate incarceration for minor drug offenses.

Pushing back against voter ID laws in North Carolina. Expanding paid family and medical leave in Massachusetts. Demonstrating the long-term negative effects of splitting apart immigrant families. These efforts might seem like small beans in a world where all eyes seem to be on the federal level, but it’s making a world of difference in the lives of local people.

Saving Democracy by Revitalizing State and Local Parties

You might be wondering how these local actions can save both small-d democracy and big-D Democratic state and local parties. SSN’s approach seems to be based on the idea that if we dedicate resources and talent to state and local reform, those efforts will eventually work their way up to the national level. Furthermore, since most people encounter policy at the state and local level, creating positive change at these levels can drive engagement and investment in the Democratic Party at the national level.

This is neither an idealistic or novel concept—conservatives have been driving policy change and engagement through local action for decades, and their success at the state level explains why progress seems to be slowing or even reversing. So what kind of actions does SSN recommend Democrats take to save democracy?

The first thing they recommend is communicating the effects of federal policy on individuals and their communities. To SSN, this means conducting rigorous studies of the effects of major policy changes and (this is key) explaining them in jargon-free and accessible ways. Speaking plainly about esoteric policy decisions and linking them to peoples’ experiences will help recruit people to the Democratic cause. This is essentially an extension of the Women’s Liberation Movement’s consciousness-raising activism applied to all sorts of liberal priorities (again, thank you, identity politics).

Next, SSN advises Democrats to create engaged citizens by invest resources and staff into campus organizations. The party’s local, state, and national success often hinges on its ability to mobilizing college students, while engaging students to participate in party business can help foster committed members and skilled organizers for an array of progressive causes. Furthermore, SSN believes the Left should do more to train students through fellowships, grants, education, and workshops to conduct research to inform and advance pro-democratic policy.

Driving policy change by engaging, educating, and elevating local people. This sounds like the beginnings of an excellent plan.

Final Note

If you’re someone who’s interested in getting involved in political organizing and/or running for office, I hope SSN’s report encourages you to look to opportunities at the local level. The Democratic Party has far too many people with skills, influence, and connections who think they can make the most difference at the national level. If anything, SSN’s efforts show when it comes to changing lives and building a movement, taking a local-first approach to political engagement can be the most meaningful way to get started.

That said, if you want to learn more about the power of local people, you should definitely read John Ditmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. In it, he tells the story of how civil rights for black Mississippians was won by courageous local organizers and communities—not white activists from the North or John F. Kennedy (who bowed to arch segregationist senators John Stennis and James Eastland). Dittmer’s final chapter also serves as a warning that democratic victories are rarely complete, and they can be rolled back if people disengage from state and local politics.

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