Young Democrat Takes On Party Politics

The New Issue: David Hardt

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David Hardt made history earlier this summer when he became the first openly gay activist to be elected president of the Young Democrats of America. Pretty amazing, huh?

That said, there’s no way we couldn’t feature Hardt in The New Issue. So, how does Hardt feel about his monumental election? This:

I am very proud that I campaigned as and was elected with a fairly high margin as an openly gay man. It shows that there really is a shift in the mind set of people my age, especially in the Democratic party. It really isn’t much of an issue to be openly gay anymore.

See what else he had to say to our editor, Andrew Belonsky, including some critiques of the national party, after the jump…

AB: When you joined your branch of YDA, there were only five members in 2004. By 2007, there were about 1000. How did you go about doing that – and how are you going to expand it? I understand that voter mobilization was part of your platform.

DH: The first thing I did was assemble a team of people I could work with. Most of these political organizations, you have to look at it as a corporation. They run the same way. I went out and found four other people I trusted to do a good job. We went out to places where young people are – bars, restuarants, nightclubs and social events – we were just everywhere we could be every waking moment, doing the same thing over and over. Eventually it took off and people started showing up to our meetings. Once you get a few people to show up, the rest start to come and once you have active, dedicated people showing up, they’ll go out and be active members of the democratic party to persuade other youth to vote democrat.

AB: I imagine it’s harder for the democrats because they don’t have built in mechanisms that the Republicans had for so long. For example, when the Evangelicals were stumping for the Republican party, they used churches. The Democrats don’t really have those built in organizations. Are there organizations that you target specificially?

DH: That’s a big myth. I think it’s just about – and I hate to knock our party – but I think our party has kind of been lazy and apathetic about going out and getting in touch with people that would be sympathetic to our causes, partnering up with groups like animal rights activists. My local chapter went and volunteered at our local SPCA and we picked up tons of new members because of it. There were a few of them who were on the fence, were independent voters, but because they saw us there, being active and interested in that one issue that they really are pasionate about, they came and joined us. I think that’s what we have to do: go to organizations – animal rights activists, LGBT organizations, environmental organizations – and get out there and find those independent voters who are passionate on one or two specific issues and persuade them that they need to be part of the Democratic party. In fact, one of those people we found as a volunteer at the SPCA, is the current president – she’s a former Green – of my local chapter.

AB: Do you find that the national party – how do they relate to you? Are they generally open to your ideas?

DH: It’s no secret that we’ve had a lot of struggles with the larger Democratic party. I think a lot of it has to with that they don’t understand the right model it takes to reach youth. I am excited and encouraged – I just got back from the DNC meeting in Burlington and I heard Chairman Dean speaking about how important it is to reach out to youth. The models they want to start using are parallel to what YDA is doing now. That’s encouraging. That means they’re listening to what we’ve been saying for years: you can’t reach youth by traditional methods. You have to be able to reach them by peer-to-peer networking and text messaging and going to places where youth are. I think it’s finally paid off – all the struggles and begging for attention from the larger party. I think it’s finally paid off.

AB: Do you think that the national party relies on you guys too much to enlist America’s youth or not enough?

DH: I don’t think they rely on us enough. A lot of it has to do with – six years ago we didn’t really have the infrastructure to reach out to youth. Our previous administrations are the ones that built up the organizations to what it is – we actually have money, 100,000+ members to get the work done. Six years ago and the decades before that, the organization was really just kids in suits trying to add another line to their resume. I think the organization is just now changing that image. For several years we’ve been operating as a true youth outreach organization, but it takes time to realize we’ve changed in how we operate and who we are. Yeah, I think the greater democratic party is starting to see that and starting to use us as a resource. Previously, we weren’t being used as much as we should be.

AB: Back to what you were saying earlier about how political organizations need to be approached as if they’re corporations. I recently wrote a series called America’s Queer Liberty. One of the chapters focused on how our voting system, first past the post, forces voters to make a decision. Basically, you have two parties: Republicans and Democrats. And this, I think, hinders America’s liberal ideals. It doesn’t leave enough options open for voters and I think politics does take on that corporate mentality.

DH: I absolutely agree with you. I really do think that we should have more options. It’s unfortunate that liberals or people in the progressive movement don’t have those [options], because we really should. In Europe and most of the rest of the world where they have Parliamentarian systems, they have multiple parties on the left that people can be a part of and when they need to coalesce, it’s around certain issues. I think it would certainly help us, because there are those moderate Libertarian types out there. If they had that choice to side with us when it comes to LGBT issues… However, as anyone who’s deep into politics knows, it’s because we’re not a Parliament style system – we’re a republic – it would be almost impossible to keep more than two parties active.

AB: So, if there’s no way to change that, what can American voters do to ensure their voices are heard? I mean, do we restructure the government or do we chug along?

DH: I think we really need to have amendments to our constitution. I’m a firm supporter of changing to a system that allows for the popular vote to elect the president and not the individual states. I think those types of things – we know how to fix the system, but there are those ultra-conservative people and even ultra-left wing people who don’t want to see that happen for the sake of their own political power. They are stopping us from making those changes.

AB: Do you think the national party is doing that?

DH: I think that the national party doesn’t really have the ability to make that change. It’s going to have to be elected leaders. To be honest, we can persuade people to elect certain people in different districts. Once they’re in, as we all know, they’re in for a long time and there’s no real way for true competition. Actually, I think that’s another problem that we could fix. Gerrymandering [means] there’s no such thing as fair play. The districts are either Democrat or Republican. There’s no chance for either party to come in and have a fair election.

AB: Thinking about the Young Democrats of America and its relationship to the national party – there are parallels, I think, between that relationship and the relationship between the national party and gay communities in general. Certainly they’re not equal. You guys are not equal to the national party. It seems to me that in a lot of ways – we just had the gay forum – the candidates approach gay people, not that they’re not equal, but there’s something patronizing about the relationship. Do you agree?

DH: Absolutely – 110%. The national party, the candidates, they give [gays] lip service. I hear it and see it all the time. They talk down and they patronize. They need us when it comes to election time, but other than that, it’s kind of non-existent. It’s pulling teeth trying to get leadership spots in the DNC. If you go to any state in so-called Red America and find out how many delegates are offered to both youth and LGBT people, you’d be shocked. I just found out today that Oklahoma just now got a spot for an LGBT person for this election – just one. I believe it’s the same for youth, as well. It’s kind of depressing. They’re always saying how much we’re needed and they want our support and they want our activism, but when it comes time to giving back to our communities, they’re not willing to do it.