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here comes democracy

Letter from a Southern California Activist

It's coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It's here they got the range
And the machinery for change . . .
Democracy is coming to the USA

—Leonard Cohen

The Trump presidency is a watershed in our democracy, a failure so spectacular that its significance—that Trump was elected in the first place—can get lost in the noise. In the perfect storm of the 2016 election, it's also easy to overlook that many Americans, angry and frustrated at a government more responsive to donors than citizens, "voted with their middle finger". Yet unless we address the corroding effects of corporate wealth on our republic, we can look forward to more anger and frustration. And if we don't find ways to channel that anger away from nativism and toward meaningful political change, we can anticipate more Trumps in the future.

There remains a counterveiling force that is even more powerful: an aroused citizenry, which has mobilized, organized, and asserted itself in myriad ways—some old, some genuinely new—and remains the last, best hope for the future.

The good news is that a phoenix is rising from the ashes. Despite the poisonous Trump regime and its craven Republican enablers in Congress, despite the 5:4 Supreme Court's rightist agenda, despite the loss of state legislatures and governorships, despite a deliberate, coordinated, and decades-long attack on democratic institutions by dark money, there remains a counterveiling force that is even more powerful: an aroused citizenry, which has mobilized, organized, and asserted itself in myriad ways—some old, some genuinely new—and remains the last, best hope for the future.

This mobilization has been happening throughout the United States. It involves veteran organizers and neophytes, young and old, women and men, people of every color and stripe. For the past year and a half, I've been observing it across the country and participating in it in my home town, Los Angeles. This is what it looks like.

democracy is coming

Beginnings of a Movement

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration, millions of citizens joined the Women's March in the largest single protest ever to occur on American soil. The question of whether that outpouring of energy would translate into political action was soon answered by a chaotic sprouting of home grown political shops with names like Indivisible, Swing Left, Flippable, Sister District, Code Blue, Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, Run for Something, etc., as well as a resurgence of established groups such as MoveOn, the A.C.L.U., Working Families, and on. Women and men were networking, listening, educating themselves, finding courage in unity, speaking out, and asking, "What can I do?"

The answer, it turns out, is plenty. At first, the enormous, spontaneous outpouring of grassroots spirit was reactive, and manifested in such actions as the airport protests against the Muslim ban, the town halls to defend the Affordable Healthcare Act. That energy soon consolidated and became electoral, as reflected in a series of special elections where Democrats and progressives scored surprising victories in red state strongholds such as the Virginia House of Delegates and the Alabama Senate race.

Emblematic of how strategic people power has become is the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over incumbent Joe Crowley in New York's 14th Congressional district. Crowley, the fourth ranking Democrat in the House and potential heir to the speakership, was primaried by Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old socialist and community organizer supported by the newly formed Justice Democrats. Crowley, an old-style political boss, out-spent Ocasio-Cortez 10:1. She took no corporate or PAC money yet beat him easily, relying on an army of volunteer canvassers organized by a coalition of grass-roots groups carrying her message door-to-door.

ca state

The Path to Victory

The 2018 midterm elections will be a critical referendum on the Trump regime as Republican incumbents have tethered their political fortunes to the MAGA base. Democrats need to win 23 new seats to take back the House of Representatives. How are they going about it?

Los Angeles, itself blue but surrounded by five Republican swing districts (CA-25, CA-39, CA-45, CA-48, CA-49), is a model for the way forward. Since early 2017, volunteer canvassers have been knocking doors in these districts to register voters and mobilize Democrats and potential Democrats. They've been discovering that voters in Republican swing districts care about the same issues that working people everywhere care about: healthcare, families, and a living wage, for example.

Two aspects of this voter engagement effort are unprecedented. First, the canvassing began in early 2017—a year and a half before the California Democratic primary. Second, canvassing was accomplished by means of a partnership between the Democratic party and grass roots groups outside the party—in most cases initiated by the grass roots groups. The significance of these developments cannot be overstated—they are a genuinely new and different way of doing political business.

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Activists in each of the five LA swing districts have united themselves into Action Councils: alliances—organizations of organizers—including unions, Democratic clubs, grass roots groups like Indivisible and Swing Left, and political action committees. The Action Councils bring together both progressives and mainstream Democrats with the common goal of unseating the Republican incumbents in each of the districts. To direct the participation of volunteers, the members all use a common, public calendar (swingsocalleft.org) to list voter engagement actions such as canvasses, phone banks, postcard writing, texting, registration, trainings, and group meetings. The calendars of all the districts are housed on one website, providing a common event calendar for the entire Southern California region.

And yet—also new—the Councils are not governing bodies. The member groups maintain full independence and are not obligated to share resources or join the activities of the other groups—indeed they sometimes cannot, as some members are limited by their charters as tax-exempt organizations. But what they can all do is talk. The Councils, which meet once a month and communicate between meetings via social media, are tables where all have a seat, providing a forum to communicate plans, solicit advice, find partners for actions, and avoid scheduling conflicts.

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The partnership between Democratic clubs and grass roots organizations has begun replicating in blue districts. In West Los Angeles for example, a "super club", the Westside Democratic HQ (composed of six Democratic clubs and three grassroots groups), has rented office space in Westwood Village, from where it directs phone banking and canvassing into the L.A. swing districts.

The Action Council model has spread to Central (CVCalBlue.org) and Northern California (NorCalBlueWave.org). Since the California primary, the Councils have been exploring how best to support endorsed Democratic Congressional candidates and their campaigns. The goals remain the same as before the primary—to organize and drive volunteers to register voters, activate Democrats, and cultivate those who have no party preference.

What Democracy Looks Like

Will it work? In two of the five districts (CA-39 and CA-49) the Republican incumbents, perhaps fearing defeat, dropped out of their races. In a third (CA-48) the incumbent was primaried by another Republican. But this seeming success threatened that multiple Democratic candidates would divide support among themselves in California's "top-two" jungle primary, allowing two Republicans to emerge as the candidates in one or more of the districts in the November elcetion.

A supreme grassroots "Get out the Vote" effort (plus strategic advertising purchases by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)) overcame the "R-R problem", successfully placing a Democrat on the November ballot in all three districts. The "Get out the Vote" effort also re-directed canvassers away from swing Congressional districts considered secure and into the vulnerable ones, particularly CA-48. The push was initiated not by the Democratic party, but through the cooperative efforts of the party and the Action Councils joining forces across district lines.

But the best indication of the model's success is the increase in turnout in the 2018 midterm primary over the corresponding 2014 election. In twelve red California districts, 2018 Democratic turnout has exceeded 2014 turnout by a wide margin. Republican turnout has also increased—but in every district, the margin of Democratic increase has exceeded that of Republican voters, often many times over.

In some ways what happened in Los Angeles was fortuitous. L.A. has a large progressive population repulsed by the Trump regime that just happens to live in close proximity to five key Congressional swing districts—the organization into district Action Councils suggested itself. In other California Congressional districts, organization went differently. Local activist groups such as Swing Left and Indivisible simply formed ad hoc alliances as needed to accomplish specific goals.

2014 vs 2018 Primary Increase Edit copy

As an example, in CA-50, a red district not initially considered flippable, several Indivisible groups, in cooperation with local Democratic clubs, formed the Indivisible 50 Coalition. Fearing that none of the four Democratic candidates would move past the jungle primary into the November election, they created their own endorsement process. All Democratic candidates were invited to a series of debates which culminated in a district-wide vote. One candidate, Ammar Campa-Najaar, was the clear favorite, with over 60% of the tally. Campa-Najaar won Indivisible's endorsement, was subsequently endorsed by the California Democratic Party, and won enough primary votes to qualify for the November ballot. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

Planning for the Revolution

The electoral map will change after November, 2018. There will almost certainly be fewer swing districts in California and other states. Will the Action Council model—the amalgam of Democratic clubs and grassroots organizations outside the party, all sharing a common calendar—continue to be useful? How will it look in blue districts? Can it be community and down ballot based as well as Congressional district based? Can it be issue based? All this is to ask, what will the resurrection of democracy look like going forward?

In November, 2016, Democrats were confronted with a political emergency. Republicans controlled the White House, Congress, most state houses and governorships. But every seat in the House of Representatives is in play every two years, and the number of Republican House districts decided by a thin margin in 2016 exceeded the number that Democrats needed to win to attain a majority. Re-taking the House in the 2018 midterms therefore stood out as the obvious first step in checking the Trump regime. It was and is true North—the immediate, essential, universal goal. Assuming it is achieved, what comes next? And just as important, can the same unity of purpose among political activists be maintained?

The first objective after 2018 must of course be to bring Democrats to power in both houses of Congress, state houses, and the White House by 2020. But if the underlying cause of the Trump crisis—the corrupting effects of money on the political process—continues unabated, than fundamental legislative change may not be possible. Pharmaceutical companies will continue to buy Congressional votes—both Democratic and Republican—to inflate drug prices. Insurance companies will buy votes to prevent Medicare for All. Telecomms will lobby with dollars against Net Neutrality. Oil companies will buy votes for environmental plunder. Corporate employers will buy votes to keep wages down. The Koch machine will continue its assault on voting rights. The list goes on, and each item on it is hard to separate from the others: the purchase of lawmaking by moneyed interests turns all issues into one issue.

So how will the resurgence of people-driven politics maintain itself over money-driven politics? How will we get back from a dollar a vote to one citizen per vote? The story of the California Action Councils told here is of necessity brief and simplified. Their formation and functioning is a work-in-progress, involving many hours of leg work, many wrong turns and blind alleys, much conflict resolution and occasional chaos. But the Action Councils were and are real democracy, and their essence and method are worth preserving, even if their name and form changes after November, 2018. What they have taught is this:

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We need volunteer, people-driven, local political affiliations—groups of groups—rainbow coalitions—that persist in time, address long-term goals through direct voter engagement, and are flexible enough to work on varied problems as they emerge. The structure of the association should provide the means for many groups to share ideas and resources and set a table that permits all voices to be heard, within and without the Democatic party. The more points of contact, the more people involved, the more democracy. The goals are not just winning elections or winning power or getting money, but are driven by ethics and values, which is the best way to promote trust. And trust is what is necessary to organize and move volunteers to action. Trust was the missing ingredient in the 2016 election, and lack of trust was the author of its catastrophic outcome.

Therefore the Council, let's call it that for now, is not part of the Democratic party, or any party. It exists outside, but works with the party when goals are shared, and where goals diverge, may work to influence the party, from within and without. People are fluid, and many activists are members of more than one organization, including the Democratic party. What we want is more activists, more citizens, more volunteerism, more ideas, more connections, more face-to-face conversations.

We're swimming in new waters. We don’t know what will happen. It’s hard enough–even for experts–to know exactly what has happened. But if the election of 2016 has taught anything, it's that we can't go back. We can't assume or rely on others to make things right—that's our job. We are all citizens now, which means we must see with our own eyes, speak with our own voices, participate with our own acts. There are no experts in what has not yet happened, and no one can tell us ours is a fools errand. The tools to counter money's pernicious effect on the republic are in hand. Democracy is coming.

wayne liebman

Wayne Liebman

Wayne Liebman is a physician, poet, playwright, and newly-woke activist, working to repeal and replace Congress and reset our democracy. He blogs occasionally for distracted activists at citizenunbound.org