Saturday, September 25, 2010

Working Within the Democratic Party? Is it worth it?

Working Within the Democratic Party? Is it worth it? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the past 30 years. When I was in my 20’s, that was the last thing I wanted to do. Like so many “radicals” (were we really all that radical?) I disdained working within the Democratic Party. I saw D’s and R’s as virtually indistinguishable and didn't see the point of choosing between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee.

Despite this, I did vote--for protest candidates. My first presidential vote was cast for Dick Gregory, Peace and Freedom Party. People like me were responsible for Richard Nixon’s victory—although since Hubert Humphrey won PA, at least I wasn’t directly responsible.

For me the wake-up call came with the election of Ronald Reagan. I realized there really was a difference between D’s and R’s and that it really does matter who wins elections. A few years after Reagan’s victory I took the plunge and became a Democratic committeeperson. I’ve been toiling away in the grassroots ever since.

Not until the victory of Barack Obama did I feel that all the work we did to build the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was worth the struggle. And I still feel that way. I’ve lost patience with progressives who refuse to acknowledge how much Obama has been able to accomplish given Republican obstruction and the horrendous mess he inherited.

So yes, my answer to the question whether it’s worth working within the Democratic Party is yes— although the Philadelphia Democratic Party does test my faith. This week-end I attended my second PA Democratic State Committee meeting. The good news: we are making progress towards organizing a progressive caucus. I hope that the success of this effort will inspire our Philly progressive Democrats to do likewise.

The Philadelphia regional caucus was the one really depressing session. The meeting was dominated by complaints about insufficient street money and Philly committee people not getting enough respect from the candidates.

Of course, it’s not just grassroots committee people with their hands out, looking to politics as a way to make a buck. I am sure there were some private meetings going on with well-connected lawyers talking about how they hope to get this contract or that contract if we elect a Democratic governor.

To a social movement activist like me, the Democratic Party has been hard to adjust to. In my years working with Philadelphia NOW and now Southeastern PA NOW, none of the wonderful NOW activists volunteering their time have expected to make money from their political activism. Au contraire—many of us were donating far more than we could easily afford to feminist candidates/organizations.

Sure, we got our psychic rewards. For those of us in leadership roles, there’s the ego gratification; for all of us there's the high that comes from working with like-minded (and really nice) people for a cause we care passionately about. So yes, we get our rewards but we’re not looking for a financial pay-off.

My guess is the Philly Democrats complaining about the lack of street money are getting their psychic rewards as well. What I found really strange (and disturbing) was the meeting chair’s comment when he introduced state committee’s new young executive director “as someone who’s close to Bob Brady (the party chair) and therefore close to every one of you.” Sorry, I don’t feel this special connection to Brady and didn’t particularly like the assumption that all the State and local committee people shared that connection.

This party functionary was quoted in Mike Sokolove’s recent NY Times article which a lot of Philly folks seem to have missed:
One morning, I went to visit Lou Farinella, a top lieutenant on the Democratic City Committee under Representative Robert A. Brady, the chairman... I asked him how Sestak could make sure he comes out of Philadelphia with enough votes. “He’s got to get close to Bob Brady,” he answered. “Real close. There’s not a person running for statewide office that doesn’t have to be extremely close to Bob Brady.”
Brady and Sestak represent side-by-side Congressional districts, and I wondered why they weren’t already close. “They are, but they need to get closer,” Farinella explained. And what would happen then? “Bob has a big stick that nobody can see,” he said. “And somehow he manages to wave it in such a way that everybody knows the direction to go in. When he does that, we roll out the big numbers to the polls.”

“A big stick that nobody can see?” Huh? This cult of personality among the party diehards is one of the many reasons talented young people choose not to work within the Democratic Party.

The article continues with a fascinating quote from Ed Rendell:

The day after I visited with Farinella, I talked with Rendell, who is nearing the end of his second term as governor after eight years as Philadelphia’s mayor. ..when I related my conversation with Farinella, Rendell sort of chuckled and said the party, in essence, is over. Sestak’s victory exposed the Democratic organization’s weakness as an Election Day force. “You can’t really say there’s a Philadelphia machine anymore, because if there was one, Arlen would still be standing,” Rendell said. “We backed him, and the turnout in Philadelphia was less than 17 percent.”

The local party desperately needs new leadership. Bob Brady’s machine is probably on its last legs; after all he and Farinella aren’t getting any younger. (But by the time Brady and Farinella leave, I’ll probably be too old and tired to remain politically active.)

And the current constellation of political parties won’t last forever. My guess is that at some point there will be a new party for those who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative—a group which doesn’t fit easily into either party.

I want a political party that is both socially and economically liberal/progressive. However, since the left wing of the Democratic Party is not large enough to form a viable party, for the foreseeable future the only alternative I see is building the progressive wing of the Democratic party—although that nagging question, “Is working within the Democratic Party really worth it?” will no doubt continue to crop up.


  1. You confirm what has always been my nightmare imagining: if I get too involved with party politics at any level, I will lose my fragile idealism to the crass scramblings of actual PEOPLE.

    I know myself; I don't like people very much any more, thanks to decades of overexposure. Better that I deal with ideas, with words, with letters, and stay involved. I've worked the phones--and I will, but don't ask me to get along with personalities, with live ammo.

    Is it age? I've learned to spare myself in order to stay engaged. If you can do it, my hat is off to you. If you find you can't, there are, as you well know, so many ways to serve.

  2. Nance,
    I understand your point completely. I intend to keep plugging away for now. It’s not easy in PA and I can’t imagine how hard it must be in South Carolina!

  3. It must be in the genes, I too cast my first vote for Dick Gregory. I was young, naive and to this date regret that vote. I as a "sixty something" working person have little time to devote to the cause, but do send money as my support. I see the cause as the Democratic party, the alternative is just too scary.