In The Arena

CMS SquareWhile attending today's "State of Our Schools" speech at East Mecklenburg High School, I was reminded of Teddy Roosevelt's "Citizenship in a Republic" speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Few of us are in the arena day in and day like the teachers and administrators who lead our schools. I no longer teach or tutor, but if there was ever something I did that was worthy of my best efforts, it was teaching.

When you're an educator, it can feel like everyone's a critic. Parents can pick apart lesson plans, students can disengage, legislators can do everything they can to discourage teachers to leave the profession. Many are critical of schools in an effort to make them better; others are critical of schools because they expect perfection and haven't yet learned the lesson that all of us must learn, that nothing can ever be perfect. Not every child is going to learn what they need to learn to be successful adults. Still, teachers walk into the arena 180 school days a year.

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The Democratic Party is Only as Good as the Work It's Accomplishing

Thanks to Tim Boyum and Capital Tonight for having me on last night to talk about the "Five Thoughts" on the North Carolina Democratic Party. The segment starts at 17:30.

You can watch the video here.


Five Thoughts on the NCDP: Big Idea

NCDP Square.jpgI've outlined a path forward for the party, but what if a path forward isn't enough to save the party? What if those changes prove impossible, even after a new chair does everything they can to get the party off life support? Just in case, I've been keeping a big idea in my back pocket.

A well-managed Democratic Party that impacts elections should be the goal, but it hasn't been a reality for years. Instead, the Democratic Party is a dream kept alive by people who are willing to shut their eyes and imagine What Could Be instead of What Is. Party members dream of their party's glory days, they dream of their donation winning an election, they dream of their debates having meaning in the outside world. As it has ceded power and faced administrative and financial challenges, NCDP has found it harder to ask people to join in this dream. Facing reality has proven equally difficult.

To change the party, an idea as big as that dream may be necessary. Alternately, a big idea may be able to act as a rhetorical device to demonstrate how far away NCDP is from what it could be.

So here's my thought experiment: If the North Carolina Democratic Party wants to be relevant and effective again, it should consider moving to a system of nominating conventions wherein party activists choose the Democratic nominees.

The Democratic Party brand is the most valuable resource NCDP has aside from its people. Putting the Democratic Party nomination back in control of the party will make NCDP relevant overnight.

This is not unprecedented. Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holds nominating conventions, and they’re easily one of the strongest state Democratic Party organizations in the country. In some cases, candidates who lose the DFL endorsement still run in the primary, but most candidates respect the party endorsement, avoiding costly primary battles in the process.

Think about it: instead of culminating in party officer elections and platform fights, the precinct organization process ends in the nomination of Democratic candidates. Instead of fighting over resolutions, the most important agenda item at district, county, and state conventions is the nomination of candidates. Participation will skyrocket.

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What Kind of Blog Has It Been?

Sorkin QuoteIn part one of my "Five Thoughts" series, I promised to present the following thoughts on the North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP): an absolution, a mea culpa, a path forward for the party, a path forward for Democratic campaigns, and a big idea. Since then, I added a path forward for party leadership and a couple of other thoughts here and there. That's a lot of content, so here's a summary of the series. As some of my friends in other states have noted in their feedback, many of these thoughts are relevant to the Democratic Party at every level.

  1. The Democratic Party has problems that run much deeper than the current leadership. These problems include legal, financial, and civic environments that aren't favorable to the traditional party structure. Bad party leadership in recent years has been the product of a weak party, not the other way around. NCDP needs significant changes to be able to adapt to its new environment and win elections again. The way the party operates is unsustainable.

  2. The party's leadership and governing committees haven't been convinced en masse that the Democratic Party exists to elect Democrats, and many party members lack the "campaign literacy" to know how to win elections. If an organization doesn't agree on a clear goal and doesn't know how to get there, it will never be successful. However, campaign professionals and elected officials can't be dismissive of activists. The party has to have conversations and trainings that demonstrate why an electoral focus brings value to party work and gives Democrats at every level the tools to understand campaigns and succeed in a campaign environment.

  3. The Democratic Party is only as powerful as the work it accomplishes. The organization should be changed to eliminate redundant positions, inefficient dinners, and unnecessary meetings. Participation in the party must create value for volunteers and donors, not bureaucracy. The party has to hire a professional staff that's large enough and local enough to help manage and train a party with 100 counties, over 10,000 positions, and 2.6 million registered Democrats. The party has to be goal- and metrics-driven so that important work is accomplished. The party has to demonstrate a causal relationship between what it does and what happens at the ballot box.

  4. The Democratic Party needs qualified, diverse leaders and a professional, metrics-driven staff. These leaders have to raise money and manage it responsibly or the party will die. The next NCDP board is going to have to do a lot of call time to be able to raise the money to sustain operations. Our leaders need to use a modern, integrated approach to fundraising, and they have to be accountable to the rest of the party organization so that the work gets done. They have to inspire confidence with donors. Unfortunately, most of the candidates running for NCDP chair don't have the experience to be up to this task.

  5. We have to treat campaign workers and party staff better and develop them as leaders and operatives. Democrats don't use all of their resources efficiently because the aggregate demand for campaign work is too low. If campaign work becomes a full time job, we have more people working full time to help build the party. People who work on campaigns aren't in it for the money, but they should be paid a living wage and treated like the professionals they are. If North Carolina Democrats want professional, winning campaigns, they have to professionalize the political labor force in North Carolina.

  6. Aside from its people, the party's most valuable resource is its brand. Let's use it. NCDP should continue to repair its brand by electing new leadership and proving it can make the changes needed to win elections. However, it can leverage the power of its brand in ways that will immediately increase its relevance and bring new people into the party.

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Five Thoughts on the NCDP: The Path Forward for Campaigns

NCDP SquareYesterday, I explained how campaigns could benefit from a professionalized political labor market. While that is a priority, there are other actions the North Carolina Democratic Party can take to help win campaigns. Additionally, campaigns can be more successful by being better partners.

For the party to be able to make a difference in campaigns, we have to increase "campaign literacy." I define campaign literacy as a basic understanding of how modern campaigns operate in order to win elections.

At the risk of being didactic, we have to start this conversation from the premise that many active Democrats aren't familiar with what goes into the modern campaign. This unfamiliarity goes all the way to the top. 

At a forum held in Charlotte today, I asked the candidates for NCDP chair about their experience doing campaign call time (dialing for dollars). At least four of the candidates for NCDP chair have been candidates for federal or state office, so I thought it was a fair question. Even though call time is the backbone of the modern campaign, three of the four candidates present had not dialed for dollars before.

I quickly realized that the conversation that needs to happen in the party is so much more fundamental than most operatives and campaign workers understand. If the party wants to make a difference on campaigns and elect Democrats, they have to elect leadership that understands campaigns. For party regulars to want to elect those kinds of leaders, they have to understand what goes in to modern campaigns.

So, instead of getting into a discussion of tradecraft, I'm going to keep this thought simple: we have to do more to train party members on the basics of modern campaigns, and campaigns have to be a part of this effort.

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Tapping the Left

CivitasTomorrow, I'll release Part IV of my "Five Thoughts" on the North Carolina Democratic Party. Before I do that, I wanted to focus on a key point from piece: treating campaign workers better, and developing them as leaders and operatives.

This week, the conservative Civitas Institute published its map of the people and organizations that make up the center-left progressive coalition in North Carolina. If you take a look, you see a lot of people who work in various organizations and non-profits, but what you don't see is a network or list of partisan campaign operatives.

Why? That network doesn't really exist. However, if we want better campaign workers and better campaigns, it's desperately needed. 

It's hard out there for a political operative. Most operatives get paid a couple grand a month for their first two cycles. A +70/hr work week is standard; that means someone in their mid-twenties making $2500/mo on a campaign is being paid about $8.33 an hour (no overtime, of course). Expenses don't always get reimbursed, the last paycheck doesn't always come, there aren't always health benefits, and it's hard to have a normal life. Most workers don't get paid after November 15th.

Let me get this out of the way right now: people don't work on campaigns to make money. The vast majority of people I've worked with on campaigns do it as a labor of love, and have skills that could make them a lot more money in the private sector.

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Pan Am

Pan AmPan Am has an instantly recognizable brand. It's known throughout the world as the de facto flag carrier airline of the United States. It has a storied history, it's responsible for numerous firsts in the airline industry, and it founded the global airline industry association. It dominated air travel in the 20th century.

In spite of all of that, Pan Am doesn't fly planes anymore.

Like Pan Am forty years ago, the North Carolina Democratic Party is facing legal and financial realities that challenge its dominance. However, the NCDP brand hasn't failed yet. That brand still a valuable asset that can be leveraged, even if the infrastructure isn't there right now. In Part V of my "Five Thoughts" series, I'm going to introduce an idea that leverages the NCDP brand in a way that makes participating in the party exponentially more meaningful.

Nevertheless, a brand isn't everything. Companies have tried to revive the Pan Am brand six times, but it's hard to bring a company back after it fails. There are NCDP members who still believe that candidates, donors, and volunteers are going to participate in the party just because it's called the Democratic Party, even if it doesn't add any value to the lives of its participants. If they think everything will be alright just because they're members of the Democratic Party, they're wrong.

The Democratic brand is still strong, and it's stronger than the Republican brand. If NCDP uses its brand as a tool instead of a crutch, the party will carve a path forward.


NCDP SquareIn Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond investigates why some societies succeed while others fail. The answer includes the right crops, livestock, and geography; in essence, societies succeed because of factors that are out of the society's control. However, Diamond readily admits that there are wildcards - like an especially great or especially bad leader - that can disrupt this formula.

An interesting wildcard occurs when "a minor cultural feature may arise for trivial, temporary local reasons, become fixed, and then predispose a society toward more important cultural choices."

For example, in the 14th century, the Chinese "stepped back from the verge of an industrial revolution." Soon after, China quit building ships because the government decided against it. Diamond argues that China's isolation prevented its leaders from being forced by competition to build ships and industrialize. In spite of its natural advantages, China's eccentricities prevented it from emerging as a world power until recently.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. For years, the North Carolina Democratic Party operated in a vacuum, without competition. There was no incentive to change. Then the Obama Campaign came in 2008 and 2012 and showed better ways to organize. After that, independent expenditure groups came in and did a much better job raising money. In 2013, Moral Mondays built a coalition that NCDP couldn't match. Now that there's competition, NCDP is losing the arms race.

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Five Thoughts on the NCDP: The Path Forward for Party Leadership

NCDP SquareThe cat's out of the bag. The North Carolina Democratic Party is about to run out of money.

Previously, I outlined reasons why many of the party's financial problems can be forgiven: public financing of state parties has ended, Democrats are out of power in North Carolina, and independent expenditure groups are more attractive options to many power donors in the wake of the Citizens United decision.

That being said, the headline "NC Democratic Party has just $42,700 in the bank" speaks for itself. According to the article, "[Chair] Voller said he’s not sure what the monthly budget is now," but it has been tens of thousands of dollars a month. 

If you look at any political party's hierarchy of needs, financial stability is probably the most basic need. The party has to raise money and manage it responsibly or it will die. The path forward starts with new leaders and a new leadership style.

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Five Thoughts on the NCDP: The Party Organization's Path Forward

In part one, I promised to present five thoughts on the North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP): an absolution, a mea culpa, a path forward for the party, a path forward for Democratic campaigns, and a big idea. This is the path forward for the party.

While writing this I realized that the organizational piece and the leadership piece are two related but separate problems. I'll be back with the path forward for leadership next Monday.

To move forward, we have to correctly identify NCDP's problems. NCDP, like many civic organizations, is in decline. This is happening to organizations across the country. Our tight-knit rural communities are shrinking, weakening civic organizations as well as once-strong local parties. The creative destruction caused by the Internet and the suburbanization of America have taken their toll on groups that used to bind our communities together. Attendance in civic clubs is down 58% from 25 years ago (for a great overview of the problems facing civic organizations across the country, check out the works of Robert Putnam).

The key organizational problem facing NCDP, civic decline, is a problem that other groups face as well. We can learn a lot from other campaigns, parties, and civic organizations that faced the same challenges. The Obama campaign was well aware of this problem, and created technological solutions and a neighborhood organizing strategy to bring volunteers together like never before. Unfortunately, state and local Democratic parties haven’t caught up to the Obama campaign’s technological advances or suburb-friendly neighborhood structure.

Many of the solutions to reverse civic decline are out of our hands, but not all. Putnam's "Better Together" report lists "showing citizens they have impact" as a key to reversing civic apathy. While there are some people who will continue to participate in the party no matter what, it is hard to make the case to new volunteers and activists that being a part of the party has impact.

Magical thinking is a problem, and needs to be called out. Yard signs don't vote. Slatecards may inform on lower-level races, but they don't vote. A party platform plank or resolution isn't going to change minds. If ten people talk to ten people, you're not going to start a revolution that changes the world. Yet we allow party leaders at the state and county level to take credit where credit is not due. The work of Democratic Party organizing is hard, it's complex, and it isn't learned in a day.

The Democratic Party is not powerful or effective just because it exists. This is magical thinking of the worst variety. Whenever someone tells me the party made a difference but can't give me stats on doorknocks, dials, and volunteer hours, I'm reminded of a lyric from a song on my GOTV playlist, "I don't believe you, you need more people." This kind of thinking makes people fight over titles that are often meaningless. The Democratic Party is only as powerful as the work it is accomplishing.

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