Home Editorials The Way Out of the Wilderness

The Way Out of the Wilderness

the way out of the wilderness-cover
Image courtesy of Gavel Alaska

I remember the day I left the Democratic Party.

It wasn’t out of the blue; I had been struggling with party leadership during my tenure as President of the Alaska Young Democrats. The final straw was a culmination of frustrations, rather than a sudden epiphany.

My wife and I attended 2011’s Pride Fest, the annual celebration of Alaska’s LGBT community. The Republicans weren’t there. LGBT issues are generally something they raise money off of opposing. The Alaska Libertarian Party was there, which was a bit of a surprise, being that they tend to disbelieve the government should have any right to mandate equal rights protections.

The biggest surprise was the complete and utter absence of the Democratic Party. No booth, no outreach. Nothing.

That pissed me off.

As the AYD President, I had worked very hard to open our doors to people who were not involved with, or skeptical of, politics. I changed our bylaws to include independents (previous bylaws said you had to be a registered Democrat to be involved). I had tried to start conversations and promote opportunities to include people, rather than start with requirements that discouraged participation.

To see a complete party absence devastated me, and shattered my faith in the party I had aligned with.

I vented my frustration on Facebook. The response I received, from party leadership, came via private message:

pride comment screenshot

Resource extraction, instead of community investment.

My wife, Heather, and I are both voter registrars. I stepped away from the keyboard, and asked Heather to re-register me as Undeclared. That’s where I’ve been ever since, and where I am today.

I’d like to say it’s not personal, but it is. I hate that the Democratic Party turned into some sort of contact information aggregator unconcerned about the person behind the email address. That’s how it felt. When I describe the Democratic brand as damaged, I get no delight out of it. It’s what I believe. And my years viewing the world outside of it allow me to view it more objectively.

In the first week of this session, I’ve seen both the Democratic Party that I abhor and the Democratic Party I idealized. The Minority Caucus in the House and the Minority Caucus in the Senate are neatly providing the contrast that I attempted to articulate in 2012.

In the wake of the 2012 election, I wrote a postmortem about why I thought the Democrats suffered such severe losses. Hyper-partisan redistricting played a huge part, sure. But, a more systemic failure, to me, was a party that shied away from authenticity; instead favoring to reflect the image of a candidate that pollsters imagined on a whiteboard, or a one-off alternative to their GOP opponent.

The left objected. Many on the right also chided my assessment, assuming that I was chastising Democrats for not being liberal enough. Hardly. My complaint was that they were not being themselves.

Republicans own present day conservatism; the good, the bad, and the ugly. The GOP has cornered that market. There’s no sense in setting up an identical shop across the street and hoping to pull from their customer base using an identical product painted blue.

Every Democratic candidate has to understand his or her own independent, underlying ideology and run on it. They have to rely on the belief that there is a market for their beliefs too, independent from the Republican Party platform.

You know, like avoiding electing a minority leader who voted to support nullification, for starters.

If the Democrats wish to be viable at some point in the future, they need to recognize that the over-forty-percent of voters (122,640 Alaskans) who cast their ballots for Obama in 2012 are not the part of the electorate to ignore. It’s where you invest. It’s where you focus. It’s the compass navigating your campaign and/or your time in office.

Should the Democratic Party return to legitimacy, it will have to be done through efforts to build magnetism with that base; drawing people in through new ideas, not familiarity with Republican terms. They can’t continue the strategy of running faux-conservatives, while relying on liberal voters to stomach the campaign narrative courting the right.

Diminishing returns” is Sean Parnell’s flawed budgetary approach. Why would the opposition party adopt that as an electoral strategy?

Alaska has strong progressives and bright, autonomous independents in all her corners. Future candidates and current officeholders need to stop resigning those would-be supporters to the shadows for fear of losing the votes they’ll never get trying to find points of agreement on KFQD.

Let the best message find its natural audience. Stop trying to win over a hostile demographic bent on discrediting every word that exits your mouth.

In the state legislature, right now, Democrats are nothing more than a notable objection. And with one act of Speaker Mike Chenault, that objection wouldn’t even have to be recognized at all. But in the senate, there’s something new happening; something exciting. Out of power, slim on committee assignments, and powerless to stop anything, the Senate Minority Caucus broke with the disappointing tradition of pretending to be something they are not, and started speaking for themselves.

In their first press conference, they looked like hungover dissidents who knew they were right, spoke accordingly, and stopped caring about everyone who told them they were wrong. They were bold, truthful, and authentic.

We’re not going to get much good legislation out of this session. But if Democrats start to take notice of the Senate Minority’s leadership and build from there, we might see some fading embers spark to life for future battles.

[Video courtesy of Gavel Alaska]


  1. Thank you, I agree and have a long time. I only continue to call myself a Dem so I can be a poll worker during elections. I no longer support candidates financially until I see a change.

  2. I don’t want to hear from you John bc you did nothing as Young Dem President and left the organization in shambles and 800 dollars in debt. So maybe you taking positions of responsibility and then not pulling your weight is an issue too, just saying.

  3. Spot on with the article, John.

    It doesn’t help when the Democratic Party openly opposes their own candidates so they can curry favor with incumbent Republicans either.

  4. Where do Progressive Candidates come from without a Party to support them within a Red state? I hate the machine but see no alternative to fighting the political battles. It may feel purifying to make a statement of Independance, but IMO, to drop out is to cop out. Why not change the Party through the Caucus process rather than picking up your marbles and going home?

    • I would gently push back that my marbles are very much still in the fight, just not through an organization that actively rejects self reflection. I fight to support policy I agree with, which turns out is a lot more liberating than just trying to tow a line for a political party. To say I’ve “copped out” negates the reality that I spend every waking minute fighting for what I believe in. At some point, I tired of doing that by screaming at a brick wall.

  5. While an interesting commentary on the issues of participation in our local concerns, I choose to continue to be involved due to people who think that others need to be the presence of the party. YOU are the presence of the Party. I have been the presence, the sole Democrat or the only one who will say so in public in many community events and civic organizations only to find out that others were there all along just silent and fearful. Speak out and be the presence even if you are seemingly alone. Bring the “good news” to others that one person does make the difference. Calling attention to the lack of participation in community events can bring support. I do know that others are burnt out as they have been the ones carrying the load. It takes courage, commitment, and a vision of what can be. Yes, I get tired of fighting but this is for our children and grandchildren. Shalom and bring light into the darkness.

  6. Mr Aronno, if you were so strong in your beliefs why weren’t you there as a representative of the YDs or the Democratic Party? As a life long Democrat, volunteer, campaign worker and contributor I get so tired of people complaining the Democrats aren’t doing anything, but they never step up to the plate and do anything but complain! As another commented, stick around instead of taking your marbles and going home in a snit.

    • To put it another way, why are the democrats always so eager blame someone else instead of recognizing their own responsibility and failure? “It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for you whiny kids!” Spare the finger pointing and be happy some members of your party are actually standing up for their principles.