Lara Putnam is UCIS research professor in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Robert D. Putnam is professor of public policy at Harvard University and author of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”
BEAVER FALLS, Pa.
The work that used to be done here was outsourced long ago, and only since Donald Trump’s election has there been reason to hope that might change.
For decades, distant managers have called the shots. Consultants made promises about new technology. Local conflicts were too costly. Design could be done better, faster, slicker, far away.
The enterprise didn’t shut down entirely. But it came to be run by a skeletal staff. A generation has grown up never imagining the front gates wide open.
We’re not talking about the B&W tube plant that once employed thousands on the outskirts of town. We’re talking about the Democratic Party.
There was a time when the local party was as integral to civic life in Beaver County as the union and factory. But then came the 1970s, job loss, casualization — myriad trends that drove disengagement from politics as they did across community life, from Bible study to bowling leagues. Members aged. Young folks didn’t step in. Increasingly, tasks local citizens once did together — calling neighbors to get them to the polls, organizing events for candidates — were outsourced to campaigns based far away. However sophisticated the messaging, the face-to-face conversation was gone.
The Obama campaign, with its focus on relational organizing, offered a brief countertrend. Supporters were urged to reach out to neighbors, hold house parties, take ownership — and they did. Unfortunately, the lesson party leaders took away wasn’t that relationships work; it was that campaign-centric politics could work for the Dems nationally even when things didn’t look so good locally.
The 2016 election made the misreading tragically evident. The Hillary Clinton campaign doubled down on what had become the default Democratic strategy: monetize support, treat volunteer labor as interchangeable, parachute in to “turn out” your base. It didn’t work.
Across America, people emerged from the emotional hangover of Trump’s election and vowed to make a difference. In record numbers, they sought state and county websites to join their local party, only to discover that, in many places, it didn’t exist — or at least not in the form of a face-to-face group welcoming newcomers. While a few state parties provide for chartered Democratic clubs, in many places, a handful of elected committee slots are the only spaces for belonging. If you were trying to design the least accessible version of an organization with local chapters, this is what it would look like.
And so people invented the groups they wanted to find.
The Indivisible Guide and Women’s March offered templates, yet, from the start, even Indivisible groups cheerfully ignored the guide’s argument for a defensive focus. Without coordination, yet with striking consistency, folks began to map out upcoming local elections and dig for information on how ward and township committee structures work.
Within Pennsylvania alone, more than 550 new grass-roots groups have been identified by an umbrella coalition, Pennsylvania Together. (One of us — Lara — is involved in one such group in Pittsburgh’s 11th Ward.) Each group has members across the Obama-Clinton-Sanders spectrum, but no one is fighting those battles. Groups are defined by geography rather than ideology, as happens when you take for granted the need to meet regularly. About four-fifths of leaders are women. National data suggest similar trends.
Media commentary on “the resistance” has focused on whether new players will siphon donations from the party or push it to the left. What should worry us instead is the opportunity cost of mobilizing all this energy outside existing structures, having to invent from scratch the protocols necessary to avoid the “ tyranny of structurelessness” or “ tactical freezes.”
There is a better alternative. The Democratic Party still has the bones of a membership organization. It has bylaws and rules for precinct representation, tax status and liability insurance, quorum requirements for the day when allies disagree — the infrastructure needed to forge diverse desires into sustained joint action.
By all visible evidence, most national Democratic leaders have failed to recognize the moment. Some officials ask for “your” volunteers’ help in getting “our” message out, not realizing that the very framing proclaims their insularity. Yet in suburbs, exurbs and midsize towns, the reanimation of the local Democratic Party is underway with or without a welcome mat.
Look at Beaver County. Over the past decade, despite a nearly 2-to-1 registration advantage, Democrats’ domination of local and state offices unraveled. Trump carried the county by 19 points. It seemed a textbook case of the Democrats’ Rust Belt collapse.
Yet today, things look up. The Beaver County Young Democrats was re-founded by urgent newcomers weeks after the November 2016 election. The group hosts monthly happy hours at a local pub. Some Young Dems ran a 5K race as a team recently, then spent the afternoon canvassing together on sore legs. They are working hand in hand with the county Democratic Committee to recruit for committee slots.
Beaver County citizens are not only fired up and ready to go; they found infrastructure waiting, and they powered the factory back up.
Across Pennsylvania, the fruit of the Resistance was on display this week as thousands of hours of door-to-door campaigning by new groups brought scores of first-time candidates — many of them women — to victory in school boards, borough councils and mayor’s offices. The under-the-radar revolution reflects a surge of creative local organizing that is building political capacity across a broad center-to-left spectrum.
The real DNC scandal will be if no one at the national level starts to think systematically about how to open the gates.