Can the Democrats Win the Ground War at Home?
So even though in the last election America Votes was dwarfed by the size and scope of ACT, it has managed, improbably, to outlive it. There are now America Votes directors in three states whose sole purpose is to coordinate the legislative, electoral and organizing strategies, and the organization is looking to expand to ten states in 2006. There are signs that these small steps toward an integrated approach are bearing fruit. At the state level, groups are collectively writing blueprints for building progressive majorities and implementing progressive policy changes. Because these blueprints require some groups to backseat their particular issue while devoting resources toward an initiative more likely to build political power, it's "where the rubber meets the road," says the SEIU's Kraig. "Right now, the level of coordinated planning among all the various elements of the left is entirely unprecedented. It's gone well beyond what happened in 2004."
There's a school of thought that believes the entire nonparty, noncandidate mobilization last year was a disaster, a useless duplication of effort perhaps made necessary by McCain-Feingold, but one that should be left in the dustbin of campaign history. To critics in this school, everything carried out by the America Votes coalition and its allies should be done by the Democratic Party itself, and outsourcing it can only create confusion and inefficiencies. (Indeed, in a strange twist, DNC chair Howard Dean, never known as a strong advocate of grassroots organizing before his presidential campaign, has become its most visible advocate. He has pledged to hire organizers and staff for the Democratic Party in every state. That may not sound novel, but for the DNC to make any investment in organizing in a nonpresidential year is unprecedented.)
To the extent that progressive organizations function, as ACT did, as mere surrogates for the Democratic Party, this criticism is probably on target. The real potential of the developing infrastructure--that word again!--isn't that it can more effectively elect Democrats; it's that it can serve as the foundation for a progressive movement. Unlike a political party, which exists for the sole purpose of winning elections, a movement consists of an infrastructure and a worldview, a vision of political and social order more just, more humane and more democratic. There wasn't a whole lot of time spent fleshing out the progressive worldview last year, because the overriding goal, from both a strategic and an ideological perspective, was defeating Bush. But the challenges now for the progressive movement, if it is to live up to that grandiose title, are as much ideological as they are organizational. What common vision do wealthy Manhattanite liberals, union members in depressed industrial areas, urban service employees, immigrant small-business owners, racial and ethnic minorities and university-town academics share?
These days the answer, too often, seems to be simply: beating the Republicans. Last year's hard-fought battle has produced among some progressives a vision of politics as a color war in which "our team" tries to beat "their team." In a recent In These Times essay, my colleague David Sirota identified this tendency as "Partisan War Syndrome," which "leads the supposedly 'ideological' grassroots left to increasingly subvert its overarching ideology on issues in favor of pure partisan concerns."
Building political power requires compromise and strategic tradeoffs. But with no vision of what you want the country to look like once you've won, it's impossible to distinguish smart compromises from self-defeating ones. "If a Democratic candidate gets elected on tax cuts," says Kraig, "the campaign professionals celebrate at the bar and go home. But from a movement perspective you've just made it even harder to fund public services and public schools, so it harms the movement. You want to win in a way that builds public infrastructure long-term for the purposes of changing society. So your tactics start to be affected by broader considerations."
Chris Glaros, a Columbus attorney who founded a network of progressive grassroots groups in Ohio called Blue 88, told me he'd spent a lot of time "trying to figure out what it is that unites all these folks I talk to, all of whom have different pet issues they're concerned about. And the one thing I can come up with is that for all these folks there's a real and immediate sense that the very fabric of our democracy is imperiled."
If last year's presidential election revealed anything to the thousands of new grassroots activists, it was just how undemocratic our Republic has become. Voters in only a handful of states determined who would be President; barely more than half the voting-age population turned out despite the millions spent to get them to the polls; and no more than a dozen or so Congressional seats were competitive. It was the great achievement of the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to radically democratize a country that had slipped into oligarchy: Progressives rewrote state constitutions to increase access to elected representatives and institute state referendums, they dismantled unaccountable political machines and they amended the Constitution to provide for direct election of senators and suffrage for women. These Progressives recognized that to achieve a more just state and society, power had to be redistributed in a structural fashion. The same is true today. Our dysfunctional policies are largely the result of a dysfunctional democracy. Here is where ideology and strategy meet: If progressives are to democratize the country, they must first democratize their politics.