I'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.
Candidates will have to build grassroots organizations that can win across their districts. The organization they build to win the party endorsement will be there for them in November, helping us accomplish the goal of taking back the General Assembly. Finally, good candidates who are afraid of a primary election will be less threatened by a primary endorsement process, so this could help NCDP's lackluster candidate recruitment efforts.
Donors and elected officials won’t be able to avoid the party; they’ll have to pay attention to the endorsement process. Furthermore, what’s an easier sell to a donor: sponsor the 2000 delegate convention where we’ll endorse the next Governor of North Carolina, or sponsor the 400 delegate convention where activists will debate the merits of party auxiliary organizations for an hour?
Activists are obvious winners here if they can overcome any misgivings about being involved in the primary process. If they want candidates who are accountable to the party platform, here's their chance.
The idea has the potential to bring in everyday Democrats who will be louder than the voices that are ossifying NCDP from the inside. If you tell someone that their Democratic Party meeting is not a meeting for the sake of having a meeting but an actual part of the election process, you’re doing to diversify the membership of NCDP in a way that expands our reach beyond the diehards and the blowhards.
The Democrats who have been left behind or turned off by years of infighting? They’ll be back. I know a lot of Democrats who are ready to come back to NCDP the second their involvement will affect the outcome of an election.
The Moral Monday protesters and coalition groups? They’ll definitely want the chance to pick their next representative.
Moderates, liberals, and progressives? All of them will want to participate to choose candidates that reflect their values.
I'm as wary as anyone of silver bullets. If we don’t have a financially stable party, strong leadership that is willing to guide our party through the process, and executive committees that recognize that the party needs to change to remain relevant, it’s not worth it.
In spite of the risks, I’m putting this idea forward - along with my path forward for the party - because our party has been bereft of ideas. While we rightly oppose the agenda at the General Assembly, we haven’t put forth constructive ideas to fix our own house.
If you think of this "big idea" as a rhetorical device, it provides a clear contrast between what the party is now and what the party could be. In this idea, the party is functional, party activists have a reason for being involved, meetings matter, the organization continues to grow, elections are won, and we take back the General Assembly. We can't start building the Democratic Party until we know where we are and we agree on the broad strokes of where we want to be.
If the Democratic Party continues to be irrelevant, then we face an existential question: should the Democratic Party even continue to exist? If the party isn't willing to change, and it doesn’t find a reason to be relevant, then what? Rational people who want change do not have time to share a dream while our society's most vulnerable pay the price.
Dreams are important things. They're powerful, often as powerful as reality. I've got nothing against dreams, but some dreams have to die. Others have to be replaced by a new dream.
Therein lies my big idea for the party: face reality and change, or die dreaming about what could have been. It's in your hands.
Sam Spencer is no stranger to the North Carolina Democratic Party (NCDP). Since 2004, he's served as a precinct chair, a county board member, a member of numerous committees, a county executive director, a member of the party's executive council, and president of the state Young Democrats.
PS - I am forever indebted to Neil Gaiman's excellent exploration of the Dreaming in the "Sandman" series.