Blue grits and the Penthouse Party

As Hillary Clinton sews up the Democrats' election campaign at the top, on the streets the 'blue grits', as Laura Flanders calls grass-roots Democrat and ex-Democrat activists, are reinventing electoral politics

December 22, 2007
8 min read

It’s late October in Englewood, New Jersey, and the mood at a meeting of left-of-centre voters is bleak.

‘I worked my heart out for a Democratic Congress,’ says Stefan Neustadter, a middle aged volunteer with the anti-war group MoveOn. ‘I walked blocks, ran phone-banks, I gave money, called people in far-off states. I did everything I could to elect a Democratic majority but now we have one I’m so ashamed, I’ve changed my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent.’

Neustadter’s hardly unique. According to polls, today’s Democratic-controlled Congress is more popular among rank and file Republicans than it is among registered Democrats. The presidential contenders aren’t doing much better, especially among the party’s activist base. ‘I’m having trouble at this point advocating for a Democratic president,’ declares Matt Stoller, a Democratic blogger and consultant.

Issue-driven voters have good reason to be angry. Almost a year after regaining a majority in Congress, the party elected to end the war has increased the number of US troops in Iraq, and all but a handful of Democrats in Congress have voted to extend the conflict by appropriating more money for combat. But Neustadter is part of a cohort whose complaints go deeper. As Connie Baker, a party activist in Illinois put it, at the heart of the matter is what it means to be a party: ‘Do Democrats even want a party or just a small group making decisions as the top?’

Rise of the blue grits

Baker and Neustadter are part of an upsurge of what I’ve called ‘blue grit’ democrats. Over the past few years, blue grit democrats – with a big and little ‘d’ – have involved themselves to an unprecedented degree in the nuts and bolts of electoral politics. Some are formerly passive voters or donors to the party who woke up after three dismal defeats (in 2000, 2002 and 2004) to the realisation that maybe their party’s leaders weren’t so smart. Others are social movement activists who are not big believers in party politics, but whose petition-and-protest tactics were futile where state and federal governments were locked-down by the right.

The Democratic Party, it became clear, was in a mess. To some it came as a shock. Rick Jacobs, former California state chairman of the Howard Dean campaign, started attending state party conventions: ‘There was just nothing there.’ No accurate record keeping, no up-to-date data, no ongoing relationship with volunteers or donors, no practical help for potential candidates. Surveyed late in 2004, the majority of state parties had no functioning website, no full-time communications director, no precinct captains, not even a full-time accountant. All power and money was bottled up in Washington. It was a Penthouse Party: all top floor suites, no presence in the streets.

Propelled by new technology and repelled by the Bush/Cheney status quo, grassroots activists set about filling the vacuum where a truly national people-oriented party needed to be. In 2006, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans at the polls for the first time in a midterm election since 1990. By that time, three and a half million (one in a hundred) Americans were receiving regular action alerts via email from MoveOn. Tens of thousands were contributing to their favorite candidates – even in far-away races – through online giving sites (like ActBlue) or via their favorite political blogs.

Alongside the netroots were the on-the-ground grassroots. Movement groups, like the 40,000 members of Montana Conservation Voters and the 41 member groups of Montana Women Vote, or, in Ohio, the League of Independent Voters (formerly the League of Pissed off Voters), wrote and distributed voter guides, scrutinised voting lists, divvied up district maps, shared information and deployed their members to stir things up. Using every conceivable tool of communication, they talked to poor women, young people, alienated (and pissed-off) people – people the Democratic Party hadn’t inspired in decades, and they talked about issues the national candidates wouldn’t touch: Iraq, torture, trade, poverty, equal rights, alternative fuels, the need to end the boondoggle war on drugs.

On 7 November 2006, Democrats won control over both chambers of Congress, picking up 31 House seats and six in the Senate. Across the country, Democrats gained six new governorships and more than 300 new statehouse seats. As usual, credit was claimed by national party leaders – especially by Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (who once served as finance chair for Bill Clinton’s campaign) and Chuck Schumer, chair of the Senatorial Campaign Committee.

What that analysis overlooks is that Democrats owe their margin of victory in large part to picks-ups by candidates whom the DCCC either outright opposed or lamely supported after they were made viable by the grassroots. The nail biter winner in the Senate, Montana’s Jon Tester, a critic of Clinton/Emanuel on trade, wasn’t the establishment’s pick in the primary. And Emanuel and Schumer made it very clear they were looking for millionaires to run for office, not anti-war moms like Carole Shea-Porter of New Hampshire’s first district. Emanuel famously told Shea-Porter that her district wasn’t competitive, and if it were, she couldn’t win it. (She had once been evicted from a Bush rally for wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt.) She and her kitchen table staff of peacenik grandmothers proved that it was and she could – with a whole lot of up-from-the-bottom blue grit.

Democratic takeover

Now the 2008 election stretches before them and blues with grit are wondering, as Connie Baker put it to me: ‘Can democratic people take over the Democratic Party?’

It looks like a long shot. In 2004, Baker worked for Christine Cegelis, an anti-North American Free Trade Agreement, pro-non profit healthcare peace activist who took on arch-conservative Henry Hyde in a special election and won 44 per cent of the vote despite being massively outspent. In 2006, instead of helping Cegelis (who had strong grassroots support,) Emanuel went on a candidate-hunt, approaching half a dozen people to run against her in the primary until he found Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who towed the Emanuel line on every topic.

Led by Emanuel, all the prominent Democrats in the country – John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi – endorsed Duckworth. She outspent Cegelis ten times over, narrowly winning the primary, but she lost in November, one of the few Democratic defeats of the night.

Today, Cegelis and Baker are active in organisations including Turn DuPage (County) Blue and the Greater Chicago Caucus, a grass-roots coalition of minority and peace and justice groups they hope will be able to shift the result of elections and the direction of the party. But Emanuel appears to be on the warpath again, encouraging primary contests against blue grit backed candidates who show, frankly, too much independent support.

As 2008 approaches, blue grit democrats have already had a considerable impact. You can tell by the stops every contender has added to their campaign itineraries (to attend the Campaign for America’s Future-sponsored ‘Take Back America’ conference, for example, or the bloggers’ convention, ‘Yearly Kos’).

It’s hard to find a grass-roots group in the key primary states that hasn’t received a visit. ‘The candidates know who’s going to be out in the streets for them at the end of the day,’ quips Jan Gilbert of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a dynamic blue grit group.

Clinton’s firewall

But the party’s as-yet unelected ‘favourite’ Hillary Clinton is running a top-down, sewn-up, disciplined campaign, about as far from a blue grit operation as you can get. Her coffers are bulging with dollars from private health insurers and military contractors for TV ads and focus-groups. Volunteers, meanwhile, say it’s possible to work for weeks before anyone knows your name. Clinton’s erected a firewall, when what she’s going to need is something to fire people up.

Progressive gains are more likely to be felt in Congressional and local races. Every seat is up and disgruntled blue gritters are already proposing to run primary challenges to objectionable incumbents. Grass-roots feminist Donna Edwards’ challenge of incumbent Al Wynn is already having an impact. Wynn, no radical until now, recently came out for impeachment.

But the challenge ahead is great. The former Rainbow Coalition organiser, Bill Fletcher, puts it this way: ‘The Democrats don’t perform the functions of a party. What they are is a voting bloc and we need our own voting bloc.’

Going back to Neustadter, the good news for the left in the New Jersey man’s lament is that a cohort is rising with fresh skills, new resources and a renewed determination to influence US politics. The bad news is: that cohort still does not have a party. And that’s not about to change in 2008.

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