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Hullabaloo


Thursday, December 29, 2016

 

The Ring has to go to Mordor

by Tom Sullivan

The biggest challenge Democrats face is not Donald Trump, but constitution. Not the one in the National Archives, but their inner constitution.

The Democratic Party as an "establishment" organization is conservative by disposition. When shaken or defeated, or when facing the unknown, like now, such organizations by reflex seek safety in the comfortable and familiar. They shy from risk. Democrats fret about what Republicans might say about them at election time. Inner circles across the country worry about fundraising: regular donors might not support untested, young leaders. Democrats fret about how a new direction might induce "division in the party." (Translation: chieftains might have less influence going forward). That is,

... they like to be the deciders of whose turn it is. There is a tendency to hang onto power and not to cultivate new leadership possessing skills they don't understand. Old boys would rather turn over the reins to old chums — regardless of their skills — when they can't chew the leather anymore.
Institutional reserve leaves Democrats as a party in a perpetual, defensive crouch, looking for all the world more like abused spouses than bold leaders. All defense, as if in the age of Trump they have something left to lose.

This plays out at the local, state, and national levels. You can see it in the race for DNC chair.

Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez is (reportedly) the White House's "safe" pick, someone who won't rock the boat. Rep. Keith Ellison, the erstwhile Bernie Sanders primary supporter, is the "risky" pick. The election is perceived as a proxy battle between the Clinton and the Sanders factions. But that's not where the split is. Those personalities are simply the loci.

The real split is between top-down leaders and bottom-up, grassroots activists expected to wait their turn. A top-down establishment holding onto the past with white knuckles is not going to grow the party out of the minority status in which it finds itself. The familiar and comfortable is not what the electorate is thirsting for. Years of service is not enough. Voters want bold, forward-looking leadership. Offer a new generation of activists something less and they'll stay away. That's not a promising vehicle for change to anyone under 40 years old.

Plus, all the navel-gazing, internal power struggles rob bandwidth from outward-looking, community-focused activity of the sort on which new activists are interested in spending their limited time and resources. It's not a story they care to be part of.

Which leads to another obstacle Democrats face on their journey back.

After one of Hillary Clinton's campaign speeches last summer, my wife said, "She needs to tell stories." Stories are relatable. A Hollywood writer friend wonders why Democrats cling to pet consultants rather than engaging professionals who craft stories in which people willingly lose themselves, and pay for the experience. Storytelling is the link that builds a connection with voters the way a custom-designed drug molecule binds with a cell's receptors. Democrats can pull it off for a four-day convention, but as a workaday party Democrats suck at it. Independent progressives too.

I'm not talking about tricksy, Frank Luntz-style, focus-tested wordsmithery, or some messaging magic-bullet, but a compelling narrative in which voters can invest themselves. A monomyth, if you like. Because politics isn't all policies and strategy and self-interest. It's about trust and relationships. Wonkish Democrats need to relearn how to build those, to become heroes in their own stories. (Yes, I can hear the cynics now.)

So this week I saw Rogue One — Jyn Erso: will she fight? — just before having a beer with a local elected official. After confiding my concerns about Democrats playing it safe in the age of Trump, my friend summed up the situation in a single, powerful metaphor: "The Ring has to go to Mordor. It won't help to carry it back to The Shire."

Thank you. Now if only Democrats will reach inside and find some heroes.

Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.







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