The Hardest Lesson

Braisted has a long, but important, post up today about the struggles within our state Democratic party to actually be a party of the people who consider themselves Democrats–which means not just letting women and black people and Hispanic people and gay people and young people and people with disabilities and on and on come to stuff and participate at the level of being bossed around, but making room for them to lead.

Unfortunately, it appears that there are some folks within the party’s executive committee and outside of it that don’t support such goals.  At the TNDP Exec Committee meeting this past Sunday, the committee voted to create a new committee to review the plan instituted by the affirmative action committee (Democrats sure do love their committees).  Luckily, Chairman Forrester put in charge of this committee a co-chair of the Affirmative Action committee, Chris Anderson, who was instrumental in getting these youth inclusion goals to where they are.

This new delegate selection committee will meet tomorrow to make recommendations on the plan.  My understanding is that some of the old guard is fighting to either reduce or eliminate some of the youth inclusion, disability, or LGBT goals.  This is the wrong path to be taking.

Of course it is. I don’t often praise Forrester, but I will in this case. Good thinking on his part to put someone from the affirmative action committee in charge of this committee.

But I have to slightly disagree with Braisted about why this is happening. Yes, I think the excuse many Democrats tell themselves is that tired old affirmative action canard about promoting unqualified minorities over well-qualified white people (to which I say, Exec Committee, if you’ve been hiding well-qualified straight white male Dems, fuck you! Do you not see what trouble we’re in? But shoot, if your complaint is just that some unqualified minority might get a spot instead of the usual unqualified straight white dude? I can’t sweat that shit.), but I think there’s something deeper.

Yesterday, over at Feministe, Jill linked to this post by a woman who used to try to help feminist organizations diversify. And the conclusion this woman comes to also hints at the structural problems the Tennessee Democratic Party faces:

More often, however, splits emerge along racial lines — the white women simply aren’t receptive to the core ideas put forward by the women of color.  Those ideas are “too expensive” in money, time or resources.  They’re outside the boundaries of “the purpose of the organization.” The white women “don’t think they’ll work” or don’t feel they’re “fair.” The donors might object. And so on. White rejection is usually passive aggressive, and resembles the Transactional Analysis game of “Yes, but…”  The women who attempt to bridge are shut down by both communities because the women of color feel that “it’s happening all over again,” and the white women experience the list of proposals as some kind of “attack.”

This is the moment when personal prejudice can be coupled with power to enforce discrimination at an institutional level:  this, in short, is where racism lives.  It is a small group of 4-5 women who really control all the decisions and resources of the organization, and who will set a tone of cooperation or poison the atmosphere.  501(c)(3)s — especially the small ones — are personality driven.  This means that a small group of women pour their hearts and souls and much of their financial resources into building the organization, and feel a strong proprietary interest. They are comfortable with each other, often because they are all the same race and class, etc.  Mary and I eventually came to realize that unless the core group wants the change, no change will ever happen.  Short of voting with their feet (which many feminists do), the members of the organization have no instrument with which they can force positive change that the Powers That Be don’t want to make.

This, I believe, is where we are as a Party. Not just in terms of race–though there’s that–but in terms of everyone who might be new or different. The Party just isn’t very receptive to the ideas of people who aren’t already in the in-group and the things the “outsiders” want feel like they are outside of the purpose of the Party.

But I think this also explains why, even though bloggers have been begging, pleading, and cajoling the Democrats for years to just articulate what being a Tennessee Democrat means so that we can decide if that’s for us or if we want to work to change it, they refuse to do it. It’s because, in order to actually say what being a Democrat means to people on the Executive Committee and in office, it means saying out-loud “Being a Democrat in Tennessee makes me feel good about being me, first and foremost, and doing good for the state and how we might do that is something that comes far second.”

And, don’t get me wrong. I don’t say that as a criticism of Democrats. I think that’s a part of being human. But it’s not something we can lie to ourselves as a party about. If being a Democrat is just a feel-good club for people who don’t like the feel-good club of the Republicans, then everyone who thinks it’s a political party needs to know that so that we can do something else with our time.

But if it is indeed a political party–which it occasionally still shows signs of being–then there’s something we have to face: If we are achieving our goals, we should become unnecessary.

If we want young people to be excited about the Party. If we want more black people to show up for shit. If we want Hispanics to turn out to vote for us. If we want these things and work for these things, eventually, the Party won’t need us. That will be a sign of success when we look around and say “Wow, who are all these women? Shoot, I didn’t even know we had thirty wheelchair basketball players in Jackson, let alone thirty who would come out and phonebank for our candidates!” or whatever.

It’s hard, believe me, I know. You care about something. You pour your whole life into it. And when you see that, if you maneuver just right, you can be grand marshal of a parade of people who love you, it’s hard to resist not sitting on the back of the car and practicing your wave.

But the future isn’t for us. We set the route as we can, march as long as we are able, and then, if we want the parade to go on, we have to accept that other people with different ideas are going to take up deciding where we go.

And that’s what success looks like.

But if we can’t let go of “leading means succeeding,” we’re never going to see that.

12 thoughts on “The Hardest Lesson

  1. Aunt B.,

    There are some very interesting parallels in this situation to the conflicts in the Republican Party that have given rise to the ‘Tea Party,’ the growing libertarian movement and other groups on the far right.

    In both cases you have large blocks of dedicated voters who share certain interests or views that differ from the traditional power structure of their party. Despite providing crucial votes, organization and money,these blocks rightly feel left out in shaping their party’s agenda and excluded from real leadership.

    Consider how the Tea Party and other groups responded in the last couple of years. They organized and worked and used the primary process to make their influence felt. The nomination of wackos like Sharon Engel and Christine O’Donnell resulted in electoral defeats but they sent a clear message to the Establishment. More importantly than those high profile races, the dissidents in the Republican Party won a number of primaries and pushed the Party in their direction. Now they are taking over more and more county party organizations.

    Perhaps the solution you seek is to apply the same techniques. Primary Democrats who are not in tune with your ideas. Force them to publicly defend their actions and the status quo.

    Say what you will about the Tea Party and similar groups, they faced the same sort of situation in the Republican Party and, following on the debacles of 2006 and 2008, they rose up and changed things.

    As long as the power structure thinks that they will get your votes because you have no place to go, they won’t change.

  2. Hmmm. I don’t think “women” is to “TNDP” as “Tea Party” is to “USGOP,” but maybe that’s just me.

  3. NM,

    I am speaking simply about party dynamics. I could have used the Tea Party in Tennessee as easily. I am not making any judgements about the merits of one side or the other.

    Regardless of one’s political preferences, the principles are pretty much the same for both parties. They have Establishments that do not want to cede power to others, particularly others who do not value the works of the current leadership. Both have groups driven by beliefs who reject preserving the status quo if it means not getting their agendas included.

    You may dislike what the Tea Party stands for but I suggest that to achieve Aunt B’s vision, Democrats in Tennessee could learn from their example.

    I also suggest that tactics like ‘majority minority’ districts and quotas actually may inhibit the sort of progress B. seeks. These do not so much make the party more inclusive as they create a constituency within the establishment that has a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

    After all, if the party becomes truly inclusive, the unique role of those who benefited from preferential treatment is lost. If you think this unfair, consider how much effort for reform has come from elected representatives of those communities. Very little, I suggest.

  4. TNDP clearly isn’t seeking to expand nor to even stand for decency and equality.
    They Dems in the Legislature stood back and let HB0600 roll over them. Did Mike Turner or other party leaders issue ANY press release decrying this vile law? Nope. Not one word. They’re just fags so who cares. They are still Republican Lite.

  5. Mark, I know it can be hard to tell on the internet, but nm and I are both women. We are both people who would like to find a place within the Democratic party. So, all your cryptic talk about “constituencies interested in preserving the status quo” rings a little hollow. Are we not the beneficiaries of affirmative action? Are we not from a group that has finally said, “Put more of us in higher places, period”?

    And what status quo are we interested in preserving?

    And, if that is true for us, why would you think it wouldn’t be just as true for any other underserved constituency?

    Why would you try to tell a bunch of women who are telling you the problem is that we want change and aren’t getting it that the problem is that we’re so entrenched that we don’t want change?

    Do you not see how that’s saying that we’re lying?

  6. No, B, I think you’re misreading Mark here. He’s telling us that since we want to get the TNDP to budge, we need to act more the way the Tea Party does. You know, get Koch Bros. to bankroll our candidates, have a television network dedicated to breathless discussion of whether the party is paying enough attention to us, all that stuff.

    I repeat, Mark, that your analogy is lousy.

  7. NM,

    Don’t believe everything that you read in ‘The Nation’ or hear on MSNBC. The bulk of the Tea Party movement is genuinely grassroots. The Koch brothers couldn’t have found Tennessee in 2009 without a Sherpa guide and a GPS when the movement was gaining strength.

    Just because you dislike the Tea Party doesn’t mean you cannot learn from them. Directly challenging party leaders, running candidates for party positions and going after incumbents can be very effective tools. After all, the Tea Party didn’t invent this stuff. They are just the most effective example in recent years.

    I am curious as to what strategy you would advocate that you think would work better.

    If the goal is to get the TNDP to budge, hasn’t the Tea Party in TN been effective on the other side? I read lots of blog posts complaining about the problems of progressives with the TNDP and how long these problems have gone on. In two years the Tea Party did what the bloggers have been wanting for much longer, no?

    Aunt B.,

    As NM notes, I was simply suggesting that to achieve your goal of getting the TNDP to “budge,” adopting some of the methods of the Tea Party would be effective.

    After all, this is really about power within both parties. You want more power to achieve your ends. Great. The Tea Party is a really good example of how a group that feels shut out went about getting more power.

    If it makes you feel better, in many ways the Tea Party is using tactics that would be very familiar to the anti-war activists of the 60s (without the bombs and property destruction) and many other more liberal grassroots movements.

  8. Mark, I have no quarrel with the Tea Party’s methods; I think they’re great. And I’m sure that some number of the Tea Partiers would genuinely qualify as grassroots by anyone’s definition. But where did I quarrel with their methods or deny them their grassroots legitimacy? I simply noted that they have a great deal of funding and media attention* that we folks trying to get the TNDP to budge don’t. Have fun with your strawlefty, though.

    *I mean, come on — the TP had it’s first and only so-called convention right here in Nashville. Do you think we didn’t notice that there were more reporters than conventioneers there, and that we can get more protesters to show up for one of our events here with maybe 1% of the same coverage? Maybe if we had a television network talking about us all the time….

  9. NM,

    Perhaps wrongly, I was reading your criticism of my analogy as condescension to the TP in contrast to the TNDP. If so, my apologies. I was only discussing tactics not beliefs.

    As for the media coverage of the TP, in fairness, did you not notice how unfavorable the bulk of their coverage has been? It seemed to me that the only people who got any real coverage were the most extreme fringe types.

  10. Mark, really, you think that Fox News (the channel nm was referring too) has had anything but overwhelmingly positive coverage?

    I mean, really?

  11. polerin,

    I would never suggest that Fox didn’t pimp for the Tea Party. But MSNBC, and to a slightly lesser extent, CNN, CBS and ABC all tended to focus on the most extreme elements of the movement rather than looking at who comprised the majority of the TP.

    Compare that to the coverage by the MSM of the Wisconsin protesters who were almost always portrayed as heroes. Meanwhile, there was little coverage of the merits of the Governor’s case.

    Also, since I tend to watch MSNBC more than the other news nets, I can tell you that one major point in favor of Fox over MSNBC is that Fox makes an effort to bring on liberals and Democrats to give their side of an issue. MSNBC’s shows starting with ‘Hardball’ almost never have a conservative or a Republican.

    I will say that MSNBC redeems itself with ‘Morning Joe’ which is the best talking head show on tv. Fair, diverse, funny and insightful, it ought to be a model for the other news nets.

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