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. One idea: letting the party endorse in primaries.

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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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Burying the Lede


I had way too much to write for Part III of my series on the North Carolina Democratic Party. I already split it into two parts, and it needs a lot of editing. I'm hoping I'll be able to post it Friday morning before I leave for a conference.

I've solicited feedback from many party members in the writing of this series. I realize it's too long, and I don't want the big points from these pieces to go unnoticed, so I'm going to spotlight some of the more important points I want to make.

Also, a note I haven't had the chance to make yet: I recognize a lot of these are one person's opinion from one person's perspective. I am a straight, cisgendered, white male, and too often that is the only perspective at the table - even in Democratic Politics. It cannot be the only perspective as our party moves forward, so I'll be reaching out to other bloggers to guest blog. If you have a big idea or a big objection, e-mail me at choosesam@gmail.com and I'll post it as long as you're willing to put your real name on it and make the case.

Onto some of the ledes I may have buried in the next piece ...

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Five Thoughts on the NCDP: Mea Culpa

NCDPIn my last post, I said I'd offer 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 mea culpa.

For the past six years, I’ve watched North Carolina Democrats argue about the direction of the Party. These arguments are usually like arguing over the quickest way to get to a Chick-fil-A on a Sunday: once you figure out the answer, it still won’t matter. The Party's own rules and structure make it very resistant to change.

I'm a liberal who thinks the business of the NCDP should be winning elections. I would posit that a vast majority of North Carolina Democrats - regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum - believe that as well. Unfortunately, we've failed to make this argument effectively within the party. We've often gone beyond being didactic to be outright dismissive of others who hold different views. Mea culpa.

If you're still reading, I hope you'll give me a second chance to make that argument. It's my strong belief that the Democratic Party exists to elect Democrats, and to win elections you need a majority. I believe it is important to make the party a big tent so that your coalition is diverse enough to be reflective of the people you wish to represent, and so that people who don't agree with you on every issue are in your tent when you explain your core values. I believe in building coalitions while being a firm liberal on education, social justice, civil rights, and civil liberties (to name a few). I believe you can embrace core values while rejecting purity tests. The "no true Scotsman" argument is a fallacy.

To win elections, we should ask for a Democratic Party led by qualified, diverse leaders and managed by competent professionals. This isn't because there's a corporatist consultant conspiracy to move the party to the right, as some have argued. It's because donors and volunteers want to know their money and time is going to good use. NCDP is shrinking, not growing, and we need talented people focused on growing our ranks and growing our bank account. We need qualified leaders with the experience to lead us in the right direction, and staff who are talented enough to execute an ambitious agenda. Our party is no longer big enough and our state is no longer small enough for an understaffed Democratic Party.

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Five Thoughts on the NCDP: Absolution

NCDPNorth Carolina Democrats are at their low-water mark. Democrats hold only 3 of North Carolina's 15 federal seats for the first time in history, and they hold less seats in the State Senate than ever before. Most of that was expected, but the loss of Senator Kay Hagan really stung.

Many have been quick to blame North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP) Chair Randy Voller, who was strategically divorced from the 2014 elections. Others just want a new direction, any direction, that could lead to a McCrory defeat in 2016. Party activists will have the chance to elect a new chair and set a new direction on February 7th.

I want to offer five thoughts on the NCDP before the organization selects a new chair: an absolution, a mea culpa, a path forward for the party, a path forward for Democratic campaigns, and a big idea.

I'll start with the absolution: while North Carolina Democrats lost big in November, Randy Voller isn’t to blame.

(Randy: thank you for your service, thank you for stepping down, you may go in peace).

Why? Today's NCDP doesn’t have the ability to affect a statewide election. The state party no longer has the infrastructure or the money to play at the federal level. The proliferation of outside spending has made our state party irrelevant in a top-tier race.

NCDP isn't responsible for the impressive victories in Buncombe and Wake Counties, but they aren't responsible for Kay Hagan's defeat, either. The party has tried to claim victory for increased participation in judicial elections, but that has more to do with the elimination of straight-ticket voting than with NCDP replicating the slatecards that have been printed by county parties since the dawn of the two-party system. Nevertheless, this impotence is not Randy's fault.

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