Democrats Are Learning to Listen

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Nearly overshadowed by the pro-Trump mob assault on the Capitol last week were two great political outcomes that hold an important underlying lesson for Democrats — we win when we listen.

Voters in Georgia last week elected Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the runoff elections for the United States Senate, swinging control of the Senate to Democrats. On election morning, there were breathless headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other national news outlets about how Joe Biden’s policy agenda hung in the balance. Half a billion dollars of political money flooded into Georgia for the 8-week-long runoff. Some 275,000 TV ads aired, most of them in the Metro Atlanta market. Polls showed the races effectively tied as voting opened. Ossoff’s victory was too close to call until the next day.

Democrats won because grassroots organizing works.

It was not the money, the TV ads or the polling that determined the outcome — however much, good or accurate, respectively, they were. President Trump’s antics the weekend before, when he tried to pressure Georgia election officials to turn his loss of the state into a victory by “recalculating” the vote, don’t fully account for the win. Democrats won the Georgia runoffs for the same reason Democrats won the state in the general election — because over time people organized their neighbors and friends in every community and engaged with them about their needs, their hopes and the importance of their vote. Democrats won because grassroots organizing works.

When I told a newly-elected Senator Barack Obama that I was going to run for governor of Massachusetts, he looked at me sideways and arched his eyebrows, the way he often does when he’s skeptical of something. He asked me if I had any campaign staff, and I said, “Nope.” He asked me if I had any money, and I said, “Nope.” He asked me what my name recognition was, and I told him it was “maybe 2 percent — on the days when we feel optimistic.” But two years of listening and learning, of building relationships with all sorts of people in every corner of the commonwealth, made it possible for this political novice to win in a landslide — the first Democrat to win the office in 16 years and the first Black candidate ever to do so.

My experience is not unique. Obama himself took our model to the next level in his successful first run for president. In her run for the Senate a few years later, Elizabeth Warren did the same thing, patiently vacuuming up insights and perspectives from the people she met. That very approach early in her run for the presidency is how she came to understand student debt as a critical issue for young people.

Yes, message, money and media all matter. Yes, we need to do more than perfect our arguments about what’s wrong with Republicans. But relationships that are personal, that are genuine and respectful, through which candidates learn what matters to the people they seek to serve, are the most effective civic and political tool for winning elections and making lasting and meaningful change.

Democrats used to understand this. There were Young Democrat Clubs on the South Side of Chicago when I was growing up that brought people into the Democratic family and kept them engaged in civic life. Those clubs also kept the voter rolls and volunteer ranks refreshed. And they built trust. People tend to give at least the benefit of the doubt to people they know.

Grassroots organizing requires a long-term commitment.

Democrats cannot and should not depend on changing demographics to win elections. Relying on demographics to win elections (or to decide where to compete) is like counting votes without asking for them. It’s a calculation about voters, instead of a conversation with voters. If we want people to vote for Democrats without having to agree on everything every candidate is offering we had better get back to organizing by building relationships at the grassroots. Georgia’s outcome is a key proof point.

Grassroots organizing requires a long-term commitment. Many campaigns this cycle, including the Biden-Harris general election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, invested in grassroots organizing. But volunteers parachuting in weeks ahead of the vote to knock on doors in neighborhoods that are not their own, while important and time-honored, is not enough. That model makes it hard to compete in places like Alabama, Mississippi or Texas, for example, where all voters know about Democrats is what Republicans have been telling them the rest of the time. Democrats are the only party dedicated to dignity, opportunity and fairness for everyone everywhere, the only party with policies to make life better for all Americans. Yet millions of Americans took the word of a self-absorbed autocrat who does nothing for them over Democrats.

Democrats who show up with “the” answers but without engaging with the people touched by them get on everybody’s nerves.

Democrats need to get closer to people in their communities. We need to engage with the voters we too often take for granted and with those we rarely or never meet. That requires a permanent grassroots infrastructure. Local groups who organize their own communities and networks — like 1,000 Women Strong in southwestern Georgia, Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight working statewide, or Black Voters Matter which is working throughout the South — were critical to our successful outcomes in Georgia. These organizers did not turn up in the last few months. They have been at work for years.

Local groups like these engage their neighbors around local issues and needs. They can also shape our national agenda and inform our candidates better than any poll. And as they do, they help immunize Democrats from knee jerk attacks. Again, it’s not rocket science, just human nature. Ted Kennedy once told me that it’s a lot harder to blast somebody whose hand you’ve shaken. He was right. In that same vein, it’s a lot easier to persuade and to motivate people you’ve come to know and who have come to know you. Democrats who show up with “the” answers but without engaging with the people touched by them get on everybody’s nerves.

Our platform and policies are strong, but a permanent grassroots infrastructure, built to enable all voices to be heard, will make it stronger, more complete, and ultimately more successful.

Former Massachusetts Governor. Committed to the values of generational responsibility and the politics of conviction.

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