Presidential Campaign

Politics is power: Why Democrats keep losing

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The recent Republican power grab in the North Carolina state government is shocking. In a series of moves designed to curtail the power of the incoming Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, Republican lawmakers pushed through a set of bills that would severely limit the ability of the state government to function as intended.

{mosads}The moves were unexpected. They were petty, and they were childish.


They were also partly the fault of the Democratic Party.

Democrats tend to view politics in terms of good versus bad, smart versus dumb, and love versus hate. To be sure, being good and smart and loving are all better attributes than their opposites. But being the most decent, the most intelligent, and the most benevolent does not give someone a vote on proposed legislation. Being sworn into office does, and it takes heavy infusions of effort and cash over a long period to get there.

Republicans understand this. While Democrats rallied in Philadelphia and held signs that read “Love Trumps Hate,” Republican state politicians in North Carolina sat ensconced in the dominant perch they spent decades building. Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly currently hold the governor’s mansion, with a 29-seat advantage in the 120-seat House of Representatives and an 18-seat advantage in the 50-seat Senate.

When Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his reelection bid last month, GOP elected officials could have relied on long established norms and decent behavior to hand over power to the new governor. Instead, they relied on the power they have to craft and pass legislation, and used it to undermine the democratic will of the voters.

Politics is about power at its heart. While that may be such a numbingly simple concept that it’s irritating just to read, Democrats somehow forget this basic truth. We believe it is about decency, about cooperation, or about voters rewarding what we think is a better vision. We think that taking the high road will somehow lead to a nectar of goodwill among voters, that people with real problems will somehow see the sweetness in our policies and shower us with rose petals as we waltz into a town we don’t otherwise visit.

If Democrats have a problem with the power grab of the Republican legislature in North Carolina, there is “one weird trick” they can always employ to reverse those moves, and prevent others from happening: They can sell a vision that works at the state level to win elections, and execute a broad 50-state strategy to capitalize on it.

To survive, we must be the party of sustained and heavy spending and organizing on state races. We have to be the party that pushes our donors for every cent in off years, to pull every millennial with a smartphone out of their comfort zones and into polling lines for midterms, for special elections, and for local races.

As Democrats, we need to be the party that sells a vision of an improving America for working and middle-class voters, regardless of race. We need to sell a vision of a federal government that works hand in glove with local communities to make that happen. We need to sell voters in local communities on the idea that government needs to work for them, and that their vote in local and state races is the key to making that government function.

The alternative is what we have now. The Democratic Party is currently associated almost entirely with Washington and the federal government. If a voter believes Washington doesn’t work for them and that their future is precarious, why would they do anything other than align with the person selling the most extreme break with the status quo? Even if that candidate is a fool selling their false gold, voters will always be drawn to the change message over the message of incremental progress.

To win in states like North Carolina, voters have to see an agenda of federal, state, and local government working together to rebalance the economy in their favor, being delivered by a party that is a permanent fixture in their communities. The Democratic National Committee needs to become a functional organization that leverages a deep-pocketed coastal donor base to fund permanent field offices to execute a 50-state strategy. The strategy needs to be permanently adhered to, enduring long past any individual candidate or campaign.

Without these changes, every Democratic presidential nominee will remake the organization in their image to fit their immediate needs. More often than not, we will win the presidency, but lose the ability to govern at the levels with the most power to help people improve their lives. Every four years, the DNC will be left in shambles as soon as the election ends. Democrats will be without a national apparatus that functions and steers the party toward long-term growth.

And Democrats will continue to watch from the sidelines as losses in state legislatures keep piling up, power is stripped from the occasional Democrats that win gubernatorial races, and Republicans pass agendas that ensure government doesn’t function in ways that improve the lives of most Americans.


Michael Connolly is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and is vice president of communications for the Ivy League Veterans Council. A former Army staff sergeant who served in the infantry, Connolly completed two combat tours to Iraq, from 2005 to 2006 and 2007 to 2008. He currently serves as director of Military and Veterans Affairs for the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland-College Park. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 Democratic Party Elections North Carolina Pat McCrory Politics Republican Party Roy Cooper

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