Getting active in a party can be a touchy subject.
Disappointed with the results of the 2016 election, there has been a great deal of long overdue needed navel gazing. The failures (and successes) of party units from the local to the national level have been analyzed in detail. It turns out there are many reasons things did not go as planned (and this site is devoted to one of them -framing and messaging). However, one truth remains: It is virtually impossible to get elected to higher office without the help of an organization that can marshal people, resources and experience.
The unprecedented explosion of new progressive volunteers is bringing needed lifeblood to our progressive worldview and has increased the chances of electing progressive candidates to office. For in the end, we have to elect people who share our worldview if we are to prevail. If we do not elect people, our opposition gets to make the laws.
As with any big change there are both positive and negatives. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first, as they are few. First, in any volunteer organization nothing gets accomplished by standing outside telling those working inside what they ought to do. Anyone who has led any volunteer organization will tell you that people with great ideas are a dime a dozen; people willing to do anything to make them happen are as rare as diamonds. If you think something ought to be done then be ready to lead the effort to do it.
Second, there is and has been an active progressive movement with strong experienced leaders within the Democratic Party. Temptations to dismiss the party as not progressive enough is unfair to the progressive leaders who’ve devoted many years to the cause and obscures the very real opportunity we have to overwhelm conservatives in future elections by bringing more progressives into the party.
Which brings us to the good news! For progressives, the power we need is easily within our grasp. Did you know that state parties rarely have more than 10 full time permanent staff? Everyone else, from Precinct Chair to, in some cases, State Party Chair is a volunteer. Historically, only a tiny fraction of citizens volunteer for party office. Some stay around year to year, others come and go but the number at any one time is 1/10 of 1%. Bottom line: the party is made from the people who show up.
Also consider that the huge number of people who have now become active outnumber the people who have been around a while. This means new activists with new ideas can -within one election cycle- become a significant if not dominant force in the party -though it is important to join with the experienced progressives who are already there. They can help you navigate the process.
So, how do you become a leader?
Your first step is to become a delegate at the local, usually precinct, level. This generally happens in the early months of an election year. Be sure to contact your state party or local leaders for dates, times and procedures.
With the exception of some big city precincts, there are often fewer people than there are delegate positions and your journey to active participation begins with simply raising your hand. In other cases you may have to convince others that you should be a delegate. Make this easy on yourself: bring friends and family from your precinct with you and you’ll get enough votes.
Now what did you just get elected to? In most states, you’ve become a delegate to a convention where you will endorse candidates for state legislature. At this convention delegates to the convention will also choose from among themselves delegates to congressional district (endorsing a US House candidate) and state conventions (endorsing for statewide offices, Governor, US senator and President). States vary in methods and you should do your research to find out how they work, but the bottom line is that you will need to be persuasive and you will want to line up support before any convention.
Importantly, you will have the additional opportunity at any convention to run for party offices at that level such as Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary, Director, etc., These people and a few others elected at large are collectively called the Central Committee. Unlike delegate positions, these offices persist after the conventions. You will either be assigned to or will volunteer to be on committees that convene from time to time in the two years following the conventions. If, for example, you think party rules need to be changed, get on the constitution and/or rules committees. If you think the party needs to encourage diversity, get on the outreach committee. There are other committees, but the point is that you are now deep inside! You’ll meet all the movers and shakers and you can be one too.
This is just an overview of the process which varies from state to state. There are many details of how it all works and even more about how to “work it”. It worth it to find all this out. Experienced people can help you.
A quick aside about rules. There are constitutions and rules that clearly define how this all works. As you might imagine, some of these these came into being to solve problems but they are mainly a way to make the process open and fair. Rules may sometimes be questionable -for example, there is ongoing debate about the wisdom of superdelegates, but constitutions and rules can not changed at almost every convention. You cannot take part in those changes if you are not there.
And a final note about Robert’s Rules of Order, which debuted almost 150 years ago. Robert’s Rules is the source of “motions”, “voting” and “the Chair recognizes the honorable gentleman from Cleveland” . It serves two main purposes -to put order on any meeting (and we all know from experience that meetings without order quickly devolve into chaos). It’s other purpose is to ensure fairness. Many organizations use it and nothing since it was published has proven better at maintaining fairness and order. It is also apolitical -it has no axe to grind. It is not the source of unfairness, but the protector of it. It is true that some people know the process better and use it to their advantage, but that’s not a reason to scrap the rules, it is a reason to learn them.
In closing, The point, again, is that to accomplish our goals we need to elect lawmakers. To elect lawmakers we need to concentrate people and resources and to do that we need a party apparatus and you need to be part of it!