The Democratic Party in the United States today is caught in a trap. In some ways it is enormously strong: Its last presidential candidate received a record 81 million votes, it controls both houses of Congress, its agenda enjoys wide popularity, it has particular strength among the fastest-growing segments of the population, and it is making gains in states that used to be Republican strongholds.

Yet at the same time, its ability to translate support into action is terribly constrained, both by certain perverse aspects of the U.S. electoral system and the fact that the other major party is waging a scorched-earth war on democracy itself, a war Democrats seem depressingly ill-equipped to fight.

There may be only one way out: an unprecedented mobilization effort, one large and well-resourced enough to overcome both Republican voter suppression and congressional stagnation. Democrats likely won’t win this fight in the courts or by enacting legislation in Congress, at least not in the short term. So they’ll have to do it on the ground.

But it won’t be easy. In Texas, for instance, Democrats temporarily halted Republicans’ attempt to pass an extraordinarily draconian voter suppression law, but the governor has pledged to bring the legislature back to pass it, and Republicans have the votes. So Democrats are turning to their largest-ever mobilization effort to fight back:

Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said that the program would most likely cost $13 million to $14 million this year, making it the single biggest investment in voter registration by the state party in its history. And the party is embarking on the effort in an off-year for national elections, an often sleepy time with a disengaged electorate and a recharging political base.

This is exactly what Democrats need to do — and what in the past they’ve so often failed to do. Every four years, they seem to rediscover the importance of organizing, putting together new, often well-funded organizations meant to register voters and get them to the polls — then the effort fades away after the election, and they have to start all over again.

“Resources that support Democratic registration drives are driven by the four-year cycle,” Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who researches grassroots politics and works with a group devoted to expanding Pennsylvania’s electorate, told me.

The spigot gets turned on during a presidential election, then turned off. That’s why Democrats must do what they’re doing in Texas, not starting in 2024 but in 2021.

“The relative success stories of 2020,” Putnam added, happened where “you had statewide coalitions that had emerged multiple years before that were a little better at channeling resources toward ongoing voter registration.”

That was the story of Stacey Abrams’ success in Georgia. She and her partner organizations invested years in building up networks, based on an intimate knowledge of their changing state, to identify where voters could be registered and organized.

Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, the group Abrams launched to register voters, says grassroots organizing is the only way to make change happen at the state and federal levels. “I don’t know if there’s any other alternative,” she told me. “You get what you organize for.”

Organizing, she said, is not only the answer to Republican voter suppression but the reason it’s happening in the first place. “What we’re witnessing is a whitelash, a severe backlash to the gains” made by progressives and people of color. Grassroots organizing is “the thing that got us here and it’s the thing that’s going to get us to the other side of this moment.”

The good news for Democrats is that the potential now exists for organizing to be more effective than in the past. One chief complaint progressives have about former president Barack Obama is that he ran two brilliant presidential campaigns on a foundation of activism, but after the elections they left little or nothing behind.

The situation today, Putnam told me, is very different. “The state level panorama on the Democratic side has really shifted in the last few years,” with a new wave of activists and local organizations getting involved.

Those organizations are absolutely central to what Democrats need to do. They provide channels through which resources can flow to have the greatest impact — if Democrats make the investment.

And that’s what they ought to do: Spend not millions of dollars on organizing, but billions of dollars. And start now, not in 2024.

It’s not as though the money doesn’t exist. Democrats spent $7 billion on the 2020 election, much of which went to a flood of TV ads that had no long-term impact; registering and organizing voters is an investment that keeps yielding dividends over time.

But it has to start early. “Investing in grassroots organizations three days before an election is not helpful," Ufot told me.

Grassroots organizing is in many ways the hardest kind of political action: It’s labor-intensive and time-consuming, and the results are often not immediately apparent. And as Democrats work to register new voters, Republicans will keep changing laws to make it harder for them to vote.

It’s a daunting challenge. But compared to the prospects of getting 50 Democratic senators to get rid of the filibuster and pass voting reform, or getting the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court to strike down GOP voter suppression laws, it may be the only chance Democrats have got.

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