The Resurgence of Movement Politics
Think about it. In the corruption scandal surrounding Tom DeLay, our attacks rightly drive up conservatives' negatives, but those negatives do not translate into support for us because we haven't taken an ideological stand that says we are serious about cleaning up government through initiatives like public financing of elections and lobbying reform.
On the Iraq War, we see progressive candidate Paul Hackett almost win a Congressional seat in the staunchly conservative Cincinnati suburbs by running on a strong antiwar platform. Yet, in its postelection analysis, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee omits that fact, essentially urging Democrats to keep silent on the war, and thus negates any antiwar movement building that could power progressives to future victories.
On economic issues, the list is even longer. Polls show Americans of all parties and geography desperate for a movement that will articulate their concerns that Corporate America has far too much power. The response from Washington? A handful of high-profile Democrats undermine their party by supporting things like the bankruptcy bill and CAFTA, and by genuflecting to misnamed "moderates" who embrace an economic agenda that squeezes America's middle class.
How do we change this downward spiral? We have to go where movements start: the states. Washington, DC, today is so overrun by Big Money and so controlled by an entrenched party establishment that there is almost no hope to change things there in the short run. And more important, truly successful movements in American history have always started at the grassroots level, not in the insulated halls of elite power.
Why? Because Corporate America has a harder time controlling fifty states than it does controlling one city. It is easier to buy off one set of politicians than it is to buy off fifty separate political arenas. Additionally, state lawmakers are inherently closer to the concerns of their constituents than any Washington politician ever could be.
This is where the progressive movement must focus its attention, and why I decided to help establish PLAN, the Progressive Legislative Action Network. There are literally hundreds of state lawmakers all over America right now ready to fight on behalf of ordinary, hard-working Americans, ready to start helping citizens raise their wages, improve their access to healthcare, protect their pensions and, in general, secure their economic future.
But too often progressive legislators are overwhelmed by organizations like the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)--a group whose sole focus is to pass the most economically extreme state legislation. Consider just one of ALEC's most prominent bills--a piece of legislation that prevents cities within a state from raising their minimum wages. It has already passed in some states, and it could pass in even more.
Now it is time to fight back. PLAN will give state lawmakers the tools they need to more effectively fight for a progressive agenda. We will develop model legislation applicable in all fifty states, using the best and most successful models from all over the country. We will build a war room of policy experts to help support those lawmakers as they introduce the legislation and move it forward in their legislatures--something that is absolutely critical to most understaffed legislators. We will build a database of experts who will be available to testify on behalf of bills, and publicize legislation within a given state. And we will work with grassroots groups to run issue advocacy campaigns in states. Using both free and paid media, we will support those lawmakers who are serious about fighting for a progressive economic agenda.
Make no mistake about it--this is not a two-year or even a four-year project. And PLAN is not going to be simply another group that purports to be "progressive," but is instead just a wing of one political party. As the conservatives realized in the 1970s, movements take longer to build than one or two election cycles, and they require an ideological commitment that can sometimes find itself at odds with partisan concerns. Moreover, it will require bringing together all the disparate pieces on the progressive side, much like the United Steelworkers and environmental community is doing with the Apollo Alliance.
None of this is impossible. Right now, America is being held hostage by one very conservative movement, and there is not an equally strong alternative force to counter it. That means there is a genuine thirst in our country for a new grassroots political movement that doesn't use divisive social issues to pursue an elitist's economic agenda, but uses unifying economic issues to pursue truly populist policies. It is time for the critical pieces of the progressive coalition to reconnect with our movement history, to become comfortable embracing an ideological agenda and to focus on true grassroots progress, even if it means angering politicians from one party or another. Because the hard truth is this: We can only win with an ideological movement that captures Americans' hearts and minds, and we will never win if we just put our thumbs to the wind and pander for votes every four years.
This is the model for the future--a model that takes its cues from historical success of sharpening an ideology that truly speaks for America's middle class, not the historical failure of trying to simultaneously appease both the Big Money perpetrators and their middle-class victims in a corrupt political system gone mad. This is a grassroots model that comes from America's most successful political stories, not from the class of professional election losers in Washington who preach an ineffective, split-the-difference politics.
This, in short, is the way our country can take its government back. It is up to us to take the first step. If we do, America will follow.