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Dems Challenged to Proselytize

In These Times is featuring a provocative contribution to the discussion of Democratic political strategy. "How to Turn Your Red State Blue," by Christopher Hayes challenges Democrats to think more like evangelicals in adopting some of their methods of recruitment:

...the improbable fact about missionary activity is that it works, regardless of the faith’s specific dogma. Mormons are the fastest-growing church in the country. Evangelical protestant congregations make up 58 percent of all new churches in the United States. Globally, Islam continues to reach into new and unfamiliar lands, experiencing explosive growth in China. Religions that actively proselytize—Pentecostals, Mormons, Muslims—grow, almost without exception.

There’s a corollary to this in politics. Yale political scientists Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber have found in numerous studies of voter contact that face-to-face canvassing is far and away the most effective means of persuasion: Roughly one out of every 15 voters approached at the door will add their vote to your tally.

Hayes believes that Democrats are focusing too much energy and resources on securing their base and fighting for the "mushy middle," while ceding opportunities for growth through active conversion and creating new progressive voters. "The operative challenge," says Hayes, "is not how we stitch together 51 percent of the voters into the Democratic quilt, not how we wake people up to their own elusive progressivism. It is how we make more progressives."

Hayes cites the GOP's success in reaching out to new constituencies through churches and other community-based organizations, while the Democrats fritter away their energies on internal debates or 'preaching to the choir.' He notes further:

Organizations like MoveOn and Democracy For America have revived grassroots, meeting-based membership organizations, but they serve chiefly as a means of coordinating existing progressives rather than pulling new people into the fold...In order to grow, progressives need to systematically expand the universe of access points to the progressive worldview and actively recruit people into the fold.

MoveOn probably deserves more credit for reaching out to new voters. But Hayes offers the germ of a good idea in urging Democrats to begin focusing more intensely on potential 'converts' created by disastrous GOP policies:

Here’s one point of access that conservative policies are inadvertently expanding: the moments of personal crisis—unmanageable debt, hospitalization without health insurance, lack of mental health services, sudden unemployment—that reveal to Americans that the right’s ideology of “personal responsibility” masks the destruction of a social safety net for middle-and lower-income workers.

Hayes suggests that building an "anti-debt movement" could be a profitable undertaking for Democrats seeking to grow the party, noting that the 10 states with the highest bankruptcy rates went red in 2004. He urges the formation of local "Debt clubs" as a vehicle for organizing progressive support against politicans who push corporate credit policies.

Hayes points out that the late Senator Paul Wellstone provided an excellent example of the kind of experienced community organizer Democrats should emulate in order to expand their supporters. Above all, Hayes implores Democrats to "be outward looking, expansionist and evangelical in our every move."

Hayes may be on to something here, and his thought-provoking piece should stimulate further discussion among Democrats.