By Emily Lin
A FAQ About Getting Involved in Local Politics, Part 2
Q: Why should I become an active member of my local Democratic Party organization?
You can’t go wrong by starting with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
In these wise words, I see three very good reasons to get involved with your local Democratic Party organization:
- To drive out the dark – i.e., mitigate the destruction being wreaked by the President’s administration and the spineless Republicans enabling that administration at all levels of government;
- To bring out the light – i.e., contribute your vision and values to the rebuilding of the Democratic Party in the image of what the United States of America could and should be;
- To love – i.e., connect with people, take purposeful action, have fun, and feel awesome.
Reason 1: Drive out the dark
This approach is in line with what the Tea Party did, and is the idea behind the Indivisible Guide. So now it’s our turn. The President’s policies (really, all of them) must be resisted. And the way to get the policies we want is to elect politicians we can influence, starting from the bottom up.
For example, at the most recent Democratic Party meeting I went to, I learned that in my state, there are over 3000 elected positions, many of which are vacant. In my district alone, there are 40 vacant seats, ranging from school board to city council to public utility positions. There are also tons of appointed positions at the state level. My state Governor’s office currently lists 20 pages of upcoming gubernatorial appointment opportunities, many of which are open to the “general public.” These appointments cover a wide and fascinating range of issues, with real implications for real people.
For example, the “Indeterminate Sentence Review Board” currently seeks a member of the general public to help “determine duration of confinement and parole release of felony offenders who committed crimes before July 1st, 1984.” On a completely different issue, there’s an opening on the “Earth-Abundant Materials Board of Directors,” which “works with the clean technology and transportation industry associations and firms of all sizes” and includes managing funds to invest in clean technology, state-wide. Crazy!
At local Democratic Party meetings, you learn about openings like these, and you also get to know people who know people who staff these positions. Your involvement helps grow the pool of regular folks with untapped talents who could be awesome public servants. Think of it this way: for every ICE or CPB agent who has been Milgram-matically programmed by this Administration to act in abusive, authoritarian ways toward innocent people, there is and equal and opposite opportunity for someone like you (or your awesome neighbor) to exercise positive leadership.
Which leads me to…
Reason 2: Bring out the light
As I like to tell my six-year-old, “Don’t just say what bad thing you’re not going to do next time, say what good thing you’re going to do instead.”
Due to the rancorous 2016 Democratic primary campaign and the massive shock of the general election, there is now a battle going on for the soul of the Democratic Party. The election of Tom Perez as Chair of the Democratic National Committee – and his appointment of Keith Ellison as his Deputy – was a step toward showing what the Party could be moving forward. But there is still a lot of tension and dissent in the ranks, and it’s playing out in local Democratic Party organizations all over the country. Here’s what I’ve seen at mine:
- Very strong divisions still exist between people who identify as “Berners” and people who identify as Democrats more generally. For example, “I’m a Bernie person” is a way people introduced themselves to me at my district meeting, and in sort of an under the breath way, like, “Don’t worry, I’m cool, I’m with Bernie.”
- Berners appeared to be generally newer to the Party, and were perceived to be exhibiting “bullying” behaviors by the longer-term Dems.
- The Berners appeared to have more fire in their bellies and more numbers. They tended to roll their eyes at the more old-school Dems and seemed unified in a belief that the “establishment” needs to go.
- The long-time Dems in attendance seemed pretty frustrated at being talked over, voted down, and often pushed aside by the Berners.
A good deal of the division between Berners and more broadly-identified Democrats is perceived to be along policy lines, particularly on economic issues. So, if you have strong feelings – in any direction – about the “Bernie platform” and approach to politics vs a more broadly progressive approach to politics, it’s time to get in there and make your voice heard.
But policy and identity are always hard to disentangle, and the consequences of this mixing-up make me concerned for the future of the Democratic Party in many ways. Here are some observations about how identity-based divisions are playing out in my legislative district:
- The “new guard” of Dems/Berners getting a lot of speaking time and votes have tended to be White men whom I’d say are in their 30s and 40s. Almost everyone at the front of the room during the re-org meeting (secretary, parliamentarian, sergeant-at-arms, tally committee) fit this description (except for me; I was volunteered by my seatmate to be a member of the tally committee, but I did a piss-poor job and had to leave early so I think I won’t get that job again). The acting Chair was a 30s-ish Black man visiting from another district; the newly elected Chair is a White man in his 30s or 40s, I would say.
- No one talked about race explicitly, that I could hear, in either of the meetings I have attended. I think my legislative district is almost 80% White, and I think the room was maybe about 90% White at the re-org meeting, and about 95% White at the regular membership meeting. Based on my best guesses of people’s racial identity, for non-White folks, at the re-org meeting, I noticed two Black men, one South Asian couple, one East Asian man, one Black woman wearing a hijab, maybe two to ten Latino folks, and myself in a room of roughly 100 people, maybe a little more. In the second meeting I went to, I only saw three obviously (to my eye) people of color, not including myself.
- Sexism is alive and well on the left. Many of the long-time Dems getting eye-rolled at local meetings have been White women whom I’d say were in their 50s and 60s. At the re-org meeting, one woman suggested an amendment to the rules that would codify gender-balancing among the officers. An animated discussion began, which then formalized into two people speaking for the amendment (50ish Hispanic man and 60ish White woman) and two people speaking against (40ish and 50ish White men), then devolved into arguing, and the acting Chair (30-40ish Black man) publicly telling the woman who suggested the amendment to “Calm down.” Any woman who has ever been told to “calm down” by a man during an argument (especially one about sex and gender) in which everyone is being a tool knows how infuriating that is. I audibly said, “Wow,” and the man sitting in front of me was like, “What, what? Did something just happen?”
My point is – representation is important. And it’s also important to remember that it’s not just Trump supporters who are angry and looking for blood. I don’t think anger and populism in and of themselves are bad – they certainly serve their purpose in a democracy (see Saul Alinsky). And economic inequality is a core threat to our country that I think both parties have failed to address.
But, as we engage with the tensions between populism and policy, as a fellow member of my district put it, “it seems to me that we have a lot to learn from the Republicans here: if you start courting and catering to [bullies] … eventually you become them.”
So get in there – and be a voice for the things and people you believe in. Bring the light!
Reason 3: Love
So yes, getting involved in local politics is important for democracy, for our country, for the world. But all that aside – the most important reason to get involved in local politics is for yourself. This is a hard, hard time. There is so much going on, and many of us feel like this guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_he4sLjwCfg. Those of us on Five Minutes have taken the step of committing to taking actions, but even those can feel disjointed and futile when they’re not knitted into a larger strategy.
A mentor of mine and famed community organizer, Marshall Ganz, has a great chart that illustrates the difference between emotions that inhibit action (on the left) vs emotions that enable action (on the right):
Urgency overcomes feelings of inertia. Anger at the state of the world as it is, vs. how it should be, overcomes feelings of apathy. Hope overcomes fear. Solidarity overcomes isolation. And feeling like you can make a difference (YCMAD) overcomes self-doubt.
Many of us are getting pretty good at urgency and anger in this moment.
But by getting involved with your local Democratic Party organization, you can also start to develop hope, solidarity, and the feeling like you are actually making a positive difference. You participate in a real structure – you hang out with your neighbors, eat meatballs on a toothpick, and realize that you’re talking to someone who can help fix the broken caucus system, or who helps decide where and when to schedule an awesome Congressional candidate’s campaign event, or, at the very least, who can help you fix that ridiculous traffic pattern in your neighborhood (this happened to me!). And a basic fact about social movements is that success breeds success. As the famous Margaret Mead quote goes –
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.