"Door Knob - Falling Houses" by Artotem is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
In the previous article in this two-part series, we dug into the backstory of the Democratic Party with a deep dive into Michael Kazin’s What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party (2022), which delivered an essential account of the party from Van Buren to Biden, but failed to offer a clear vision for the party’s future.
In this installment, I search for an answer to the question Kazin leaves unanswered: can we imagine a truly multiracial Democratic Party, one that fully advocates for all of its constituencies, and breaks free from its past as a party mired in white supremacy?
If Democrats want to offer a true alternative to the GOP - the party which now explicitly embraces white supremacy - they have to not just talk the talk, they have to walk the walk. It’s not inevitable that either the Democratic Party or our country will become a successful multiracial democracy because of demographic change: you have to do things that make you uncomfortable to realize this vision.
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The path to true democracy, these authors argue, is a dirt road through rural America.
Our exploration starts with Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb’s heartfelt and wise Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America (2020). We follow with Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward’s Dirt Road Revival: How To Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It (2022), and then Anand Giridharadas’ The Persuaders: At the Frontlines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy (2022).
Harvest the Vote starts with a love story, as the Florida-raised Kleeb becomes smitten with Nebraska, along with its people and land. Her love for rural America made her “think of families coming together to share meals, laughter, and stories. I think of the parents in these families doing their best to raise their children in ‘the good life’ and working hard to preserve for them a legacy that’s worth passing down.”
But what do you do when the Democratic Party doesn’t love you back?
“The Democratic Party has largely abandoned rural communities,” Kleeb laments. “Rarely in our history have we reached out and brought rural interests to the policy table of our party.” She notes exceptions, such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Rural Electrification Act under FDR, and the Democratic Party’s response to the farm credit crisis of the 1980s. She cites the moment presidential candidate Jesse Jackson visited Missouri in 1985 as a high-water mark: “Jackson understood the land and farming.” Kleeb says.“He told a crowd of farmers and ranchers protesting the farm closures in Missouri that it was time for the “the eaters and the feeders, black and white, to unite for justice in rural America. We have the resources to declare a state of emergency, a moratorium on farm foreclosures, and to loan farmers money to plant this season.”
Listening to rural voters is about more than winning elections, Kleeb maintains.“The Democratic Party needs rural voters because they are part of the American fabric; they can contribute ideas and solutions that will help us confront the many issues facing our country today. Climate change, education, health care, immigration, technology, jobs, and of course food and agricultural policies are all issues of tremendous concern to rural voters.”
Harvest the Vote packs many stories into less than 250 pages: how Kleeb went from Young Democrat to union organizer to fierce opponent of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, fighting alongside Native Americans and ranchers in her adopted state and along the proposed path of the pipeline, her frustration with the Democratic Party’s lack of investment in rural communities, her determination to organize inside the party to fix this, and advice for the next generation of rural organizers.
After running for local school board, Kleeb helped found Bold Nebraska and the Bold Alliance to advance progressive values in rural states. Kleeb has come to know rural America, she says, from countless hours of “windshield time and road dust” – and talking to people about their values. Identifying shared values, she says, like fairness, community, hard work, and interdependence could be building blocks of a majoritarian coalition that wins elections and issue campaigns in every corner of the United States. Kleeb explains: “Democrats living on the coasts share many of the same goals as rural Democrats and Independents—break up big banks, stop the mega-mergers, protect workers, expand public education, make health care affordable, and confront climate change. We share the core value of fairness.”
Kleeb describes how to do this in practice in the origin story of Bold Nebraska, which was formed out of a desire to form a coalition with “everyone at the table.” And while this started out as “farmers, the creative class, hunters, small-business owners, moms, college students, and activists from Omaha to Scottsbluff,” her riveting insider story of the campaign that stopped the Keystone XL Pipeline describes how the Native American communities most directly affected by the pipeline came to play a leading role in the alliance’s victory. She continues, “For the first time in the modern period, rural people, both native and non-native, were involved as equal partners in a large political movement.”
The energy unleashed by forging relationships across lines of perceived difference, in an unlikely alliance, is transferable to politics: “There is simply no reason the Democratic Party does not tackle the major political battle of getting Democratic candidates elected in rural America with the same grit and creativity as the pipeline fighters demonstrated.” She continues:
Healing the distrust our party has left on communities of color and rural towns across our country is necessary and possible. That may seem harsh, but our party has forgotten rural people and especially rural communities of color. We’ve lost the moral sense of urgency to listen to rural people for solutions to problems. Rebuilding authentic relationships, ones that are not transactional, takes a tremendous amount of time and consumes a lot of resources. We have to truly want rural people engaged in our party and our policy positions, not just to give us their votes. This means our platform and messages will look and sound different, and, I would argue, better.
Harvest the Vote then pivots to how we can translate these rural values and relationships into “big ideas to stand with rural America:” health care for all, ending eminent domain for private gain, confronting climate change, and supporting family farmers. In each of these, curtaining the power of big corporations resonates deeply.
Kleeb imagines going on offense to win the narrative and policy battles with a Farmer and Rural Bill of Rights in towns and states. Kleeb acknowledges that there are issues on which we may not agree, like abortion, immigration, and guns, but this doesn’t mean we should hide our differences. “As Democrats, we need to be honest about where we stand on the issue of abortion, tell our story on why we hold our beliefs, and then also talk about policies to protect women and children.”
Harvest the Vote does something strikingly rare in books about organizing: it offers genuine wisdom and guidance for the next generation of rural organizers, as opposed to just ego-edifying stories. Kleeb references Maxmin and Woodward’s work in Maine as an example of what we need to do more of: show up in rural towns with a megaphone and start investing in red-state Democratic parties, candidates and grassroots groups.
Kleeb ends on a note that has echoes throughout book: strategic polarization (as opposed to toxic polarization or identity based polarization) between the people and big corporations can be a winner, if the Democratic Party finds the political will to do it:
I hear worried conversations about the same things: their kid’s school lacking the funding it needs to pay teachers or even do basic maintenance; the rising costs of college and insurance; a shortage of jobs with a living wage; unsustainable costs for rent or housing; and at every turn, big corporations bent on proving they have more power than we the people. Because both rural and urban residents want these things to change, this is a bridge we can build.
There’s no better place to give that a try than in rural Maine. Maxmin and Woodward pick up this thread at the beginning of Dirt Road Revival with a “tough-love letter to the Democratic Party.” In contrast to the consolidation in the GOP around autocratic values and the principles of minority rule, they wish for (and then work to make their wish come true) a Democratic Party that can build sustainable political power based on shared values.
The deep canvassing that became a hallmark of Maxmin’s campaigns are described in a fascinating chapter in The Persuaders as well, which features organizers from Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), New Conversation Initiative, and People’s Action. These groups’ report, How to Defeat Trump and Heal America (2021), found that deep canvassing had a substantial impact on decreasing Trump’s vote margin, estimated to be 102 times more effective per person than the average presidential persuasion program.
Here’s really good news: you can do this too. Best on the doors and in person but also effective on the phone, deep canvassing was essential to the work that Maxmin and her campaign did to win first a state representative seat and then a state senate race in rural Maine. So they bucked the trend, ignored the state party, and told political consultants to stay away. Maxmin (the candidate) and Woodward (the campaign manager) made their decision to run a bottom-up, movement politics oriented campaign, because “We saw a deep need to prioritize rural America and build long-lasting political power, to root young people in their rural hometowns, and to create political campaigns filled with community, hope, and inspiration instead of divisiveness, exhaustion, and monotony.”
Maxmin and Woodward are not kidding about relationship building: “Chloe canvassed for several hours every day, en route to talk with every Democrat in the district before the June primary. That’s right: every single Democrat… In total, Chloe did eight passes through our primary universe to build relationships with District 88 Democrats… Every single day, Chloe talked with people who had never been contacted by a Democratic candidate or canvasser in their entire voting history.”
The campaign’s volunteers did the same brand of deep canvassing as Maxmin: “But the more conversations that we had, the more we discovered the powerful act of listening. We heard some rough stuff, and we didn’t tolerate hate. But simply by listening patiently, we were almost always able to glimpse common ground…As we told our canvassers, the purpose became to listen and build relationships. This is how we can slowly build the trust that changes minds and elects different kinds of representatives.”
What is striking in the book and the campaigns it describes in vivid detail is Maxmin and Woodward’s belief in contesting for every vote, including Republicans who may not support their party’s increasingly antidemocratic slide. Why do this? Maxmin and Woodward interrogate the deficiencies of the Democratic Party in the past couple of decades and what it has cost us: “Rural voters are rooted in values of independence, common sense, tradition, frugality, self-reliance, community, and hard work. They vote around their identity, what’s important to them, what they think is right and wrong in their hometown. But Democratic agendas revolve around specific policies, fiscal notes, political agendas, white papers, and wonky details—leaving out the focus on values that rural communities respond to. As a result, rural Americans haven’t resonated with what Democratic campaigns put out there.”
Maxmin offers strong evidence that values-based, relational organizing, and deep canvassing produce victories. She was the first Democrat ever to win in District 88, a feat she replicated when she ran for state senate in a race with bigger stakes and a lot more doors (she knocked on 13,314 herself).
Like Kleeb, Maxmin and Woodward don’t just want to tell their story and inspire people: they want to recruit people to the cause. So the second half of their book is an organizing manual, with point-by-point guidance on building people-powered movement politics campaigns to transform the Democratic Party from the ground up. They dig into the nitty gritty of how to run campaigns that build organizations and generate energy for the governing phase that follows. Organizers like these three authors know that relationship-building is a form of fusion: it creates a lot of energy.
Dirt Road Revival concludes with a call to action:
We must rise to the challenge of reimagining a Democratic Party committed to representing all. This too is a work of love—love for our communities and the diversity of our people. If we are to combat narratives of white supremacy, we must tell our own stories that resonate with rural people and call upon the values, struggles, and hopes we share. It’s time to invest in state and local politics and develop well-organized state parties in order to build durable power. These reforms should be complemented by rebuilding our base, as Democrats show up in every community and on every dirt road to listen, forge relationships, and develop the conditions for trust to grow. This is what everyone deserves.
Rebuilding relationships is at the heart of Giridharadas’ The Persuaders: “Many Americans have grown alienated from an idea at the heart of democratic theory: that you change things by changing minds—by persuading.” We’re not going to move communities and constituencies away from the authoritarian right and MAGA-dominated GOP, he argues, unless we talk to them instead of writing them off. “The stakes of this writing off were high: some of the most dangerous and antidemocratic movements of our time had managed, in spite of those features, to make their causes appear welcoming and make newcomers feel at home, whereas some of the most righteous, inclusive, and just movements gave many the feeling of being inaccessible, intractable, and alienating.”
As with Giridharadas’s previous book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (2018) that I reviewed previously, his primary audience is not organizers: it’s philanthropy, big donors, and the political class. He is right that this elite, which marshals most of the resources our movements rely on, need to understand the real power and potential of people-powered organizations, and support them. But even if the people who really need to read this book probably won’t, we still should.
Like some of you, I’m a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, so let’s imagine The Persuaders as a twenty-sided crystal die with each chapter reinforcing the same point from a different angle. Yet while each of these angles is revelatory, they are still only half of the story. The Far Right and white supremacists have their own grassroots, relational persuaders, and their own narrative of a brighter future - but not for all. If Giridharadas had contrasted this active threat with the alternative offered by the organizers profiled in this book, it might have created the kind of tension that moves people to action.
Giridharadas’ chapter featuring African-American academic and advocate for reproductive justice Loretta Ross does offer this challenging perspective, in a way that is especially relevant to today’s Democratic Party. He explains her theory of change, called “circles of influence,” which offers opportunities for almost everyone on the spectrum to form a political coalition. Ross describes the people who share most of her general worldview as “90-percenters,” those who already agree “that capitalism is problematic, that racism and homophobia and transphobia and anti-immigrant bias are bad” and so on and so forth. But the problem she observes with 90 percenters is that instead of focusing on the vast area of overlap they fixate on the 10 percent of disagreement.
Ross argues that 90-percenters must learn to “accept large islands of disagreement in a sea of assent” with 75-percenters, and find common values with 50-percenters. But they must also learn, she says, to break bread with 25-percenters, who may not articulate their values in the same ways. If we approach those we disagree with from an understanding that they are good people, then we at least have a foundation for a potential relationship. This is the key to organizing and movement-building: not to spend all of our time trying to turn 90-percenters into 100-percenters so we can remain a righteous voice in the wilderness, but to build a welcoming consensus through strategic alignment and relationships with the 25-percenters on up. This is how we build the kind of majority dedicated to multiracial democracy that can win elections and govern.
To be sure, as Ross acknowledges, there will always be 0-percenters - those who push back against an inclusive future. With or without Trump, the GOP is actively trying to recruit more 0-percenters into its base. So only in offering a clear yet inclusive alternative can Democrats win. The best parts of The Persuaders crystallize the hard-won wisdom of leaders like Ross who reach beyond the choir of the 90-percenters to build majorities that can win elections and campaigns designed to defeat authoritarianism.
The chapter on Anat Shenker-Osorio, founder of Race Class Narrative Action and We Make the Future, distills some of her core lessons and messaging mantras which have been embraced across the progressive movement. “Shenker-Osorio longed for a party that called voters in with sonorous invocations of their own definitions of freedom and family,” writes Giridharadas, “framed as universal aspirations of having each other’s back and wanting the same things for our kids, and then followed that up with fearless naming and shaming, recognizing no contradiction between these things, and finally moved to transcending the cynicism the callout might engender by saying, “We can solve this!””
The answer to our original question is hiding in plain sight in these three books. If the revitalized Democratic Party, composed of a majority built on shared values and strong opposition to corporate power, is indeed a critical element of the strategy to defeat authoritarianism and build a more inclusive democracy and economy, what do we have to do?
Start with a long-term agenda and theory of change that have a vision of the world as it should be, 30 or 40 years out, along with strategic pathways to get us from here to there. We can build a majority coalition on the strategic pathway of “democratic control of government,” but not on, say, public control of the economy. The emphasis is on strategy, not moment-to-moment tactics ungrounded in a theory of change. Building a bigger we also means being intentional about the constituencies that add up to a majority. Then we have to:
Paint the beautiful tomorrow. Shenker-Osorio in The Persuaders: “Don’t merely criticize the status quo; don’t merely theorize about the world you’re fighting for. Help people see it.”
Animate the base to persuade the middle. She continues: “Thrill your base; alienate the people who aren’t going to vote for you anyway but will do you the favor, if you’re setting the rhetorical agenda, of yelling your ideas all over town. Don’t be afraid to call out, to woo the right people and drive away the right people.” Let’s take a page from quantum physics where particles do not have a fixed position until you look at them. This is the same dynamic at play with the middle. Giridiharadas explains further: “If Shenker-Osorio is right that torn persuadables aren’t looking for an average of two positions but rather for what is normal, common sense, how the world works, then the way to persuade them of your view is by making it ubiquitous around them, inescapable.”
Sell the brownie, not the recipe. “Don’t rally people to care about some arcane word they probably don’t understand,” maintains Shenker-Osorio, “Make them think of a pain point in their life—that expensive diabetes treatment—and tell them how giving the federal government supervision of elections and cracking down on gerrymandering and allowing mail-in voting would empower them to solve their problems.”
Deep canvassing. When something is 102 times more effective at turning people out to vote than drive-by voter contacts and any of us can be deep canvassers, we should do it. A lot.
Get out there and collect some road dust on your car. That’s Kleeb advice in a nutshell. Go to the people. Listen and learn. The path forward comes from this work, not a blueprint.
It’s time for the Democrats to organize—really organize—once again. Maxmin and Woodward are telling us that this is our job, that it can’t be outsourced.
That’s it. Love it or hate it, these authors argue, the keys to transforming the Democratic Party and America are in our hands.
First published in Social Policy: Organizing for Social & Economic Justice, Volume 52, #4.
Fantastic review. I want to buy and read all of these books TODAY. Thanks, James.