Think Globally, Run Locally | The Nation


Think Globally, Run Locally

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Work Hard for the Party

About the Author

Caleb Rossiter
Caleb Rossiter is a consultant with the Center for International Policy and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation...

Just as the Christian Coalition has done in the Republican Party, progressives should become workhorses in their local Democratic Party. Once they have proved their mettle, they will inevitably rise to leadership there and in their state parties, help choose and elect candidates who are more progressive, and finally demand acceptance from the state and national parties of key progressive positions. This should be our strategy in all districts--although ironically it will have the most immediate impact in rural areas, where the local Democratic Party is virtually under siege.

American politics is based on geography, the great urban-rural divide, which is largely just a proxy for race. Big cities elect progressive Democrats because enough minorities and union families live there; rural areas elect conservative Republicans; and the suburbs go with the soft fringe of either party: "Blue Dog" Democrats and "moderate" Republicans. Exceptions to this rule usually arise when a well-funded candidate for an open seat benefits from a local or national scandal in the dominant party.

If you live in a large city, you probably already have progressive representatives. Your service in the local party will encourage them to give real time, rather than lip service, to the progressive initiatives you are pushing. If you live in the suburbs, your participation will help restrain the natural tendency of Democratic leaders to float to the right on issues as they look for votes. And if you live in the country in a white, Republican-leaning district like ours, where the Democrats often fail to run candidates, your warm body is so desperately needed that party leaders won't care what you talk about as long as you are licking envelopes or out knocking on doors while you do it.

Progressives who join weak Democratic parties can quickly find themselves being asked to be candidates for a hopeless run for mayor, county legislator, supervisor or sheriff. Like their progressive counterparts in stronger Democratic districts, they should take the plunge, because elections and candidates are what build a party's credibility. In two counties out of our ten, local Democratic organizations and their determined activists kept running attractive candidates for every local office, loss after loss, until they began to get some wins. Over a period of twenty years, these Republican bastions became Democratic strongholds. Voters slowly began to hold Republicans accountable for local problems and then gave a few strong Democratic candidates a chance to serve. They were surprised to see that Democrats' creativity extends not just to improving social services and protecting the environment but also to the claimed Republican priorities of promoting business and cutting unneeded programs and taxes. If you don't play, you surely can't win. Progressives should be playing, in all types of districts.

Some progressives, however, are against playing electoral politics, even when it comes to a candidate like me who is with them on 95 percent of the issues. The reason they gave was that they didn't want to volunteer because of the 5 percent on which we disagreed. The reality was that most progressives were more comfortable pushing their own issues with their own constituencies and were a little scared of the tussle of opinions in the wider world. One example: The incumbent had voted for the foreign-military training center in Georgia called the School of the Americas, while I was the first Congressional staffer to visit the school and had helped write legislation to close it. But Ithaca-based opponents of the school found it easier to drive two days to Georgia to get arrested at the school than to drive thirty minutes to Elmira to go door to door in our swing precincts. Progressives simply have to put their feet on the street in the day-to-day work of local Democratic parties and candidates if they want their agenda taken seriously.

Independents Are the Key

In our district, as in many rural districts, professional men have to register Republican to advance their careers or attract business. (Their wives, professional or not, can safely register Democratic, since it's widely accepted that you just can't control those softhearted women.) A majority of Republicans won't vote for a Democrat for the same reason Irish Catholics in Boston won't vote for a Republican: Their ancestors would roll over in their graves. Victory for Democrats hinges on winning most of the independents, who account for up to a quarter of registered voters. Independent voters--white lower- and middle-income parents, in most cases--hold the key to progressive victories in these districts and to greater attention to the progressive agenda in easier ones. While they are the ones feeling most harshly the lack of healthcare, childcare and family-sustaining jobs for hourly workers, they tend either not to vote or to find suspicious the populist economic arguments that resonate with registered Democrats and union families. We have to court them by adopting some of their concerns and respecting their values. In my eighteen years in the arms-control community in Washington, I've never been to a meeting that started with the Pledge of Allegiance. In my six months of speaking to civic and labor groups in upstate New York, I never went to a meeting that didn't start with the pledge.

It turns off independents when we attack Republicans for cutting taxes for the rich and slashing welfare, since they want to get rich too, and they know which lazy family down the road has been cheating its way onto welfare for years. It turns them off when we say racism is the overriding American problem and call for affirmative action on college admissions, since their kids aren't able to afford college. It turns them off when we talk of gun control, since shotguns and pistols are a cultural tradition in rural areas, where it can take an hour for a sheriff to get to the house that called 911. It turns them off when we call for mandated penalties for corporate polluters, since that could cause local layoffs. It even turns them off when we speak out against unionbusting, since too many of them know of featherbedding and corruption in locals.

As you can see, this is a group that is easily turned off, but it is a group we absolutely must turn on. Independents will give Democrats grudging credit if you remind them that our party invented Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, small-business loans and Pell grants for college. We don't need to rework our agenda, but we do need to talk about fair taxes, equal opportunity, responsible gun ownership, protecting the environment and basic labor rights. Both progressives and independents tend to be libertarian on social issues, but not antigovernment on social programs. Both instinctively respect the right to privacy and understand the need for prenatal and preschool care. Both oppose foreign aid to dictators and free-trade agreements like NAFTA with governments that jail union organizers and destroy the environment.

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