If we judge the legacy of political leaders by what they got done during their tenure, why don’t we judge their candidacies by how effective we think they are going to be at getting things done? It’s time for the moderators of the upcoming Democratic primary debate to go beyond asking candidates about what policies they support and start focusing on how they are going to do the hard work to actually bring those policies about.
Color Of Change PAC has run the volunteer-led #VotingWhileBlack voter mobilization program across the last few election cycles. We have focused on the presidency, key House races, and governorships. We have also focused on mobilizing black communities to elect progressive prosecutors across the country, part of a strategy to both drive criminal justice reform and increase voter participation up-ballot. Toward that end, we have developed an appropriately low tolerance for candidates who prioritize rhetoric over action. Prosecutor races present an important opportunity to educate a city’s electorate about criminal justice reform, but it doesn’t add up to very much if the prosecutors who run on that rhetoric do not make the hard choices once elected. They must be able to collaborate with racial justice movements, persuade and build a coalition among stakeholders, neutralize the opposition and hostile media attacks, and ultimately drive reform. We have learned that we must press candidates on their commitment to action and capacity for leadership from the very beginning.
I think we are all struggling to understand what value the next presidential debate can and should add to the race. I certainly am: I have been interviewing the 2020 Democratic candidates for the Voting While Black podcast series. In developing our approach, we decided to concentrate on asking candidates about how they will work with black communities in genuine partnership—not just to win the election but also to implement major change.
To be sure, we need candidates on the debate stage who will speak to the issues that affect black people. But we also need candidates who are committed to partnering with social movements rather than tempering, “managing,” or even co-opting them for their own interests. It’s the gap between the “what” and the “how” that will make the difference between whether we make progress under the next administration or simply tread water until the opposition beats us back again. We must press candidates harder on their concrete plans for leading change and surmounting all the obstacles to it.
For instance: Candidates will not be able to simply order corporations into compliance. That’s because corporations will not see a single election loss or legislative setback as anything more than a temporary challenge. So candidates will have to have to build the social and political power it takes, and the persuasive power it requires, to be able to pass effective legislation. And to do that, they will need to engage and empower grassroots movements rather than neuter them.
What does it mean to engage and empower grassroots movements?
As just one example: It means working alongside those movements and giving to them before demanding they get anything from them. Candidates, as well as politicians in office, often want movement organizations and grassroots supporters to fully support them and defend them—first and foremost—while they promise that movements will get what they need later on. Perhaps in a different world that would be reasonable. In the real world, the advocates, activists, and communities affected most negatively by the status quo have been burned and abandoned even by “good” candidates, time after time. The trust must now be rebuilt on the candidate side. That goes especially for candidates whose careers have not been rooted in working with or for social movements in the first place.
Politicians must do more than merely show up at events. They can collaborate with movement organizations on collecting information about community needs as well as on policy development. They can develop plans to use government funding to support movement organizations, often the most effective operations for community outreach and engagement on issues of health care, civil rights protections, environmental hazards, census participation, and so much more. And, on both the debate stage and the campaign trail, they can recognize the role that social movements play and elevate those movements’ stories, rather than running away from them.
So far, we haven’t seen enough of this approach, either among the candidates or among the media makers pushing the horse-race narrative. When we focus on this narrative—which is to say, on “electability”—at best, we’re pushing candidates to articulate how they will actually run a winning campaign; at worst, we’re forcing them to justify their character—often assessed based on highly suspect assumptions and loads of racial and gender bias. Either way, “electability” can serve as a distraction from the more important questions about candidates’ actual governing ability—their aptitude and their plans for driving change.
We cannot allow candidates to think that policy positions are enough to bring people together and do what the conventional wisdom says the next Democratic candidate needs to do: rebuild the Obama coalition. The Obama coalition was not enough, even then—not to keep progressives in office in House, state, and local races, and not to drive criminal justice reform or take on Wall Street. Candidates need to answer questions about how they will be part of a movement that can win the 2022 midterms, and not just 2020; that can take on corporate power, political influence, and corruption, in addition to calling it out; and that can take on the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that endangers every prospect of progress, beyond just condemning it.
In the upcoming presidential debate, what are the questions that will get to the truth of who the candidates are and what voters need and want in order to get engaged? The debate moderators are likely to reinforce the prevailing media drama concerning the direction of the Democratic Party and electability, with the result that they will focus on the policy differences between the progressives and moderates, and what that means for the Electoral College. Activists, meanwhile, are focused on bringing visibility to the issues they care about by forcing candidates to take a position on them in the most public way possible. Both lines of questioning have their place.
But after four debates, and three dozen candidate forums, it’s time to go beyond the policy platforms and address longer-term movement-building and governability. Just because a candidate who champions a particular policy wins an election doesn’t mean we are going to get those policies. It’s a disservice to perpetuate the idea that it does. Good policy proposals are certainly important; those without credible policy proposals—or without any policy solutions at all that are aimed at the issues we most need to address, like systemic racism and inequality—should be challenged. But, should one of these candidates win in 2020, that does not mean we are going to get the health care plan they put forward—be it Biden’s, Warren’s, Sanders’s, or Harris’s. We are going to get the plan that whoever wins the election is able to implement, which could be very, very far from what they proposed as candidates, as history shows. So we really have to think about each candidate’s power, as much as their plans.
Power is the ability to implement a vision for forcing real change, in addition to being able to inspire people and championing the best ideas. At this point in the primary cycle, the biggest question about the differences among the remaining candidates is not about policy—it’s about power. Debate moderators must start asking the right questions: focusing on how candidates build power and whom they will make powerful. They must focus on the “how” of social change and movement building.