Political professionals in the Democratic Party are scared. Last night, amidst the most exciting election night for Democrats since Donald Trump’s 2016 Electoral College win, unnamed Democratic operatives could not restrain themselves from calling reporters to snipe at their perceived rivals and declare themselves victors in a war that’s only in their own minds.
This transparent insecurity is symptomatic of the most significant issue facing Democratic Party political professionals charting their future career trajectories: We are no longer in charge.
Amateur volunteers spending five or more hours per week working as political activists are taking real leadership in our party by doing jobs previously reserved for professional staff, and there is nothing we professionals can do to stop them. The question is, why would we want to?
As political professionals, we were trained to want control: Control over message, budgets, and policy. In 2017, that’s the wrong way to think about our role. With more people involved and more centers of power in our party than ever before, pursuing a “top-down” leadership style based on the authority of our job title is untenable. We professionals won’t be “running” anything anymore. Now, our role is to teach and help the people who are really calling the shots: Our volunteers.
And if we don’t embrace this new role, then we are the ones who will find ourselves kicked out of the room as the amateurs take the reins.
The Vulnerable Democratic Professional Class
The basic value proposition of professionals working in Democratic politics is in jeopardy. In my experience, nearly all voters — across racial identities, income levels, and geography — make their decisions based on looking at the candidates who want to represent them and asking themselves two simple questions:
- Is this person on my side?
- Do they seem competent in their advocacy for my interests?
These two axes — affiliation and (perceived) competence — underpin support for all political actors, large and small. We political professionals are part of the calculus, and we are in trouble on both counts.
Whose side are the Democrats on? If you’re like me, then you’re experiencing some negative emotion just reading that question. It’s no secret that we’ve had some trouble communicating with voters about this, and though the wounds seem fresh, the internal rifts go back decades. One thing I know to be true: If we need a focus group to figure out what side we’re on, then we’ve got issues.
Are the Democrats competent? For a while, we Democratic Party political professionals got by even though people weren’t entirely convinced that we were fighting for them. That’s because we were seen as winners. President Obama was king of the castle, and he was famous for revolutionizing how political campaigns are run.
Now, unfortunately for us, we are seen as losers. Democrats lost 900 seats at the state level while President Obama was in office, and we lost both houses of Congress. Then we lost the presidency to a buffoon — a buffoon who we took active steps to prop up during the GOP primary, because we thought he’d be an easy mark. Then, we lost to him.
Our wins last night in Virginia were impressive, but the massive down-ballot victories were only possible because our campaign volunteers gave more than just $25 — they took on real leadership and roles usually reserved for paid staff and consultants in order to deliver huge wins that simply wouldn’t have happened if we were still in charge. And our donors know it.
Ignoring the obvious truth about last night’s victories won’t make it go away.
The 5+ Activist Revolution
All of the major innovations in political organizing that we’ve seen in the last 12 months follow the same pattern: They are all centered around amateur, volunteer activists who are taking on real political leadership and learning how to affect the political system by spending five or more hours per week on their activism.
They are organizing meetings with their members of Congress, forming their own Political Action Committees and running for office. They are organizing marches and protests. They are working on campaigns and learning about the minute details of public policy. They are erecting their own ideological platforms and getting their hands dirty with targeting strategy. They’re doing everything we do, and they’re doing it well.
While most of us are arguing among ourselves about which among us have the right strategies to win and which of us should receive leadership — the Bernie consultants or the Hillary consultants, the field organizers or the ads strategists — they’re out there actually proving their value to our donors and earning their seat at the table.
We dismiss them at our own peril. When someone is willing to spend 5+ hours per week on politics, they start to gain real domain knowledge. They become intimately involved with developing and executing real-world projects. They start to become professionals, themselves.
Think about it: How did any of us end up in politics? We started as volunteers, and we became professionals because we felt called to keep going and get in deeper. That’s what the 5+ Activists are doing right now. And because of the democratization of information enabled by the Internet, they are learning fast.
I know this because I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last year speaking with 5+ Activists at meetings, conferences, and on strategy calls. I am far from the only political professional to do this — Dear Reader, if you have been doing your own research, and you have your own perspective to offer, I would love to discuss with you in the comments of this piece. And for those of you who are skeptical of this group of volunteer leaders, my first question will be: Have you talked with any 5+ Activists or groups since Election Day 2016?
Who are the 5+ Activists, and what do they want?
The 5+ Activists hail from different backgrounds, but here are a few common stories I have observed about 5+ activists and where they come from:
- Previously non-political people who might have thought voting or donating were enough civic engagement, but were shocked out of their normal lives by the election of Donald Trump. They felt called to get involved with their communities in a real way.
- People who were awakened to political action by volunteering with the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, and have stayed in touch and continued to organize through legacy campaign networks.
- Obama 2008 campaign alums who after that election went their separate ways to build careers outside of politics. Now, they have been called to get involved once more.
- High net worth individuals who have made major donations to the Democratic Party in the past, or they have the potential to be high-dollar donors to political causes if asked the right way. Now, they are taking it upon themselves to learn the political system so they can better determine which organizations deserve their resources. Some, like Reid Hoffman and Mark Pincus, are thinking, “Can I do this better myself?”
Of course, with this diverse set of backgrounds and circumstances, their goals and methods are not monolithic. But like all voters, 5+ Activists want:
- Representation of their interests, viewpoints, and identities
- Ruthless effectiveness in pursuit of those interests
What ties all 5+ Activists together is a desire for ruthless effectiveness, the urgent hunger for wins at any cost. These are people who got involved because they saw a gaping hole and felt compelled to fill it with their own valuable time and powerful intellects. They will stop at nothing to get the wins they know are possible, and they will only affiliate themselves with organizations that prove their effectiveness with tangible wins.
So what makes an effective political organization?
Though many 5+ Activists are new to politics, they have no problem offering their own opinions on strategy and tactics. I have heard many accounts of what makes an effective political organization from 5+ Activists this year, and they are not always in sync. But here are some common threads:
No more TV ads: The jig is up. Even amateurs know that television advertising has lost its effectiveness, and they will not stand for high-priced TV campaigns that fail to move the needle. In the private sector, digital advertising overtook TV last year. We are lagging far behind in politics.
People-focused messaging: One of the frustrations I’ve heard over and over is that our political campaigns speak about partisan goals like winning seats, but divorce those goals from the interests of actual people. They insist that every goal we speak about publicly should be about something tangible we can do for people. From the local precinct to the DNC, they see a focus on party label or amorphous descriptors like ‘progressive’ as counterproductive absent a tie-in to concrete American lives.
Tangible organizational goals: No more crowing about getting a process story written up in Politico. What about the actual work you’re doing to win real victories for the people you represent? Give updates on those, instead. If you are working toward some large goal that’s years away and can’t come up with some concrete intermediate goals, ask your activists what their goals are and figure it out from there.
Social proof defines qualifications: Petty back-room squabbles over turf and donors will not be tolerated. Anyone who wants to be a part of the effort will get their opportunity to make their case for leadership, regardless of traditional qualifications — but only those attaining social proof from the wider world outside of the donor conclave will rise to the top and attain it.
Though I am sympathetic to all of these activist-driven strategic goals, whether they are objectively correct is a matter for debate — nevertheless, we professionals should move forward with the knowledge that our strategic proposals will no longer be accepted without scrutiny from the activists on the outside. Our work will be evaluated by the public, and it will be judged.
How bad can it get for us?
Sure, we know that new groups are entering the political space, but that happens all the time. The activists can’t actually replace us, can they? After all, they’re just volunteers, and we have decades of political experience informing us — we know how to avoid pitfalls that newbies will fall into, we know how to write sophisticated spending plans for big budgets, and we have the trust of the donors and all the political connections.
Wrong. Here’s what will enable them to beat us at our own game:
They are codifying their own best practices: I recently wrote up my experience volunteering with Tech for Campaigns, an organization founded this year that connects skilled volunteers from the tech industry with campaigns that can use their help. They’ve been codifying best practices learned on every campaign they’ve run, and their library on digital advertising is already better organized and more detailed than most prominent political consulting shops I’ve worked with. After one or two Congressional election cycles, they will have more recorded institutional knowledge than anyone (except for perhaps the Analyst Institute).
They’ve written multimillion dollar campaign plans before: 5+ Activists come from every industry, and serious marketing professionals from the private sector are already involved. They won’t be intimidated going up against us to bid for that $100k / month contract, or pitching a $20 million campaign plan to a room full of investors.
We don’t really have the trust of the donors: Well, maybe we have the benefit of the doubt for now, but not for long. What happens in 2019 if Donald Trump still has Republican majorities in Congress? Think our donors will be happy with some seat gains in the House? If you were Democratic donors, would you be satisfied? Suddenly, those scrappy new organizations might be a tempting group to support in earnest.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the 5+ Activists are going to form volunteer-run alternatives to party institutions like the DNC, DCCC, DGA, etc. Nor am I suggesting that they will found a third party to supplant us. I’m suggesting that, sooner than we think, our donors will give the best of the volunteers a shot in the driver’s seat of the Democratic Party, and then the volunteers will start drawing a salary and become professionals by default.
This isn’t a fantasy. Industries colonize other industries all the time — in fact, not too long ago, we were the ones doing the colonizing. Why would it be so strange for people to do it to us? And if we’re really as good as we say we are, why should we feel threatened?
How established professionals can stay relevant
Faced with this threat to our professional livelihoods, the way out is obvious: We just need more wins like the ones we got last night!
Unfortunately, if staying in charge were that easy, we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place. The game has already changed, and a few good election nights won’t erase decades of promises we have broken to our donors and our voters.
First, we have to consider whether outside input and new blood would benefit us. For all our expertise, the world moves ever forward and our tactics need to be tested by competition from new entrants to the space.
Incumbency often impedes innovation — it was the desperate underdog position of Obama’s primary campaign in 2008 that allowed our digital organizing innovation to flower, and there’s little doubt that eight years in the White House has kept our world in stasis as we’ve fallen behind our private-sector marketing peers.
Second, with our backs against the wall, to have any chance of regaining our footing we need to consider the value that the 5+ Activists are offering to us: They are offering their time, the most valuable possession they have. They are skilled, they are smart, and they are motivated.
The Democrats found massive success over the last eight years by harnessing the resources of millions of grassroots activists across the country. The value these grassroots activists provided was so huge that it shaped an entire multi-billion dollar industry in the progressive political space based on attracting and engaging these activists over email. We built specialized, full-featured digital toolsets trying to squeeze as much value out of this new cohort of click-activists as we could.
Now, a new generation of activists are telling us that they have more to give than just $5 and a petition signature. Why would we turn them away when they tell us they want to give more? Just because they didn’t come from our little professional community?
Here are my not-so-bold predictions:
From among the crop of new organizations popping up this year, the ones that stand the test of time will be the ones that find the best ways to empower their volunteers to take real strategic leadership in their direction and operation. And from among the established, blue-chip political organizations working in the progressive left today, the ones that survive and thrive in this new era will be the ones that reevaluate their own models of governance and operation to copy the new kids on the block.
The Democratic Party — and the group of established professionals who work in its orbit — is in crisis. That is clear. But every crisis is an opportunity.
All that’s required for us to take advantage of this opportunity is to set aside our egos and find the patience to engage sincerely with people who lack in experience but make up for it with smarts and huge ambition.
Unlike my fellow professionals, I have yet to run into a 5+ Activist who is snobbish and exclusionary. They may be audacious to think they can challenge us for leadership, but they do know the value of our experience and they are hungry to learn from it. They want to work with us.
The choice is up to us: If we are willing to widen the circle to include and empower our most dedicated activists, we will reap the benefits of a more effective political organization — and secure our own futures in the messy but wonderful world of American politics. If not, we jeopardize our place in everything we’ve worked for.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And it will bend, with us or without us. I’m choosing to follow the bend, and I hope that you’ll join me.