Gazing out over our national political terrain, it’s not hard for progressives to see that we’re in the fight of our lives. As Pat Buchanan likes to say, the left has won most of the culture wars and lost almost all the political and economic ones.
We have helped build a society that’s more socially tolerant than it was a quarter-century ago. America suffers far less from invidious discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation than it did a generation back. That’s a crucial achievement and one that provides an important reminder of our power to mobilize the forces of change.
But when it comes to public policy, economic outcomes, control of government and the business of public life, the story is quite different. The broad movement of American politics over the past twenty-five years has been toward the acceptance, indeed the embrace, of greater inequality, the discrediting of public institutions and a near-idolatry of private markets at the expense of corporate accountability to the rest of us. Not since the 1920s has political organization been so weak, inequality so great or public life and mass culture so dominated by corporate priorities. In each of these important arenas, progressives are getting clobbered.
George W. Bush has made it clear that mandate or no mandate, he will pursue an extremist far-right agenda–a further redirection of resources to the rich, the privatization of Social Security, vouchers for Medicare, a rollback of environmental progress, the mugging of labor and the use of government to benefit corporate interests.
Just how extreme Bush’s policies really are was dramatized by Jim Jeffords’s recent defection. It has given Congressional Democrats an opportunity to regain their voice, frame the issues and be strong in opposition and offer alternatives, but so far the party leadership has offered no consistent counterstrategy, let alone the sort of visionary leadership that would mobilize the great mass of disengaged Americans. The view of many Democrats that they can “work” with Bush is a dangerous delusion. Contrary to what the Democratic Leadership Council was preaching just months ago, Democrats have almost no common ground with the Administration. To continue to seek bipartisan consensus on legislation muddles the debate and squanders an opportunity to create a record of difference between the parties for 2002 and 2004.
We have no choice but to fight back. But to fight back we must also fight smart. That means recognizing our own responsibility for our current predicament. We cannot keep blaming our undervalued position in the marketplace of ideas on a “reactionary” or “ignorant” public. A progressive politics that blames the people as its starting point is dead on arrival. And the people are, in more cases than not, on the side of progressives. Indeed, supermajorities share progressive positions, from equal opportunity to clean elections, a clean environment, leveling up not down on trade, keeping the government out of our bedrooms and battling those who would discriminate on the basis of sex or race.
The last election showed the emerging strength of a progressive majority. The combined Gore/Nader vote of 52 percent was the largest center-left vote since 1964. The election also showed continued solidification of the Democratic base among union households, minority communities, prochoice women and people concerned about the environment–suggesting that strong stands on these issues will not hurt the party. More important, the changes taking place in society and the economy–the growing demographic diversity, the increase of women in the workplace, the growth of less traditional households–suggest that this emerging majority is likely to grow. And the “new economy” should make conditions more favorable to progressives as people confront increasing insecurity in jobs, benefits and wages, as well as escalating demands on their time.
Al Gore’s message–despite his garbled presentation–was considerably more popular than the candidate himself. Democrats who were bolder than Gore, who more clearly distinguished themselves from Republicans, generally won. The result: In many states, as Gore was going down to defeat at the top of the ticket, Democrats won, often by whopping margins. Take North Dakota. There, Gore claimed one of the smallest shares of the popular vote in any state–a bare 33 percent. Same day, same election, Kent Conrad, the Democratic senator with populist positions on trade and farm issues, was re-elected with 61 percent of the vote, and Democrat Earl Pomeroy, another vigorous advocate of family farmers and a leader among House Democrats in attacking Republicans on Social Security and Bush’s tax bill, was re-elected to the state’s single seat in the House. Similar stories can be told in West Virginia, Missouri, Florida and other states.
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.
A Progressive ALEC could identify and train thousands to run for local, state and national office; provide support to candidates (training, polling, message development, legislative assistance); run ballot initiatives (campaign finance, living wage, the right to organize, investment in schools not prisons, same-day voter registration); provide a vehicle for national issue campaigns; use the Internet to share information and organize; and build a network of progressive talk-show guests and pundits with a coordinated message. Voter and membership lists, the indispensable currency of local progressive electoral power, could be shared. And, yes, there could even be consolidated pools of cash–imagine a giant Progressive America PAC–that could provide support to this organization until we get real campaign finance reform.
Is this the best model? It would be an improvement in terms of coordination and organization–as long as it didn’t become just another Washington-based group but drew on citizen activists, not just as foot soldiers but as leaders and decision-makers.
The great untapped resource in building this infrastructure is the labor movement, the most important progressive-leaning mass-membership organization in America. It has $5 billion in annual resources, and thus at least in theory some of the millions needed to match the right in providing the sort of infrastructure described above. Labor’s electoral base and its resources qualify it as the progressive force capable of bringing other allies to the table. But to be more effective in achieving its own objectives and attracting support and cooperation from elements outside the unions, labor must be anchored in a broader political strategy and progressive community.
Despite its new leadership and an increasingly progressive profile, the AFL-CIO has not done enough to build a serious electoral presence at the Congressional district level–let alone at the state legislative or school board level. It has trained only a small number of people to run for office, and there is no national organization that brings labor to the table with other mass-membership organizations to share lists and develop common programs for elections.
Organized labor is in the process of retooling its political operations in an effort to create a more powerful grassroots presence. It has significantly increased the percentage of voters from union households in recent elections. The increase in raw numbers and percentages of union voters is to be celebrated, but those figures do not represent a new majority. It is critical that a retooled and renewed labor strategy recognize that the road to 51 percent (and its future) will have to run through neighborhoods and regions where union membership is low–but where the need for labor-led progressive politics is high. If labor were to become the anchor of a broad progressive coalition, be assured it would gain allies. The fledgling labor-community alliances–for example, the living-wage campaigns that have swept the country–show there is mass support for labor’s basic values. There are millions of workers, not just union members, who now recognize that winning labor rights is one of the great civil rights struggles of our time.
Labor cannot build a new progressive politics on its own. We need to recognize that there’s a lot of money to be found outside the unions to help develop a progressive infrastructure. The baby boomers alone, at least a third of whom are prounion, have about $10 trillion. And there are many organizations and unaffiliated individuals who share labor’s core values–women’s and environmental groups being perhaps the most important numerically, but also new civil rights and minority organizations, even an occasional socially responsible businessperson–who are ready to join labor in a common electoral program. But it’s unlikely that they’ll come together unless labor comes forward.
If the progressive movement is to oppose the right-wing agenda of the Bush Administration and take on America’s powerful conservative forces, labor and the wider progressive community need a new strategy. It will be hard for both–unsettling to political routine, demanding of leaders and activists–but at this precarious moment, our future is at stake. Nothing less.