Building to Win
The people are largely on our side. People are deeply skeptical of business's abuse of power and deeply committed to a core set of values--fairness, equal opportunity, reward for hard work, the responsibility of the powerful--that provide the natural foundation of an alternative politics.
But we lack a progressive infrastructure with an eye to electoral victory. The Democratic Party lacks a coherent or forceful progressive bloc and doesn't provide that infrastructure. But to give up on the Democrats is to deny another reality. In the near term, no third party can mount an effective national challenge to the two-party system. The 1997 Supreme Court decision against the New Party (Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party) has chained us constitutionally to the existing duopoly.
How, then, might progressives proceed? Let us begin by taking a leaf from the conservative playbook. The right has built an imposing array of institutions to develop ideas and educate conservatives on how to argue their case. In contrast, progressives, who have no shortage of good ideas, have done too little to enlist and educate current and future leaders on an agenda and a message that will consolidate a progressive majority. Progressives remain stronger on the ground than they are in the public debate.
But our strength is handicapped by the fact that our ranks are unnecessarily divided. Progressives too often appear unwilling to act together on anything until they agree on everything. A hopeful sign, however, is that a growing number of leaders are recognizing that organizational differences are more pronounced than is justified by real differences in belief. A new progressive movement needs to break with the divisions of the past and subsume differences--without suppressing our diversity and pluralism--in pursuit of goals on which we are all agreed.
The fragmentation among progressive groups has, in turn, fragmented our message. It helps explain why, if the people are essentially on our side, we've failed to forge a governing majority. Another reason is progressives' failure to speak in terms that people find relevant to their lives. We need candidates who are willing to enter electoral arenas armed with an effective message and the sort of campaign support that the right has provided its contenders for years.
That message should rely on several issues important to the vast majority of Americans--opportunity for our kids, fair rewards for our work, a government that pays attention to us instead of corporations and the wealthy, enough of a safety net to insure medical care and a dignified retirement, real environmental protection, public safety, quality public services for our neighborhoods, funding for training, benefits that allow us to navigate today's economy and increased protection at work.
The biggest challenge is getting progressives to agree to commit themselves to that shared and relatively simple vision, to stick with it and to broadcast it in electoral and other arenas--which is primarily a matter of organization and will. Part of the job involves recruiting and training more candidates to run for office--and to recruit them from our own ranks, since it's far easier to train someone with decent values to be a politician than to train a politician to have decent values. We should be thinking of thousands of these candidates at every rung of the ladder. And we should be working--through unions and other routes--to assure that these candidates have support from their workplaces so that elections are no longer the playground only of the rich.
Not only must we find and cultivate fresh talent, we should support these candidates while they run--with message, program, talking points, opposition research and all the other tools that the right routinely provides for its own. And we should support them with the same system once they're in office. The right has the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), one of Paul Weyrich's many institutional creations, which supplies conservative state and local legislators with reams of model legislation, polling research, talking points, occasions to meet and learn from one another new ways to undermine the common good. We need to build an ALEC for our side, an ALEC that seeks to rebuild the country. And we need to recognize that this is as important as our national policy think tanks, since in an age of devolution we ignore state and local politics at our peril.