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Imagining A Transformed Montgomery County Democratic Party — It’s A Systems’ Problem

In response to my article,  The Dayton Daily News Cut Fifty Words From The Heart Of My Article, where I suggest that MCDP needs to be transformed, Stan Hirtle asked a good question — Can I provide any model of a local political party that has accomplished such transformation?  The answer is “No. Not yet — but here is a start on a two part strategy by which such a model might be developed”

Stan, the problem you cite — “imagining a political party being anything other than bosses and insiders raising money, handing out jobs and advancing and protecting themselves” — is exactly the problem that needs to be solved.

The problem of imagining what a transformed political party may look like is a systems’ problem, and, as readers of this blog know, I like to apply W. Edwards Deming’s insights concerning systems whenever possible. To imagine a transformed system, we need to remember that every effective system has two key aspects:

  1. a well defined mission and
  2. an organizational structure thoughtfully designed to best accomplish that mission.

Political parties are so focused on producing winning candidates that winning seems their entire mission. The “political bosses and insiders raising money, handing out jobs and advancing and protecting themselves” is defended as a structure that works to produce winning candidates. Boss centered, hierarchical organizations are defended as being effective in reducing internal conflict, and in  conserving scarce resources making it more likely for the party’s candidates to win.

One side effect of political parties being focused on winning is the growth of distrust, cynicism and apathy within the electorate. The resulting suppression of voter participation has benefited the Republicans.  The response of political parties to growing voter cynicism has been to sharpen and expand their marketing efforts — further increasing voter cynicism — in an ever accelerating cycle.

The challenge for the Democratic Party is to break this cycle by consciously transforming its current system. Every successful system is guided by a mission that inspires and motivates. A local church, for example, does not define its mission as constructing buildings and raising a lot of money. The effort to construct buildings and raise an ever larger budget is inspired by a bigger purpose that motivates its members.

The purpose that should animate the MCDP must be one that transcends simply winning elections. The purpose of MCDP that will inspire and motivate the action that is needed must be one that is more than simply acting as an advocacy group focused on marketing certain issues. We need to focus on something more fundamental. I believe we can find a source of motivation and civic action by focusing on democracy itself. The MCDP should see its transcending mission as promoting and empowering democracy. If we could actually fulfill such a mission — by educating the public, by facilitating opportunities for political participation, by creating community — then, of course, Democrats would win elections in droves.

Here is one suggestion for how the purpose / mission for the MCDP should be stated: To empower democracy to work in all aspects of Montgomery County. 

To accomplish such a mission, the MCDP would encourage the growth of grass roots democratic structures throughout the county. Brainstorming what such structures might look like is the next step. For one thing, the MCDP itself should be structured as a model of a democracy empowering organization. As I said in my DDN letter, “Democrats now are looking for a 21st century organization that is democratic and inclusive, and that welcomes them into a meaningful and connected community.” Not only Democrats would support such a transformed party, but such a party would have wide appeal to many who currently are disengaged from the whole political process.

Success for the MCDP ultimately would still be measured in terms of how many elections are won by Democrats. My premise is that an engaged, connected, empowered and informed electorate is much more likely to vote Democratic, rather than Republican and so winning elections would be a side-effect of pursuing the mission of empowering democracy to work. Here is the analogy: The mission of General Motors is to produce quality automobiles.  Making a profit for its shareholders is by-product of accomplishing this mission. The MCDP needs to focus on making democracy work — winning elections will be a by-product of such effort.

This notion that MCDP should be seen as a system guided by a mission and empowered by an organizational structure that advances the mission should provide a platform for thoughtful discussion — a good structure for imagining what a transformed political party may look like. The devil, as usual, is in the details. To help inspire discussion, I intend on continuing this line of thought with further analysis and development.

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2 comments to Imagining A Transformed Montgomery County Democratic Party — It’s A Systems’ Problem

  • Stan Hirtle

    Can we imagine a political party that is a “democratic and inclusive, and that welcomes them into a meaningful and connected community?” What seems to be happening is less a democratic, meaningful and connected community than activities of individuals seeking power who have learned to talk the talk, but it is not clear where the walk is.

    Two people come to mind. One is Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign promised much of what you describe, with some motivation of ending what the Bush administration had brought. After Obama won he disbanded his movement, sent his community activists home and governed with a small group of inside the beltway levers of power insiders, many connected to his funders in Wall Street. He missed the opportunity to sit the consumer activists down with Geithner and company and design a foreclosure prevention program that would have saved homes, prevented the wholesale destruction of homes in neighborhoods like Santa Clara, and put a lot of demand into the economy. Instead he left Wall Street design and run the system, with repeated scandals and pulling teeth leaving a program that has helped a fraction of what was needed and intended. We don’t know exactly what Obama was thinking and maybe he will give us an honest memoir when he leaves office and conceivably even return to his roots. To date however, inside the beltway politics as usual has trumped hope and change.

    The second example is the new Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. She seems like a smart and decent person, a student of how government works with a heart in the right place and enthusiasm for good works, who has a thankless job the cost of get elected to which far exceeds the power of managing poverty in a time of impoverishment. And while she does do some things to create networks of meaningfully connected campagign workers, she has succeeded primarily by getting the party endorsement and the votes that it turns out, and by a mastery of the Obama style “ground game.” I hope she succeeds at doing good things, avoids getting corrupted or burned out, and eventually gets some real power and the vision and opportunity to use it for the good. Her role models seem to be similar people, like Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who have managed to get a foothold in national power.

    I also note that Obama said he wouldn’t be able to succeed unless the people who supported him stayed with it. They didn’t but really he didn’t either. Still it is hard to see what sort of political power, separate from the control and personality of individual candidates, is going to be what Bock describes, so that people are going to go to these party meetings and somehow come up with ideas as to how to make America governable for the better, and then have the will, fortitude and organization to carry them out. Or perhaps produce a higher quality candidates, who may then do a better job of representing the voters in the party and solving society’s issues rather than the leaders and cronies.

    Mostly political parties provide favors in exchange for loyalty to self serving leadership. Some are calling for more of that as a counterweight to the angry ideology of groups like the Tea Party. It seems like few political parties and their leaders will be most interested in empowering democracy and less interested in the spoils of power. Of course t some extent people are not that interested in participating in such a party any more than leaders would be in leading one. One challenge for Bock is to think of systems and activities that will make people want to participate in such parties enough to control the leadership.

  • Mike Bock

    Stan, thanks for commenting. Since Montgomery County is a battleground county in a battleground state, during presidential election campaigns, it is showered with a lot of money. But, as you point out, “After Obama won he disbanded his movement, sent his community activists home.” Something for the MCDP to brainstorm is how to leverage all of this presidential campaign activity into actually helping to build a stronger MCDP.

    You write, “One challenge for Bock is to think of systems and activities that will make people want to participate in such parties enough to control the leadership.” In my post today, I write about motivation and how focusing on accomplishing meaningful goals could inspire local Democrats to actions. This challenge to think through how MCDP can be stronger and more effective is not just for me. I hope you will continue to help brainstorm all of this.

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