Showing up and doing things for people is good politics

The American Prospect just published an interesting article from Alexander Sammon about the RNC setting up community centers in an attempt to court minority voters into the GOP fold. These community centers perform typical political party functions such as serving as a center for voter registration and mobilization, but they also make an explicit attempt at fostering community with activities as innocuous as cookouts, pizza parties, Easter egg hunts and other apolitical activities. Sammon’s article is entertaining mostly for the bizarre attempts the people running these centers go to hide the fact that they are doing so. Sammon notes that there is very little social media presence for any of the centers (expect on Facebook of course).

I couldn’t find active Facebook properties for the majority of the other RNC community centers that now dot the country, from Southern California to the Midwest to the South. Nor could I find the centers on Twitter or Instagram. A Google search yielded mostly local news coverage of ribbon-cuttings and nothing more. There are no individual websites for each outpost, or even a collective website that lists them all; the RNC’s homepage features only a camouflaged search bar that can be prodded to give up the location of your nearest branch. Buried in an interactive map advertising various regional outreach events (including “Election Day”) are some of the addresses, but there is no contact information given—no phone numbers, no emails, no names, nothing.

Even weirder is the extent to which the staff at the center he visits in Pembroke North Carolina go to avoid him. One poor staffer agrees to an interview only to get a call from his boss telling him to stop talking and a local politician who works with the center ghosting him when previously he said he could shadow him for the day.

Since this is the GOP they cannot help but do some racisms even though these centers are designed for minority outreach. Sammon notes that the center in Pembroke, which is designed as an outreach center to the local Native American community, was set up very close to where a confrontation between some Black Lives Matter protestors and members of the Lumbee Tribe.

In June 2020, a small Black Lives Matter protest took to the streets, beginning from the UNC Pembroke campus. Estimates put the march’s attendance at around 150 people, demonstrating, as thousands of American towns did, against police violence. The march didn’t get far before it was set upon by an armed and agitated Lumbee counterprotest, 300 strong, “probably more than that,” said the Rev. Tyrone Watson, president of the Robeson NAACP, who was among the demonstrators. “They had automatic rifles and handguns. It was something that you would see in the ’50s.” In a cruel inversion of the Battle of Hayes Pond, the protesters were pelted with bottles and rocks, menaced with knives and guns by Native counterprotesters beneath a large Trump flag.

The Republican Party’s active investment in the region has preyed upon that racial tension, Watson told me, in many cases exacerbating it in an appeal to flip Lumbee voters. Not long ago, both the Black and Lumbee populations were united in voting almost uniformly for Democrats. Now, they have become political opponents. It’s a uniquely Republican way of attracting one racial minority group, by pitting them against another.

It’s unlikely this outreach effort will net the GOP significant gains from minorities but it does highlight a couple things about politics that I think are important and I wish the democrats did more of – showing up and doing things for people. As someone who grew up in rural America I have watched with consternation as the GOP has come to dominate rural politics. As a kid and young adult the Democrats were at least competitive in many rural places, including my home state of North Dakota, but now are almost completely shut out. There are many reasons for the GOP’s lock on rural America but one reason that I find unacceptable is that the Democrats have just ceded the territory to the Republicans. This is the case Jane Kleeb makes in her book Harvest the Vote. Kleeb is the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and one of the main activists behind the blockage of the Keystone Pipeline. In her book, and a quote in a recent NY Times op-ed, she notes that during the Obama administration the DNC abandoned its presence in rural America:

But Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, also attributes the extreme partisan vitriol to the Democratic National Committee’s decision to shift its resources away from rural red states like Nebraska, which was in part because Mr. Obama had slashed the committee’s resources.

“Obama hated the D.N.C.,” Ms. Kleeb told me, “because he feels like they stabbed him in the back” by supporting Hillary Clinton over his upstart campaign in the 2008 presidential primary. Distrustful of the Democratic machine — and the party brand — Mr. Obama turned fund-raising efforts away from the D.N.C. and focused on building “progressive” organizations like Organizing for America, she said. But that created two problems.

First, now cash-poor, the committee began to spend more selectively. In Nebraska, the monthly allotment went from $25,000 to $2,500. That 90 percent cut in party funding, Ms. Kleeb said, meant that Republican talking points often went unchallenged. “You’re not doing any organizing,” she said, “not because you don’t want to, not because you don’t know how to organize or create good messages, but because you don’t have the money to do it.”

Similarly, in another NY Times op-ed, a democratic state senator from Maine describes the DNC abandonment of rural America as well:

This is a story about not just rural Maine. It’s about a nationwide pattern of neglect that goes back years. After the 2010 midterms, when the Democrats lost 63 House seats, Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, disbanded the House Democratic Rural Working Group. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada later eliminated the Senate’s rural outreach group. By 2016, according to Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich, the Clinton campaign had only a single staff person doing rural outreach from its headquarters, in Brooklyn; the staffer was assigned to the role just weeks before the election. And in 2018 the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, told MSNBC, “You can’t door-knock in rural America.”

One of Kleeb’s main arguments in her book for how the Democrats can begin to compete again with Republicans in rural areas is to just simply show up. She notes that many races in rural America are uncontested with the Republican candidate winning almost by default. More concerning I think, is that rural America is saturated with conservative hate radio and TV. It’s not just Fox News but in much of rural America the only radio stations one can listen to broadcast Rush Limbaugh (when he was alive) and his demon spawn 24 hours a day. In other words, the Democratic Party’s image is completely shaped by their enemies and they are not showing up in rural areas to contest it. Opening up Democratic Party community centers in rural America would be a way to push back against this.

In addition to showing up another aspect of good politics is doing stuff for people. As noted in the American Prospect article, what the Republicans are doing with these community centers is not new. The author mentions that similar things were done by groups as disparate as “Black Panthers in Oakland or Democrats in New York’s Tammany Hall.” This is something the Political Scientist Eitan Hersh in his book, Politics is For Power, argues what politics used to be about and should be again. Hersh critiques what he calls “political hobbyism” which is compulsively imbibing political news online while not taking any real action to build power and use it. In his book, Hersh profiles “an old-time ward boss in modern-day Boston.” (64). The man in question is a Ukrainian immigrant named Naakh Vysoky. Vysoky lives in the Brighton neighborhood in Boston and has proven himself essential in helping turn out voters for specific candidates in local elections. How did Vyosky get to become such a boss? By offering to tutor fellow immigrants studying for the citizenship test. One of the extra pernicious elements of the welfare reform bill passed in 1996 was to cut off legal immigrants from certain benefits such as disability benefits and food stamps. This drove many of the elderly immigrants who lived in Vysoky’s building to try to gain U.S. citizenship. Vysoky began tutoring these immigrants in the citizenship test and also became and unofficial spokesman for the groups enhancing his profile and gaining media attention. Soon enough, local politicians came around and Vysoky began turning out voters for those local pols who he felt best represented his and the local immigrant communities interests. Vyosky gained his authority by providing a service and as Hersh points out is a valid and important form of building political power. Hersh sums up this way of building power as:

I responded that I thought the way to increase participation is not by strangers knocking on doors with scripts but by neighbors knowing one another. I said, most people don’t care much about public policy. If you show them that the Democratic Party cares about them — by meeting them, by hosting a picnic, by doing social service work — then maybe they’ll vote for your side when you need them. They’ll know that people from this party care about them (155).

It seems to me that a good use of DNC money would be to set up a bunch of these community outreach centers (in both rural and urban areas) and provide direct services to people. How about a DNC day care? Or DNC citizenship classes? What about DNC community centers that organize volunteer “code busting” events like my local DSA does? None of these things will lead to DNC dominance of rural areas but it certainly seems a lot more useful than pumping millions of dollars into Senate races where the candidate is down 20 points two weeks before the election. . .ahem

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