Monday, April 04, 2005

Thinking Locally

Earlier this evening, I was at a panel discussion sponsored by the Harvard Law School Democrats. They're having a conference on Rebuilding the Democratic Party and the Left all this week. They've lined up some pretty decent speakers, although unfortunately I doubt I'll be able to attend any other sessions. I would recommend checking out the discussions to anyone who has a free afternoon or evening this week.

The discussion was on the role of the Internet in democracy, the Democratic party, and infrastructure building. Jerome Armstrong of MyDD was on the panel (if it weren't for his post I'd never have found out about this) as well as Matt Stoller, Amanda Michel and Joe Trippi. The discussion, I thought, really didn't break any new ground for those of us who are interested in waging politics via the Internet, but I thought it was worth hearing what these people had to say.

At one point, Trippi described the Democratic party as "brain dead" and constantly operating thirty or forty years behind the Republicans. His implication was that we could not count on the party and if we wanted to change how campaigns are run, we'd have to accomplish it in spite of the Democrats, rather than with their support. Of course, the obvious question was asked: "What should we be doing?" How do we go about taking matters into our own hands if the party is going to resist innovation and change? There were no easy answers presented. Start your own blog, someone said, build an online community, etc. But how do you start something from scratch and turn it into something that wields influence?

I think, though, that while Trippi's pessimism is certainly warrented, he has a very narrow view of Democratic politics. His experience is working on Presidential campaigns, and when he talks about the party, he's speaking of the national party. But that's not the whole story. The power of an individual is at its most dilute at the national level. Where a single person can make the most difference is at the local level -- the city, town and ward committees. The low barrier to entry for online politics makes it a perfect fit with local elections. The stakes in these contests are not as high as in state or national races, which allows people to be more creative. If new ideas are successful, they will draw the attention of the state party. If the state party implements them with similar results, the national party will follow.

Of course, this process will take years. In the meantime, however, building the party at its most basic level has the additional benefit of creating candidates for future races. Today's town councilor or school committee member could be tomorrow's state legislator and then Congressperson or Governor. That's how the Republicans got so many hard right conservatives in power at the same time -- they started local. And that, in my opinion, is what Democrats have to do: build active local parties and recruit progressive candidates. Even a "brain dead" national party can't stop us from being successful locally.