Last weekend, members and supporters of Oregon's Democratic Party gathered for a biennial summit in Sunriver for three days of panels, speakers, and networking. To those already a part of the party, the event no doubt felt something like a family reunion. But the undercurrent of self-congratulation, assumptions about unaffiliated voters, and anti-Republican rhetoric revealed some problems with not just the Democratic gathering but also the evolving party politics of today.
Elected officials are supposed to be public servants, in which servitude is a state of humble giving and selfless sacrifice. But while politicians no doubt give up some things in exchange for a seat at the table, humility was hard to find at the DPO Summit, as it is in politics generally.
Lawmakers received a welcome akin to the star quarterback after clinching the title with a stellar last-minute play. During a lunch billed as a congressional update, members of Oregon's democratic delegation gave impassioned speeches, peppered with anti-Republican jokes, to a starry-eyed audience.
Standing ovations—typically reserved for powerful artistic performances and compelling speeches—were a dime a dozen. People stood when a new politician stepped up to the microphone, and they stood again when his or her remarks were finished. The vibe was one-part church sermon, one-part pop star concert.
Organizers enticed attendees with special prizes, including breakfast with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, while the eagerness of regular folks to steal a moment with their elected officials was palpable to the point of being uncomfortable. Politicians are not celebrities. They ought to be eager to have an audience with their constituents, not the other way around.
In more serious moments, attendees speculated—on and off stage—about the need to persuade unaffiliated voters that the Democratic Party has their best interests at heart. Some posited that unaffiliated voters have a hard time distinguishing between the two major parties, while others bemoaned the way Democrats present their messaging about the economy.
According to Pew, sixty percent of unaffiliated voters say they choose not to register with a party because they don't fit neatly into one red or blue box. It's not that they are uninformed or are failing to understand the message; rather, they know themselves well enough to recognize that their political views don't fit what has become a firmly established mold. The same survey found that 39 percent of voters have an equal number of liberal and conservative views.
Armed with this information, Democratic—as well Republican—leaders will need to step off their pedestals and start to listen to voters if they want to hold onto power in a future where voters are increasingly eschewing party affiliation. That's not to say that the party system has to go; parties can serve as a useful tool for organizing and amplifying the perspective of a like-minded group of people. But party politics are increasingly polarizing, and the demonizing of the opposing party is not a recipe for change.
Real power derives from returning to the roots of representational democracy, from recognizing that the American people are more complex than the people who claim to represent their interests. It's time to move away from efforts to "convert" unaffiliated voters and instead aim to represent them. Party politics can help this process or it can become increasingly irrelevant.