A few years ago, I wrote an article on how to be an effective local party, and not a failed one. (If you’re involved in your local party, feel free to share it with others in the party – it’s a pretty good list.)
The article begins with the well-known Will Rogers quote: “I don’t belong to an organized political party – I’m a Democrat.” I noted that even while we chuckle at that, we also smile ruefully, as we know some parts of the Democratic party struggle with being organized and effective.
The thing is, I assumed that the people involved in local party work would want to have a healthy, functional organization, and merely needed some ideas or guidance on what that would look like – a vision of success, if you will.
Lately, though, I’ve been reminded that even with the best of intentions — and certainly with the worst of intentions — dysfunction and disease can gum up the works and damage the organization.
And that is what is happening in some of our county Democratic parties in the state. Dysfunction, and even disease, is causing some of our local parties to be running, let us say, less than optimally.
There’s a long-time rule in human relations and emotions that naming something takes power away from it. So, in a sincere wish to help our local parties be all that they can be, I’m going to name some of the issues that some of our parties are facing. If you see your own local party in this list, then perhaps it’s time to do some serious introspection.
Signs of dysfunction
What follows is a list of conditions that indicate your local party is not functioning as well as it should. None of them are necessarily fatal, but they are definitely a hindrance to getting the work done.
Meetings are disorganized. So, your local exec committee meets on a regular or at least semi-regular schedule. BUT, when you do meet, there is no agenda (or you don’t follow it), there’s not even a thought of parliamentary procedure, and you take hours to get things decided. Not to mention, you do things in the meeting that should be handled by committees. Eventually, people who actually have a life decide to quit wasting it on pointless meetings.
Control is hoarded. This is one of those gotchas that you don’t think about until it bites you in the butt. Example: How many people have signatory access to your bank accounts? How many people are admins on your Facebook page? Some people get in a position of control of something, and then refuse to share that control. No one wants to hurt their feelings, or (heaven forbid) do that work themselves, so the person continues to jealously guard their space. Then – whoops, that person left the country, or got mad, or had the gall to up and die. And your local party is in deep doo-doo.
Communication is poor to non-existent. When I worked in a large corporation, I learned that good communication takes a constant awareness of who needs to be told, when, and how. And I mean constant. There is absolutely no way to over-communicate – but it is absolutely possible to under-communicate. Leadership has a responsibility to set the right example in this.
Signs of disease
There’s dysfunction, and then there is disease. Just like human bodies can get sick, so can organizations. And, if the sickness isn’t dealt with, it can lead to more and more harm, until the organizational “body” just dies.
There are many types of organizational disease, but here are three that are especially problematic in volunteer organizations like political parties.
Lack of transparency, especially financial. There is absolutely no excuse for keeping financial information from the executive committee of your party. Such a practice just leads to suspicion and rumors, and feeds the first dysfunction of a team: lack of trust. And let’s not forget that every member of your executive team is a fiduciary of the organization – which means they are responsible for making sure the assets of the organization are used responsibly. What if there is fraud happening, or graft, or misuse of funds? What if a donor finds out about such, and sues the executive committee? Pleading ignorance will do you no good; you were supposed to be in the know. If the financial records are only shown to a few (or to no one at all), you have a serious problem.
Petty disagreements and actions. People who are going to work together have to work together. Holding grudges, passing gossip (whether true or false), doing petty things to “get back” at someone – these have no place in any organization that aspires to actually be effective. If such things are present, even if only from one or two people, they have to be called out and thrown out. Remember, culture is “how we do things around here” – and it is set from the top and reinforced by everyone. If your executive committee feels like middle school, you have a serious problem.
Dictatorial leadership. If the leader or leaders of your local party are in it for the power, they will quickly learn that such an attitude will quickly mean they have no power – because everyone will quit. Remember, these are not paid employees; they are volunteers, who have chosen to give of their time and talents to make a difference in the community. If you run the party as your personal fiefdom, don’t be surprised if the healthy people leave, because they’re not going to put up with it. There’s a lot more that could be said about this, but remember this: Leaders have followers. If you’re leading and no one is following, you have a problem. And if you have a dictator in charge of your local party, you have a very serious problem.
A final thought
When I hear about local parties with some of the above afflictions, or who are dealing with factions and power plays, I wonder to myself: What are you fighting over? It’s not like we’ve got huge organizations with lots of money and lots of juice.
Let’s face it: it’s a tough time to be a Dem in Kentucky. We need every person we can get to have a chance of making a positive difference, especially in our local and legislative elections. Taking a small party and splitting it in two (or more) parts is not only destructive, it’s silly.
Dealing with these issues is difficult, of course. It takes one or more persons to be the “adults in the room” and focus on the problems and not on the people. I had a boss who would often say “I don’t care whose fault it is – how do we fix it?”
It’s time for all our local parties to put aside differences and band together for the long haul ahead of us. We’ve got years of building and rebuilding to do, and we don’t have time for dysfunction or disease. Get together, name the issues, either fix them or move past them, and let’s get to work.