The swirl of the primary season is intoxicating and the media loves it. If the ratings records set by the recent political debates are any indication, the ongoing primary battle may yet save cable TV. Super Tuesday -- the night that was supposed to wrap everything up -- didn't (for either party). Clearly, this extended nomination contest is getting people excited, but will that excitement translate into substantive change -- for Democrats in particular? The past offers some hard-knocks lessons worth thinking about.
Give this long primary season credit: It has, at least, turned that overused word "change" from a bumper slogan pooh-poohed by all knowledgeable pundits into a fact-based phenomenon. In the closest thing the nation has seen to a countrywide primary, first-term Sen. Barack Obama overcame Hillary Clinton's double-digit leads in major states and national polls to win a majority of states on Feb. 5 and draw into a tight battle over the delegate count. The two candidates closed out the evening with their spinmeisters already talking up Beltway Tuesday -- the next catchphrase-friendly multiple-primary day -- while promising more debates. Now, their operatives are off to Ohio for a March 4 primary that everyone assumes will be crucial.
The chance to be seen and heard in more than just a handful of quirky early-primary states has already made a striking difference for the Illinois senator, who was the clear underdog when he entered the race. "What was a whisper has turned into a chorus," Obama told his hometown crowd in Chicago on Tuesday night.
But a whisper, many would like to know, of what? For more than 30 years, Democratic voters like those pouring out of their homes to get involved this primary season have doggedly trooped to their polling places with no expectation of having an actual impact. Young voters, poor voters, urban voters, antiwar voters, women, people of color, lesbian and gay (LGBT) folk, immigrants, the Democratic Party's so-called base -- would turn out -- and then be sent home. Come the general election, Democratic candidates typically tacked right, ignoring those reliable old blue-base voters. Thanks to the tyranny of the two-party system, they could remain confident that the base wasn't going to defect to the -- gasp! -- ever-more rightward-tacking GOP. And mostly, they were on the mark.
In normal times, there was only one party season when anyone wanted to hear from Democratic base-dwellers -- this one. Primaries are the one period in the election cycle when contenders suddenly seek to curry favor with the party's most activist -- and progressive -- part. That's one reason a primary season this long is significant; but, for those voters, will it make any difference at the level of policy? The most positive answer is perhaps.
Fueled by frustration with the way the party's been conducting its business and propelled by disgust at the policies of George W. Bush, base-level party activists, with help from liberal bloggers and others, have already pulled off an organizing feat that's changed the face of the presidential race. Helped by online databases and social-networking software, volunteers can have new impact. Unpaid volunteers have been building attendance at local meetings through their own voter-initiated Web sites in red and blue states alike. The most significant result so far has been the record turnout. Democratic turnout was up 100 percent in Iowa and South Carolina, while Georgia witnessed its biggest turnout in a primary since 1992.
The presence of a nominee who was once himself a grassroots organizer and recognizes the value of such work, state by state, has had its own transformative effect. Altogether, grassroots organizers have made the candidacy of Obama, at one time a long-shot nominee, more than viable. And that has pushed party veteran Clinton, whose campaign style is naturally more top-down and disciplined, to invest her resources heavily in the "field." Before Tuesday, the candidates were both openly competing for the label "grass-roots." "We've put together a grass-roots campaign," Hillary Clinton told a rally the Friday before Super Tuesday. "We will call 1 million Californians this weekend." Obama's Northern California spokesperson told reporters: "We are running the biggest field campaign in California since Robert Kennedy in '68."
With the campaign continuing, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton must still compete for local support and influential endorsements. And, at the state level, that's good news for progressives. Party flacks and the traditional "black and blue" organizing machines of black churches and labor unions are no longer influential enough to turn out sufficient numbers of voters. Expanding their reach, both campaigns have been delving into nontraditional territory for community support. In South Carolina, the Obama campaign teamed up with barbers and the owners of beauty salons. The candidates are also competing for support from ethnic groups they never prioritized before -- Latinos, Asians and Native Americans -- and everyone's competing over women and youth.
"This is a moment unlike any we've ever known," Obama said in his Super Tuesday night speech. In spirit, he may turn out to be right, but there are obvious echoes from the past. This is not the first time that the Democratic Party has seen an upsurge in turnout, a newly expanded electorate, and a new generation of trained and talented organizers coming on the scene. In fact, 2008 bears a haunting resemblance to 1964, the last time the party's political maps were remade.
Keelan Sanders is executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party in Jackson. Until recently, Sanders was the only person on its payroll, and the party's "headquarters" (a renovated family home on a residential street) was open only part of the time; no presidential candidate ever came to visit. In 2004, isolated Democratic voters paid out of their own pocket to produce Kerry/Edwards yard signs. Today, thanks to an investment of funds from the Democratic National Committee, Sanders has a full-time staff -- a beneficiary of DNC chair Howard Dean's drive to revitalize the party in all 50 states. When I asked him why he stuck with the party so long, solo, Sanders responded quick as a flash: "Because of my grandmother."
Sanders' grandmother was a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964, she risked her life to register African-American voters in the Deep South; then, she carpooled her way to Atlantic City, N.J., as a Freedom Party delegate in hopes of taking a seat from Mississippi's all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. There, at the height of the civil rights era, she and the vast majority of Freedom Party delegates were locked out.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC) organizer Hollis Watkins, who still lives in Mississippi, remembers believing what he'd been told -- if black people registered enough voters, they'd be given a chance to unseat the state's pro-segregation delegation. "It was like being told to scale the walls to the roof of a building on fire, and doing it, and then realizing there were no supporting beams beneath our feet," Watkins told me in 2006. "We wanted to believe it, we believed it, but we were naive."
In 1964, the party of President Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to talk about civil rights -- even sign the Civil Rights Act -- and position itself as the party of desegregation, but it wasn't ready to fight desegregation in its own ranks. Not yet. After a bitter standoff, the Democratic National Convention finally offered the Freedom Democratic Party's leader, Fanny Lou Hamer, a seat where she could observe the proceedings, but not vote.
Just four years later, the picture had shifted significantly. The Voting Rights Act was law and the Southern delegations had been desegregated, but the power of the old party machine hadn't passed to the grassroots activists who'd forced the transformation. It remained bottled up at the top of the party structure.
Rather than overhaul state-level infrastructures, party leaders gradually made an end-run around them. That's partly why state parties like Mississippi's have been in such sad shape for so many decades. Among other changes, the party altered the rules of the nomination process (and the convention) to emphasize statewide primaries -- now generally the norm -- taking power out of the hands of local party bosses. Advertising themselves via television, candidates could "run" campaigns by communicating directly with voters without the help of embedded state-level movements.
Actually growing the party's base seemed to scare the establishment. Whenever the Democratic National Committee appeared on the verge of launching a massive voter registration program, they backed off. Insiders who lived through the period recall how in the 1980s, when Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition showed that massive numbers of new Democratic voters could indeed be activated with just a little attention to the base, the party's major donors refused to fund such an effort (allegedly for fear that any massive voter-registration drive would only push the party into Jackson's hands).
Today's "outsiders" are once again working hard, organizing locally, and counting on being seated at their party's table. Whoever the nominee may be, he or she is guaranteed to enter the general election stronger in terms of state-field operations and possible resources than any Democratic candidate in decades. In no small measure, it will be those "outsiders" the party has to thank. When Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006, Eli Pariser, the director of the liberal mass-membership group MoveOn.org, boasted of the Democratic Party, "We bought it, we own it, we're going to take it back." If a Democrat does indeed win in November (by no means a certainty), Pariser isn't going to be the only one with bragging rights -- or expectations.
The key questions are: Will progressive activists use the continuing primary race to raise solid policy demands about peace, justice, the environment and healthcare -- and will whoever turns out to be the Democratic candidate actually listen? Let's keep in mind that those hopeful base voters aren't doing all this work simply in order to get a change of personnel in the White House. It's change in their lives and their communities, as well as in the country at large, that they need and want. Even a shift of power in both chambers of Congress in November 2006 has brought them precious little of that.
If history offers any hints, real change relies on movements very much like the one that, however inchoately, has slowly been forming, I believe, just beyond our sight in these last years. This is, of course, exactly the part of our political landscape that our media covers least well and least often (and maybe those ranks of new organizers are actually lucky for that).
It's often forgotten that the conservative movement, sidelined by President Johnson's smashing defeat in the 1964 election of the original conservative presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, spent the next decade and a half largely out of the limelight, building up its forces to challenge the Republican Party establishment. Through the use of the new technology of that moment -- especially direct-mail fundraising -- and the mobilization of new ground troops (evangelical churches) through cheap media (talk radio and cable television), they found ways for outsider candidates to mount effective primary challenges and rattle the incumbents, while they moved, increasingly triumphantly, from the local to the state to the national level.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the right had a storyteller in the White House who could retell America's tale their way. His narrative threw out the 1960s and 1970s version of an all-in-the-same-boat society. It declared government the enemy and asserted that individuals (and, more importantly, corporations) unfettered from government regulations were what made the country great.
Reagan himself didn't deliver all that much beyond that. It was in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years that the right secured the tax cuts, deregulation, and rollback of government programs they had sought so long. Eventually, they did secure many of their goals exactly because, in the 1980s, the gang that brought Reagan to office didn't rest on their laurels, having elected a president. They built their movement and mobilized every last resource, in season and out, to change the national discourse and shift public opinion inside the Beltway, in the media, and in the states.
Asked in South Carolina last month which of the Democratic contenders he thought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have endorsed, Sen. Obama responded, "He wouldn't endorse any one of us." That's because King was building a movement meant to hold all candidates -- and presidents -- to account. It was that movement which made it impossible for LBJ to try, however feebly, to accommodate Fanny Lou Hamer at the 1964 convention, that movement which literally changed the faces in politics, that movement which made the candidacy of Barack Obama possible, as the later feminist movement would Hillary Clinton's. It's that movement the Reagan right learned from so well and today's progressives would do well not to forget.
The swirl of the primary season is intoxicating -- and the media loves it. But real change happens on a different timetable. If you're looking for estimated times of arrival, the problem is: We don't know that timetable yet.
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.