What’s The Party For…..now?

One of my business partners, Rana Sarkar, is the founder of the Progressive North Forum in Canada and is preparing a conference in Toronto on October 20th with a question – “What’s the Party For?” It is an interesting question – in this age of “distributed democracy”.

One of the challenges that European parties (I am leveraging my experiences from England, mainly) is that they have difficulty because of the structure of their party. These parties are primarily membership driven – similar to other membership organizations, you pay membership dues to become a card-carrying member. But in today’s world, where many people revel in the freedom of choice and wish to express their independence, how does a party attract new members, and not simply churn the ever smaller group of people, over and over again?

IMHO, I do not think the party is a dead, I think that parties takes a lot longer to evolve into a mechanism that can support the fast-paced, fickle nature of the electorate today. Empowered with inexpensive technology, an ability to create content at a whim, and express themselves across a wide audience – individuals are finding their voice, without the need of the party. But, as human beings, we often require some form of organization to show our allegiance to – to share in our goals and values. This is one of the many reasons for parties.

So, let us consider that parties do today. From my experiences, parties:

  • Act as institutional memory – which is both good (learning from previous mistakes) and bad (keepers of conventional wisdom). By being “king-makers” and having a formulaic process, they tend to assure that everything has the same flavour, and interesting entries are appreciated, entertaining but also eventually discarded from the main body before the final decision is made.
  • Act as the gatekeeper for fundraising – in most state parties, the party seems to be the aggregator of the large donors and most networked individuals, providing learned guidance to the party faithful on whom to contribute to. It is here where the party wisdom often is seen to bestow the mantle of succession on the appropriate candidate.
  • Act as an organizing body – where the steady supporters and new volunteers are often brought to become involved in campaigns, especially around the time of elections. They hold training programs, manage data, and generally considered the keeper of the wisdom on the local, county or state field organizing.
  • Act as event planners – truly, where would a party be without the convention for the faithful to gather, commiserate, and make decisions on the direction of the party? Newbies are given a show and restricted access, where the faithful enjoy the benefits of connection and longevity.

But the question still beckons – what is a party for now? Are the tasks above all that is necessary, or can they evolve into something that engages the growing younger electorate and become part of the life of the community?

“But we need a real organization…”
When I was at Stanford, one of the books that came out while going to grad school was Jerry Porras and Jim Collins’ book, “Built to Last”. After serving on a couple of campaigns and interacting with various party committees, I think that the structure of parties make it hard for them to change efficiently or effectively. Take a look at some of the metrics Porras and Collins uses to determine if companies were “Built to Last”:

  • Be a Clock Builder, not a Time Teller
    In US politics, people give credit to the Republicans for being better at building the clock (“framing the message”) than the Democrats, whom, in the paraphrased words of Joel Klein, often seem to be trying to say everything for all people. In 2006, This year, the Democrats came out with a “unified message”, but if not for my personal interest in knowing it, I do not think I would even be aware of it. Similar to the transient nature of telling the time, the message has yet to resonate with the public. In politics, being a clock builder establishes a base for the base, time-telling tends to play directly to the hands of the perception of transience. While it might be good for the press, time-telling is not something that people can get ahold of.
  • Have a set of ‘Core Values’
    Again, the Republicans seem to have this in spades, where the Democrats seem to get lost in the discussion of all of the parties interests and coming up with (what is positioned by the Republicans as) an incomprehensible set of “values”. One of the learnings of the Porras/Collins book is that “Core Values” are something that everyone in the “company” follows and upholds.
    These values are not just a touchy-feely group of statements, they are the core values that help the “company” make the hard decisions of what works and what doesn’t. They are the constraints that help people make decisions and prioritize what matters. What does this sound like to you?
  • Preserve Your ‘Core Ideology’
    The “Core Ideology” is based on the Core Values, but is more malleable to the time and “market”. Does the party actually preserve the core ideology? And what is the core ideology of this time and date?
  • BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals)
    Now here is where both parties tend to fall down IMHO. The BHAGs are determined, not by grand design, but by short-term goals – especially for the next election cycle. Consider that corporations back in the 70s and 80s acted like this – always working to hit their next quarter’s numbers – which the Japanese demonstrated the strength of long-term thinking. Then in the 90s, when hitting short-term numbers became vogue again, for their perceived value as a reflection of long-term value, how did that end up? What were the last great goals that people got around and worked toward? Sacrificed for? Aren’t parties meant to maintain these BHAGs?
  • Have a ‘Cult-Like” Culture
    Another interesting metric – when was the last time that the masses felt like the party was something they were proud to be a part of? Where others feel proud to be a member of? Aside from the different extremes or the party elders, how do the rank-and-file feel? As you get closer to the middle, how strong does the party reflect across the spectrum?
  • Don’t be Afraid to Evolve: Try New Things and Use What Works
    Hmmmm – now this is an interesting one. How soon did the parties take to new mechanisms? Look at the local, state and national parties. Where was money spent? How did new ideas, new technologies, new engagement strategies take place/take hold?
  • Look Inside for your Top Management
    Now, in this case, I think parties are very much hit his metric – but I think that they stick far too close to the blood-line, instead of cultivating hybrids to engage in change. Let’s take the Republicans and the Democrats – how has the top management within the parties grown? Is there a “farm league”? How do people rise through the ranks?
  • Constantly Innovate
    Again, where does this lie in the parties? How often do you see change within the party apparatus?

From this accounting of the Porras/Collins metrics, parties do not look like mechanisms for long term stability. But, they do have value. Earlier, I accounted for some of their tasks – but what could they do for the future?

The 21st Century Political Party
For one, I would not remove any of the tasks above – they have a major responsibility to the existing membership and the keepers of the flame. But, they also need to do two major things:

    All parties should have the responsibility for building their teams – like any good competitive sporting team or global company, the strength of your party is based on the strength of the benches. And, if the party is not out cultivating new recruits to be part of the process, then the party will eventually whither and die from neglect – or be eaten alive by the opposing parties. Think of the Whigs – and their plight over 100 years ago.
    By building the bench, you have to build the process – for training, for relevance, for involvement. In today’s society, where does civic duty come? Where are the programs for civic involvement that engage others on a regular basis? Where do the actions coincide with others philanthropic efforts (like Habitat for Humanity or the United Way)? How can National Service be brought into vogue without the need for war?
    In four separate occasions, I have met with parties – state and federal types – and discussed the need for infrastructure. Not buildings and roads, but technological infrastructure to allow for parties to provide relevant services to the empowered masses. Instead of keeping all the power in the hands of a few, provide the tools and the capabilities to supporters that can empower them to act on the party’s behalf – and to take ownership over their actions. And, rather than being fearful of the risk, ensure that processes are in place that individuals take responsibility for their actions and reduce the impact on the party. Offering empowerment can be a double-edged sword – the question is, are parties ready to experiment with the power of distributed democracy?

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