Can Sam Rasoul Save the Democratic Party?
It’s easy to place a lot of hope on Delegate Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, Virginia.
For a Democratic Party that has lost again and again in parts of the country far away from major metropolitan areas, Rasoul represents a ray of hope that progressive politics can win anywhere in the country. He’s only 35, has a background in business, and has focused his legislative agenda on healthcare, redistricting reform, renewable energy, and reducing gun violence. All from a seat that sits a stone’s throw away from coal country.
Last week, Rasoul made headlines when he quit his leadership post in the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, arguing that the Democrats hadn’t done enough to connect with everyday voters. By leaving his post, he said he hoped to spend more time connecting one-on-one with voters and offering a different, more inclusive vision. Rasoul seems particularly intent on growing the Democratic Party through both reforming government and through grassroots organizing. Thanks to gerrymandering, House Republicans in Virginia hold a 2-1 advantage in terms of seats, and being in the deep minority in a part of Virginia with many fewer Democrats that his counterparts in Northern Virginia or Richmond gives Rasoul a particularly unique viewpoint on how Democrats are judged outside the major corridors.
In an editorial published on Blue Virginia just after his announcement to leave his leadership position, Rasoul laid out something of a formula for how Democrats can connect with voters of all stripes moving forward. You should read it all, but below are his seven steps for building trust voters in whatever strategy Democrats ultimately pursue:
• FIGHT LIKE HELL FOR WHAT WE BELIEVE IN – We can fight for the progressive values and issues we stand for, and play to win. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi (similar to our Donald Trump) was eventually defeated after many years when the Left focused on the issues, excluding personal attacks. We must fight for our issues, not against Trump the person. The 2016 election showed us this only backfires.
• BUILD UNITY ON VALUES, NOT IDENTITY POLITICS – Trust is built in HOW we fight, or our values in action. Let’s define our values and have the discipline to live them “beyond a reasonable doubt.” We must leave identity politics behind and rally around our common values as Justin Trudeau is doing in Canada.
• BE REAL ABOUT THE MIRROR, FORGET THE WINDOW – Critically acclaimed leadership writer Jim Collins discusses in his study of top leaders over 40 years that the most successful leaders had the uncanny ability to look in the mirror in times of failure, not out the window. We should keep our focus on how we can grow from lessons learned.
• EVERY CORNER STRATEGY – Sincere involvement means we need a multi-year strategy of supporting candidates in every corner of the Commonwealth. In the information age, campaign dollars have a sharp diminishing return. We can get more utility by investing in our message and organizing in every community. If our purpose and values are solid and we find and train good candidates, then our message will spread.
• EMBRACE PROGRESSIVE POPULISM – Robert Reich has it right; progressive politics can win. The people want fundamental change with real ethics reform, big money influence out of elections, Glass-Steagall reinstated, and the end of gerrymandering! The citizens are tired of establishment politics. We must be sincere about ceding power to the people as these steps are essential to rebuilding trust.
• RADICALLY EMPATHIZE – Empathizing does not mean we must agree, but Martin Luther King Jr. was successful when he preached we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Split up Trump voters. Yes, some may be racist or bigoted, and we should aggressively condemn their actions, but many did not begin as Trump voters. Empathy is tough and we need to listen to the concerns of all Americans.
• STOP NEGATIVE POLITICS – We are disrespecting voters when we try to scare them into voting our way. Our obsolete campaign tactics erodes trust with voters. They feel manipulated; the same feeling as we have with a bad car salesperson. We should never say anything about anyone unless they would agree with it if they were in the room. Don’t be a bad car salesperson, respect the voter enough to come to her/his own conclusion.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but there’s an interesting fusion of ideas here. At first blush, it looks little different from the platform Bernie Sanders ran on to some success in the Democratic primary, but there are a few elements in here that seem necessary to grow the party’s geographic influence.
The idea of competing everywhere harkens back to Howard Dean’s successful 50-state strategy and seems like a better investment of campaign dollars than television ads that have diminishing returns. I couldn’t agree more with the need to radically empathize with all voters, even the ones we vehemently disagree with—which was one of Barack Obama’s trademarks in rising to national prominence to win the Presidency in 2008. And a renewed focus on good governance reforms like campaign finance, ending partisan gerrymandering, and bolstering ethics is an absolute no-brainer.
I have some quibbles with the rest. I’m not so naïve to think we can get rid of negative politics, but I do think Democrats would be wise to be much more selective in their attacks. Progressive populism has never really reckoned with how voters feel about having their taxes raised, but there’s plenty we can do on economic fairness and combating monopolies without massive tax increases. And I worry that moving away from "identity politics" is a backdoor attempt to push civil rights and freedoms into a second-tier of legislative priorities.
But I don't have to agree with every plank to see that major reforms are necessary in the way that the Democratic Party goes about winning elections. Democrats have gotten to the point where 80% of our base will mobilize and vote every year. What we need now is a way to reach that next 20-30% of voters who only turn out when they’re inspired and feel connected, not to mention independent voters who deep down want government to be responsive to everyday people (who might not have access to a lobbyist or trade association).
To operationalize something like the above is insanely difficult, as Democrats tend to resist marching orders and disagree on big-picture strategy. And who knows if Delegate Rasoul has the energy or capacity to get buy-in from party regulars and activists, much less pro-business Democrats who can point to a Democratic Governor and two U.S. Senators with some measure of pride.
But it’s clear that Democrats have built a coalition that is geographically isolated and unable to win at every level—local, state, and federal. There are Republican governors in states as blue as Massachusetts and Maryland, and yet, the Democratic brand does not enjoy any such leeway in similarly red states. Maybe a Trump administration will be so bad that voters flock to Democrats in 2018, but you can’t build an electoral strategy around hoping your opponents simply fail.
Sam Rasoul is onto something, and Democrats would be wise to consider some of the reforms in strategy he’s proposing. We know that these voters are out there waiting to be inspired, persuaded, and mobilized. I wouldn’t expect miracles, but just a small nudge in geographic diversity will net us voters and future candidates to start winning more seats on the margin.
I agree with Delegate Rasoul: It’s time for a bigger tent.