It’s Not About Grass Roots

In a New York Times oped well worth reading, a professor and a writer (okay, grain of salt administered right here) criticize Democratic pols and progressive groups for their fundraising and grass roots strategies. I think they’re right on the mark.

In their August 1st article, Lisa Putnam and Micah Sifry argue that:

“National Democratic and progressive groups together burned through the surge of liberal organizing under Mr. Trump, treating impassioned newcomers like cash cows, gig workers and stamp machines to be exploited, not a grass-roots base to be tended. Worse, research by academics and political professionals alike suggests many of the tactics they pushed to engage voters proved ineffective.”

I can attest to this. I get myself on every Democratic candidate’s email list, not because I ever give them any money, but because I want to hear what they’re saying. And what they’re saying is both endless and apocalyptic. I literally get a couple of emails a day from the likes of Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes. My favorites are the ones that allegedly come from the campaign’s finance director on the eve a monthly fundraising report. I could write this for them myself: “I’m just about to meet with Tony to brief him on our goal and I don’t want to tell him we’re coming up $2,312 short. I’d love to be able to tell Tony that you came through for us, Dave. Please rush $15 right now!”

When this kid shows up at your door you just want to vote against whoever he’s selling.

I always wonder who falls for this crap, but apparently somebody does because they just keep doing it. But Putnam and Sifry report that, while these kinds of breathless pleas result in a brief spike of giving, they wear down donors and contribute to an overall sense of despair.

And it’s not just fundraising that’s the problem. What they call the “Beltway Brain” thinking also extends to volunteer activities. They write:

“People who volunteer on campaigns are often nothing like other Americans in their politics. The gulf is particularly wide on the Democratic side, where infrequent and swing voters of all ethnicities, ages and life experiences tend to encounter highly educated, liberal and white volunteers.”

The Democratic strategist David Shor has identified the same issue, talking about the problem of entitled, affluent kids with no real world experience and hyper-left points of view who work in campaigns and Congressional offices.

So, I think that the authors have diagnosed the problem very well, but I’m not completely sold on their solution. They cite a handful of school board races in Pennsylvania where candidates with deep ties and sound reputations in the community were recruited to run and where others with the same kinds of civic capital worked on their behalf.

Well, yeah, of course that’s going to work, but do you have any idea how hard it is to find the right candidate and then convince that person to enter politics? There’s a touch of Catch-22 here. If you’re the kind of sane person we want to run, you’re probably too sane to do it. Lightening does strike now and then. Here in Madison, Laura Simkin won a school board seat last April and she is quite sane, but five of her six colleagues are out to lunch.

Maybe an even more fundamental flaw in this strategy is that school board races are nonpartisan. So, once you find the good candidate for the board she doesn’t have to overcome the “D” next to her name. That wouldn’t be a problem in liberal Madison, but in much of the country the “D” stands for “Dreaded.”

So, while I don’t totally dismiss Putnam and Sifry’s prescriptions, I doubt that they can be scaled up in any meaningful way. It’s generally the passionate, true believers who are motivated to run and to work on campaigns — exactly the kinds of people who turn off most voters. The problem for Democrats and progressives is that they have trashed their own brand. As I’ve pointed out on so many occasions that even I’m getting tired of reading my own stuff, the one-third of hard-left elite Democrats who give money and volunteer in campaigns dominate the party’s image. And people just hate these people.

While weeding and seeding the grass roots as Putnam and Sifry suggest is a fine thing to do, Democrats won’t succeed on a broad scale until the two-thirds of us who are moderate and more in touch with average Americans wrest the party (or create a new one) from the elites.

And on another matter… are we witnessing the sun set on Donald Trump? Recent polls have found: 40% of Republicans now think Trump was at least partially responsible for the Insurrection, up from 33%; 55% of Republicans now think the election was stolen, down from 67%; and 55% of Republicans now don’t want Trump to run again in 2024, up from 49%.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “It’s Not About Grass Roots

  1. Dave, you’ve added “elite” to your description of “hard left” Democrats. Wasn’t calling people who carry backpacks “elites” instead of people too rich to pay taxes one of the culture war victories of the lunatic right wing fringe?

    Don’t get me wrong, you’re onto something here. How did oil man W and the Republican Party get to be the “regular guys” in much of Wisconsin? And people who live in a central city instead of moving to suburbs to avoid taxes become the elite?

    I knew a couple of well-liked regular guys who didn’t get vaccinated because, you know, of government and all that shit. They died. But not before exposing all my relatives and everyone I worked with to the virus — which is no worse than the flu, you know! It’s still a free country, thank God.

    And then there’s facts. When did knowing your stuff become elitist? Ask Al Gore and John Kerry, I guess.

    All politicians are corrupt anyway. No anti-climate change measures are going to work. And don’t get me started about recycling! I don’t know how you pander to that. Obviously the Republicans have found a way.

    I was in the waiting room at my car dealership, where they charge more than my truly elite dentist (who is a Democrat), watching a NASCAR race on TV. The winning elite driver from an elite team was interviewed after the race. He seemed like a regular guy.

    So I guess if I go canvassing in a red district, I should show up in a black pickup wearing a NASCAR jacket and a “Let’s go Brandon” t-shirt, drive onto people’s lawn, fire a few shots in the air, and say, I don’t know Iran from Iraq, but these corrupt politicians are letting too many goddam forners into the country. Vote Democrat! Then drop an empty beer can and move on.

    Actually I think I’ll stay home and have a kombucha. It settles my elitist ass biome.


  2. Agreed, again.

    I do have one minor quibble. Christina Gomez-Schmidt of the Madison school board, is definitely not out to lunch. She’s actually a thoughtful, reasonable woman who typically adds a calm voice of reason to the board, which is left of the Madison electorate.


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