News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, October 11, 2013

A black hole for Democrats

A call went out for volunteers to help with a mass mailing and telephone calling during the 2010 campaign.  A couple who reliably showed up to help on such occasions came in and asked where they could help.  I was busy sorting the letters and filling out the bulk mail paperwork when I noticed the couple rather quickly slip out the back door.  The next day I saw the man in the grocery store, said I didn't get a chance to talk to him, and asked him if something was wrong.  He said if he wanted to be treated the way he was the previous night, he'd go hang out at the Republican headquarters.  He said there are days when he wasn't sure the Democratic Party wanted him or that he could support the Party.  He brought up the idea of changing his registration to independent:  that way he could vote in the primaries and avoid the unpleasantries and insulting rudeness that active participation in a political party seemed to so frequently offer.  He mentioned that other people had expressed the idea to him.

This man's complaint was not the only one I heard during that campaign, and I have heard many since then.  A few weeks ago I  heard a conversation among some Democrats in which one person expressed some dismay about party matters.  Another person made the comment in effect that the person had no grounds to complain after all that the party had done for the person.  The comment was a puzzler. I could not think of any instances in which the party had done anything for anybody but its candidates.  But I could think of a multitude of instances in which people did many, many things for the party.  The person who expressed the dismay is one who had come through for the party on many occasions when someone else did not and has noted that an acknowledgement or a word of thanks was never offered.  In recent years I have heard many complaints about how cliquishness was diminishing interest and participation in party business. 

An old colleague of mine offers some insight into the significance of the behavior of political parties.  Like me, he is retired, but is still active in a research organization that studies and conducts polls.  His position title was professor of political theory and practice. He refuses to be called a political scientist.  He says the people who call themselves political scientists have given science a bad name.  While staying in my old home area recently, I heard him on a public radio station discussion show on the splintering and fractiousness within the political parties.  Later, I exchanged emails with him, as he had information about the organizational matters that affect political parties and other organizations.

Anyone who has participated in volunteer organizations has experienced the people who have commonplace and unremarkable lives, but claim great authority in their volunteer work as they strive for power and dominance.  My colleague makes the point that the concern about bullying in schools and the kind of teenage society portrayed in the film "Mean Girls" is actually a reflection of  the way adult society operates.  His explanation is that social stratification took a mean turn in the late 1970s and 1980s when the U.S. job market began to eliminate manufacturing jobs and consign them to workers in foreign lands who worked for subsistence in what was often prison camp positions.  Workers in the minds of many were just another form of expendable, cheap energy, he says.  As people strove to distinguish themselves from expendables, their society reverted to the juvenile nastiness of schoolhouse cliques.   Many wanted to be identified with the elite 1 or 10 percent.  This reversion to rather primitive and crude class distinctions has defined politics for the last quarter century or so.

Volunteer organizations have become the theater of war in the struggle to identify with a controlling class.  My colleague points to the diminishment of fraternal organizations as a symptom of the battles for classes.  He said at one time they were the refuge of brotherhood from the discriminatory and exclusionary practices of  a status seeking society.  When those organizations became venues for the struggles for dominance, control, and status, they failed.  My colleague points to the effect this kind of internal competition for control has had on churches, colleges and universities, as well as the fraternal organizations that are dying off.  He cites this very struggle as the basis for the political turmoil in state and national legislatures and within the political parties.

He said the Republican Party very stridently makes class division a defining principle.  It became bluntly stated with Mitt Romney's 47 percent remark and Paul Ryan's winners and losers division of the citizenry. It is evident in the emigration policy struggle, and in the resurgence of racial denigrations generally.   It is the Mean Girls syndrome at its most intense. 

My colleague stresses that no sentient person can surf the Internet, listen to talk radio, or watch cable news and not recognize that much of the nation's verbal efforts are being directed at inciting hatreds and their consequent exclusions of classes of people.  But what is taking place within organizations is not so overtly obvious, and this poses a problem that Democrats have not faced.

My colleague has looked at the voter registrations of South Dakota, among other states,  for evidence of the internal turmoil that is affecting politics.  He points out that South Dakota runs on federal money but has a state legislature and a general political attitude that shuns and vilifies the very federal programs that sustain the state.  The people like to believe in their independence and self-sufficiency, and they are particularly vehement against those people who openly seek government help--except for the agricultural sector.  Farm aid does not have the stigma of other welfare programs.  But, he says, the attitudes of class status have a more insidious aspect when it comes to the Democratic Party, which professes equality of human status and opportunity.  When people experience dismissal and insulting rudeness in their political relationships, they recognize that the people identified with the party are not practicing the principles of the party.  And as in the fraternal organizations, they lose their reason for belonging.  The growing independent registrations are symptoms of dissatisfaction with the party at the personal level.  My colleague said that switching from a party registration to an independent registration is a personal declaration of independence from the established political rule.  America is undergoing a deconstruction of its political system.

My colleague says the Occupy Wall Street movement and its barely noticeable status is a largely misinterpreted event in American politics.  The movement was a largely nonviolent demonstration, but was met with reactions as if it were a violent protest.  The movement retreated, but my colleague said it did not produce a change of minds.  It produced a change in attitudes about what it takes to make a successful protest.  The participants found that peaceful demonstrations tend to be ignored.  And they also know that movements such as the Arab Spring can be co-opted by those forces that seek power and dominance.  The colleague and his fellows have studied and are in contact with people in the Occupy movement and he says that the movement was criticized because it did not seem to have  established leaders or a stated agenda.  That, he said, was the whole point.  Vying for leadership and asserting positions are a part of the politics that Occupy members see as the failures of our democracy.  There is a difference between arguments to reach a clarity of position and purpose and arguments which are about who rises to the status of power.  The Occupy Movement sees those who covet the trappings of power as contrary to the purpose of the movement.  And so, many people who are involved in the movement are registered to vote as independents, and expanding that registration has become a goal of the movement. 

Democrats in South Dakota probably  have more sympathizers with the party's stated cause than registrations indicate.  But there is a very significant group in the party who think that some leaders have compromised their principles away in the name of winning elections.  They feel betrayed and demeaned by some party candidates and leaders, and are pulling back from active participation in party functions.  Such a retreat was what my friend who walked out of the campaign office was considering.  I don't know if, when he moved, he changed his party registration, but I do know a number of people who have.

My colleague said that there are many people who do not have the social skills to contribute to an organization.  But he says, that does not seem to be the case in the Democratic Party, as he and his fellows have interviewed people and collected data.  He says some would be leaders in the party are just very selective about whom they will bother with courtesies and respectful acknowledgment.  And that attitude projects itself strongly and is lethal to the life of any organization.   Democrats who are imperiously dismissive of some members are like people who profess Christian charity but practice devilish exclusion.  They are mean girls who appear to be just what they are. 

Ultimately, my colleague says, what is troubling American politics is not partisanship.  It is the same old primitive attitudes about class and superiority and inferiority that we once hoped the human race would be lifted out of by the ideas of democracy.  The struggle in both parties is for power and dominance fueled by disregard for large portions of the human race.  Portions, which my friend says, will inevitably rise up and create new organizations that can accommodate them. 


1 comment:

don stevens said...

Occupy Wall Street was an amorpous movement without a program, agenda or even catchy slogan. The President failed to lead in the Arab spring : cliches and platitudes could have gone a long way Er : "The Am people will always be for human rights and recognizes the likely advancement stuggling for air in the Arab world."
The president is not only disengaged as Reagan was; he is uninvolved with his own party. There is a very real leadership vacuum at the White House, which only augments the divisions in DC. When the House dominates discussions about Washington, you can bet it's divided.

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