Which Way, Democrats?

Tomorrow, 447 Democrats will select the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. Because of an extensive, selective set of leaks, a lot of people have an outsized sense of the importance of the national committee and the chair.

It doesn’t help that the campaign was interminable; that cable news networks, eager to not monomaniacally focus on President Trump, have elevated this race to a hilarious level — CNN dubbing it the “Democratic Leadership Race” during Wednesday night’s debate — and that wounds unhealed during last year’s primary remain unbound, newly raw in a race neither contender wanted run as a rematch or a proxy fight.

Throughout, people have framed this race as a “left/right” fight, or as an “establishment/outsider” fight. It’s not just outside spectators, either; Keith Ellison, one of the two contenders for chair, speaks of fighting the “consultant-ocracy”.

I find the characterizations unhelpful.

Both Ellison and Tom Perez are stalwart progressives. Both would lead the party creditably over the next two or four years. Both would be significant pioneers in the position: Perez would be the first Latino to lead the party, Ellison the first Muslim. Do they have flaws? Of course they do. But as I am a flawed man myself, I seek not the flaws in my fellow man, lest they amplify my own.

My concerns lie elsewhere. First, whom will either Perez or Ellison appoint as the party’s executive director? Given their relative inexperience, that appointment is crucial, because — at least initially — that person will have considerable power in the day-to-day operations of the party.

This is where it begins, but not where it ends.

Let me start by drawing your attention to two pieces of writing you should read, if you haven’t already.

David Auerbach and Daniel Schlozman both wrote essays I think merit way closer attention than they’ve gotten. It’s become fashionable in this tenebrous season for progressives to slam the use of data; to say that Clinton’s campaign — for which I worked, full disclosure — was too dependent on “quants” and not at all dependent on “quals” (storytellers). What doesn’t get discussed is why our campaign failed in this regard. Auerbach discusses this crisply, particularly in this passage:

If a piece of code crashes, it’s broken, but at least you know it’s broken. The most dangerous kind of code — as I learned too many times in my years as a software engineer at Google and Microsoft — is the kind that breaks but appears to keep working. The worst part is that you have only yourself to blame, because you should have anticipated the possibility of such a breakage and set up mechanisms to catch it. This was Ada’s failure: she went wrong early and no one ever noticed. What Ada needed to do was to generate recommendations for collecting new data most likely to falsify her recommendations — like ground-level voter verification throughout Michigan, or interrogating turnout in the “safe” Clinton districts of Pennsylvania. Only an aggressive attempt to falsify would have broken the hermetic seal on Ada’s model.

Read the whole thing. I am not a data specialist; I readily concede that. But I am data familiar, and this explanation comes closest to explaning what went wrong on the data side to me.

Schlozman’s elegy is fantastic. His experience in New Hampshire was mine in Florida’s. We both came to politics through field organizing, so this passage was especially painful to read:

We hit the same voters in the same houses time and again, whether they were the right houses or not. “How come,” a voter, late-twenties guy in a wool Celtics hat, middle-class neighborhood, asked me, “you always come for her” — was “her” a sister, maybe? — “and never for me?” They voted, he said, about equally often, and always for Democrats. I smiled and said that I was coming for him, but had no good answer. How badly, as I made my way through the smattering of addresses in public housing in my packet, I wanted to do a blind pull and knock every door in the Whittier Park Homes, and then on Election Day, assemble a big team for knock-and-drag, and walk voters directly to the polls. But the lists told us otherwise.
“How did your packet go?” the staff at the return table asked — only to then ignore our answers. Those answers collectively contain the answers to what works on the doors, but nothing happened to them; we were, bizarrely, warned not to write notes on the packets. (A friend who came up for the day violated the rule to warn future canvassers off the voter who tried to run her car off the road.) Just as A. J. P. Taylor described in War by Timetable, on July 1914, mobilization proceeded entirely apart from events, and led to ruin.

This part, though, made me furious:

Another young staffer had grown up in Chappaqua, gone to Duke and joined a frat, interned at a hedge fund that specializes in collaterized loan obligations, and on graduation spent a year in Brooklyn on the Clinton campaign’s social media team. A month out, he got shipped off to New Hampshire, which to him was like being rusticated in the Cultural Revolution. At the table where packets got returned — where small talk is so important, to excite volunteers to head out once more and return tomorrow — he could only manage a scowl. One evening, I remarked how much I’d missed being in a field office. He looked at me funny. The work, he complained, was “menial.”

I’ve no reason to believe Schlozman is making this up. At this point, I don’t particularly care who this person was. It’s done and dusted. But let’s get something straight here: there is no work more important on a campaign than field organizing. You should read the rest of Schlozman’s essay, if for no other reason than it’s a fine piece of writing on its own.

Both as a progressive movement and as a party, we are unwilling to engage in a forensic, ongoing, systematic process of review and lessons-learned.

I spent almost eight years in the military. There’s a couple of concepts we’d do well to adopt from that world. One comes from the Marine Corps; the other comes from the military as a whole.

In the Marines, everyone — be they a signal person, a photographer, a mechanic — is a rifleman first and foremost. If you cannot competently fire your weapon, the Marines don’t care if you’re an expert at fixing trucks. The most important job in the Marine Corps is being a rifleman. No exceptions.

We are an organizing party. We organize. This is what we do.

Same in a campaign. You can always raise more money; you can always write more press releases, send more tweets, what have you. But you can never make more time. You can have the best fundraisers, the wittiest communicators, the pithiest coders, but if your field organizers can’t organize, then it’s all for naught.

As I wrote above, I came to politics as a field organizer, first in the Clinton campaigns of 1992 and 1996, then in the 2006 Senate campaign of Ned Lamont. I’m not going to pretend that field organizing is a glamorous job, or even that it’s particularly fun; it’s neither.

But it is vital. And we need to make sure that every single Democratic staffer on a campaign at every level is a field organizer first, last and foremost — no exceptions.

They don’t need to enjoy it, though it helps. They don’t need to like it, though it helps. But they need to accept it as a core competency of the job, and if they don’t, then that’s incompatible with professional employment as a Democratic political professional.

We are an organizing party. We organize. This is what we do. If you cannot talk to people on the doorstep or on the phone, or worse, if you do not want to talk to people on the doorstep or on the phone, then you need to find another place to go. There’s nothing wrong with that! The Democratic Party is not that place, though.

The second concept is that of after-action reviews and lessons-learned. Simply put: what happened in the campaign, and what can we learn from it? It is astonishing to me that we don’t do this on a consistent basis. It means that people in resource-poor states like Arkansas and West Virginia cannot learn from people in resource-rich states like Colorado and California.

Moreover, it allows people and organizations to elide responsibility for failure, and it makes it impossible to reward success. If we are serious about reforming the party, then implementing after-action reviews is critical. This isn’t a new concept, by the way; one of the first and best examples of an AAR is Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War).

The AAR is centered on four things:

  • What did we think was going to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • What went well and why?
  • What can we do better and how?

One thing is critical here: this is not an assessment of blame. Blame is not a useful element. When I talk about assessing responsibility for failure, I do so because it’s critical that we learn from failure. We have a political culture in which failure leads to exile; that is toxic, and leads to mediocrity. I would much rather that our people fail often and greatly and learn from it than succeed rarely and slightly and learn nothing — which is what’s going on right now.

The two pieces I mentioned above, incidentally, are literary examples of after-action reports. What we need is to flesh those out, and to do things like that after every single campaign, at every level, so that we can know what works and what doesn’t work. Without engaging in reporting, how can we know that?

We cannot.

We are at a revolutionary moment in our national life. People are streaming into local Democratic offices, pleading to be enlisted in the cause of democracy. We cannot simply offer up the same tired nostrums dressed in revolutionary language. We cannot simply say, let us be rid of the consultants!, without knowing how and why we came to this place. The answers are more complex, and varied, and more difficult than that.

If we’re going to properly channel the popular majority we won in November and that we see in the streets week after week into a fundamental national reformation, then we must be willing to engage in a similar corporate reformation.

Only then can we hope to be worthy vessels of the popular trust.

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