By Pete Davis
This week’s election should have been a landslide in the other direction. Half-billionaire private equity mogul Glenn Youngkin is the textbook definition of a plutocrat—a person whose power derives primarily from his wealth. He and his party have no serious vision for the future of our Commonwealth except the same economic insecurity, corporate domination, and culture warmongering that they have been trotting out every four years for decades.
Why wasn’t it a landslide, let alone a win, for Virginia Democrats this week? We can point to various problems in the short run: candidate choice, the failure to recognize the hardships parents have been through in the past year, the failure to adequately push back against the CRT boogeyman, the federal climate of Congressional gridlock, and even the thermostatic nature of Virginia politics (a blue White House means a red governor’s mansion).
However, we would be wise to avoid “fighting the last war”—and instead reflect on the deeper causes of this debacle. In my view, the long-run challenge revealed this week is that the Virginia Democratic Party has lost its way—both structurally (how it functions as a party) and ideologically (the vision it advances in the Commonwealth). Here’s some thoughts on how Virginia Democrats can avoid weeks like this in the future.
First, structurally, we need to transform from a party managed by distant consultants—politico wiz-kids relying on micro-targeted mailers—into a federated, participatory membership party. Here’s the “4 Ms” of moving from management to membership:
(i) Maps: We need to split the state into small precincts and assign every precinct a Democratic precinct captain. Captains should be known by their neighbors as captains because they’re so visible organizing the block for the party all year long (not just during election season).
(ii) Meeting Halls: Each local party should build a physical Democratic Meeting Hall in their city. Richer local parties should raise money to help poorer local parties do this. These meeting halls should become warm and lively community centers for the broad progressive, racial justice, climate justice, and labor movement in the area.
(iii) Membership Cards: You should actually ‘join’ the Democrats—and we should track how our membership is doing year-over-year. There should be initiations of new members and celebrations of old ones. Fundraising should be done primarily through annual membership dues, not sporadic email blasts.
(iv) Mutual Aid: We should directly care for members and for the broader community. Democrats should do disaster relief, take on shelter shifts, attend funerals, send gift baskets when members get married, and bring sick members soup. Trust is earned through real in-person care over the long run, not perfectly-targeted messaging in the short run.
Second, ideologically, we need to cohere the mission of the party away from a grab-bag of random policies serving random interests and into a clear and muscular vision of deepening democracy: more power to more people in more ways; freedom not just as liberty from government but as participation in power; every Virginian having a voice in the forces that govern our lives; every Virginian being able to co-create our shared Commonwealth.
This clear vision comes with a clear opponent: those who belittle us, those who want to hoard power for themselves and their cronies, those who doubt the creative capacity of ordinary Virginians. We need to speak to the visceral experience of being belittled—by cruel bosses, by opaque bureaucracies, by callous corporations, by bigoted local bigwigs, by a society that won’t give us a chance. And we need to show that when Democrats are in power, we are going to stand with you against that belittlement—that when you’re ready to take on the boss, or reform the system, or launch a new idea, or heal your neighborhood, or start a family…your Democratic Party has your back.
In saying this, we must be honest about how the only way anything we all care about is going to happen is if we all routinely participate. We need to unteach the lesson “if we elect Dems, good things will automatically happen” and remember the lesson: “We are the ones we have been waiting for, we are the change that we seek.”
And in place of a culture war that the forces of domination have played to their advantage so well, we must substitute real, in-person solidarity across differences. This means spending less time watching cable news and scrolling social media—and more time attending to real needs by building real relationships with real people in the real world.
If we can move from management to membership—and if we can cohere a strong vision of deepening democracy—there will be brighter weeks for Virginia Democrats than this one. Such a transition won’t be quick and easy, but nothing important is. Let’s get to work.
Pete Davis is the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network and the author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.