Beth, like me, is excited by this piece in the Times on the resurgence of grassroots organizing this election season. As she writes:
That’s great for democracy.
It’s also great for Democrats.
It’s always nice when the interests of the big-D and small-d (D/d)emocrats converge…
Beth argues, inter alia, that door-to-door campaigning makes it possible to customize the candidate for the voter. To which I would say, yes, with a caveat. Yes in the sense that politics in perhaps its best sense is about communities and about the harnessing of political institutions to effect tangible change in individual lives, and when Democrats fail to articulate a vision which speaks to individuals’ and communities’ circumstances and issues, they lose. As Sam Smith argued in a tremendous essay oft-cited on this site:
We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.
One Tammany politician, George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district…In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.
So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home. True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home.
Back in December, I chided the Times for an article in its magazine about the Dean organizing strategy which portrayed the belief of regular people that their political involvement, rather than a technocratic project, could be a natural outgrowth of concerns borne out of their personal lives as some sort of leery veureristic parallel to an Alchoholics Anonymous meeting. I’m glad to see the Times get it better this time around, and am hopeful that the rest of the Democrats are beginning to as well.
My caveat would be that crossing the line from customizing the emphasis to customizing the policy tends not to work out so well either. The one thing I’ll say for TV is that it holds candidates accountable nationally for the messages they put forward locally, and helps to curb excesses of “customization” like Lincoln’s two speeches in favor of and against racial equality while stumping on the same day. One political scientist like to compare the nationalization of political campaigns and soft drinks. Apparently, back when my parents were walking to school in the snow (uphill both ways, no doubt), patrons at individual establishments could manually set the ratios of syrup, sugar, water, and whatever the hell else goes into their cola. Once Coke became a product that was the same everywhere, it was necessary to choose a formula that would appeal to the most folks national wide. The same has happened for campaigns, as it’s no longer feasible to customize the message for each district once much of the campaign happens on national television.
The good news here is that it means candidates are responsible in one part of the country for what they tell another and so my gloss on Beth’s point would be a warning that what Kerry can’t do is spin himself on one side of the issue in California and the other in Oregon.
The bad news about the shift away from the grassroots is something I’ve railed against to no end here, but the corollary to this particular piece of good news is the bad news that Democratic candidates have responded to the nationalization of the campaign by whoring themselves out to an illusory median voter rather than bringing new voters into the process by articulating strong progressive visions for the country from New York to Arizona to Pennsylvania to Florida and beyond.