Twelve years ago, as a different presidential election approached, I was frustrated. I graduated from college and grad school in the mid-’90s and entered a robust job market, even in my chosen field of nonprofit advocacy. I faced few challenges paying off the loans I had taken to cover the portion of my tuition that my parents couldn’t pick up. Still, the world looked—and was—unjust. The wave of unchecked free trade sweeping the globe was wreaking havoc on the manufacturing base here at home and human rights abroad. Privatization of natural resources was the buzzword of the day, and the ecological projections felt downright apocalyptic. I wondered whether there was anything besides cosmetic differences between candidates Bush and Gore.
Twelve years, two wars, one financial crisis, 15 million underwater homes, trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy, and a social safety net hanging by a thread have disabused me of that notion: what’s cosmetic to one relatively privileged white girl is life-changing for the tens of millions living in poverty.
Deepak Bhargava lays out the imperative to lean into this election and keep an eye on post-election movement building. His basic premise is inarguable: things will get a whole lot worse if there’s a Republican takeover. But it is also worth considering how, in addition to the devastating material impact of a Romney presidency, a GOP victory robs us of the oxygen required to grow deeper and broader roots for the progressive movement.
This may seem counterintuitive, since surges in participation are often most visible in times of opposition, but the strength and numbers required to elect majorities are different from those needed to rewire policies and priorities. The latter requires us to innovate, to invest in multi-tiered organizing, and to shift our culture to embrace power—all of which would become virtually impossible under a Romney presidency.
An emphasis on innovation is our best bet to secure the necessary breakthroughs in organizing. Experimental online organizing drove the electoral wins of the last decade. Maybe the next breakthrough will come from merging advocacy and service to help people in distress and strengthen incentives for participation. Or maybe from programs that prioritize horizontal relationships and the elevation of community leaders. Or maybe from putting pressure on less visible actors like ALEC. Whatever that next breakthrough is, we won’t find it if our imagination is tied up in defense.
Victory feeds progressive momentum and participation. Strategically picking and winning offensive fights will not only help the folks who need it most; it will set the stage for continued progress. From the Dream Act to marriage equality, early success came in the states. Opportunities at the state level are looming—including a real chance for clean elections in New York—and acting on them requires the breathing room a Democratic presidency offers.
For the long game, progressives have to learn to embrace power. Winning deep concessions requires not only outside pressure but deep ideological connections with officeholders. Progressives, long wary of the way power corrupts, are often reluctant candidates. But those connections are far more assured when we elect our own. Our candidates will be more viable if we have time and money to invest in training them and strengthening their campaigns.
We still have our work cut out for us if Obama wins a second term. What we’re fighting for now is the opportunity to do that work.
Other Replies to Deepak Bhargava’s “Why Obama? ”
Dorian T. Warren: “Go for the Jugular ”
Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite: “Movements Need Politicians—and Vice Versa ”
Saket Soni: “We Need More than a New President ”
Bill Fletcher Jr.: “Defeat the Reactionary White Elite ”
Tom Hayden: “Obama’s Legacy is Our Leverage ”
Ai-Jen Poo: “A Politics of Love ”
Robert L. Borosage: “Re-elect Obama—But Reject His Austerity ”
And this web-only article:
Michael Brune: “For the Climate, Obama Needs Another Four Years ”