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Democrats Don’t Need Another Barack Obama

Instead of praying for a transformative candidate, the party needs to transform from the ground up.

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Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign has revealed the Democratic Party to be a hollow vessel. Building on President Barack Obama’s high-tech, candidate-centered campaign apparatus, Clinton’s team confidently deployed algorithms, micro-targeting, advanced metrics, and behavioral economics to identify and “target” voters who might support their high-profile candidate.

But when push came to shove, Democrats did not have a truly social network of groups that could mobilize independently and enthusiastically around issues; organize on behalf of candidates across the ballot; and operate beneath the noise of the corporate media. This failure in a presidential year is especially inauspicious for the 2018 off-year elections. For Democrats to build their party anew, they should study the strengths of the modern Republican Party.

Over the last 40 years, conservatives built a robust and self-sustaining ecosystem of interest groups, organizations, and social movements that was tied to but independent from the Republican Party. Particularly important were the intermediating organizations: pro-life advocacy groups such as the National Right to Life Committee, the NRA, and anti-tax and anti-regulation business groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity. These organizations served a triple purpose. First, they shaped the party and its candidates in their image. Second, when elections came around, these organizations and their affiliated grassroots groups got out the vote and reminded voters about perceived liberal threats. And, most importantly, when it came time to govern, these groups shaped the legislation Republicans advanced. As Americans for Prosperity’s website puts it: “Stand for Principles. Not politicians.”

Democrats long relied upon organized labor, women’s groups, and civil rights organizations to do similar work. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the party and its regulars began to slide away from this vertically and horizontally integrated network. Instead, Democrats began to rally their base around prominent candidates. Bill Clinton’s success in the 1990s was an example of this tendency to invest progressive hopes in individual stars rather than in self-sustaining, issue-focused, extra-party organizations that had the clout to hold candidates to account.

Democrats’ shift toward candidate-centered party-building reached its apotheosis in Barack Obama’s historic 2008 victory. Obama’s team relied heavily on big data to ensure their candidate reached the very people needed to secure victory in the Electoral College and to pay for the effort. Upon his election, Organizing for America, their grassroots, digitally enhanced machine, maintained a registry of 13 million email supporters, had the financial backing of four million donors, and, incredibly for a presidential campaign, was in the black to the tune of $18 million in the bank.

As Obama turned this commanding resource over to the Democratic Party, no organization in the history of American politics had ever had a more sensitive apparatus for listening to, organizing, and developing policies attuned to its electoral base. Republicans panicked. As conservative operative Ed Rollins put it, “No one’s ever had these kind of resources.”

But the Democrats fumbled their advantage almost immediately. Rather than use their resources to cultivate local candidates and ideologically aligned intermediating organizations, the party chose to blast Obama supporters with emails and phone calls about the president’s escalating war with Congress. Obama’s supporters checked out. The failure became crystal-clear in off-year elections, when Democrats struggled to generate support for down-ballot candidates. The party’s inability in 2010 to elect Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, of all places, to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, of all liberals, was a powerful lesson in the necessity of building an ecosystem of voters and organizations independent of rising star candidates.

Meanwhile, by the mid-1990s, Republicans had used their growing decentralized network to take control of Congress, which was only reversed during the wave elections of the Bush years. In addition to the obvious governing power the independent conservative ecosystem has yielded Republicans, it has also meant that the party has cultivated a deep well of candidates to draw upon. Incredibly, by 2016, after eight years of Democratic control of the White House, Democrats’ roster of potential presidential candidates was exceedingly thin. Down the ballot, the party was hard-pressed to identify rising stars to challenge Republicans. In addition to controlling Congress and the White House and (probably) the Supreme Court, the GOP now is in full control of 33 state governments. Amending the Constitution only requires approval by three-quarters of the state legislatures: That’s just 38 states.

The enthusiasm Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have generated is potentially significant. But, in the absence of building organizations between presidential elections, such excitement is at risk of simply being co-opted into future candidate-centered campaigns, as it was this year. Instead, progressives must harness this enthusiasm and yoke it to building self-sustaining, extra-party organizations focused on down-ballot elections and clear policy agendas: breaking up corporate monopolies, fighting climate change, combating police violence, or tackling poverty and inequality.

Ironically, Trump’s election offers a silver lining in this respect. His election marks a profound break with the institutional structure of the modern Republican Party—that is, the Republicans just became a party defined by enthusiasm for a single candidate rather than a clear range of interest groups. That candidate is also profoundly out of step with longstanding Republican commitments. Though a Republican cloth drapes all of American government, it almost surely veils a roiling battle for the heart of the party.

Furthermore, Trump succeeded because the party did a poor job of balancing the demands of its various groups. That some 17 candidates emerged to vie for the presidential nomination was a sign of the party’s vibrancy, on the one hand. But it was also a symptom of mounting unrest, revealing that each of the party’s interest groups sought a stronger hand to steer the coalition. With the help of Fox News and other conservative and alt-right outlets, Trumpism became a disease that infected the Republicans’ extra-party organizations, and Trump systematically coopted much of the party’s ecosystem. With Stephen Bannon assuming a senior White House advisory position, to think that Trump will suddenly begin to yield to the party elites’ preferences seems naïve.

All this represents an opportunity for Democrats. For progressives to put their faith in a white knight anti-Trump candidate in 2020 would suggest the party and its voters have failed to learn the lessons of the past four decades. Paradigm-shifting candidates like Obama are the exception not the rule. In the absence of such a candidate, technocratic party-building and algorithmic-targeting of voters actually reverse the polarity of democracy: Rather than citizens rallying together around issues and candidates, centralized parties attempt to mobilize individual voters. This year, such disaggregated virtual social networking proved to be profoundly out of touch. With today’s siloed media landscape relentlessly focused on Washington, genuine local social networking may be more important than ever.

Building on the momentum of Black Lives Matter, as well the Sanders campaign’s attention to affordable tuition, minimum wage increases, and single payer health care, progressives must build up a range of intermediating organizations that can remake the Democratic Party from top to bottom and between presidential elections. For the poor and marginalized, for immigrants and workers, for Muslims, for LGBT citizens, and for people of color, the stakes are too high for progressives to wait for another Obama.