Kumbaya Dammit–and Nine More No-Brainers for a Smarter Left

Kumbaya Dammit–and Nine More No-Brainers for a Smarter Left

Kumbaya Dammit–and Nine More No-Brainers for a Smarter Left

George Bush is not the only one who has to fight a two-front war in the months ahead. So do progressives who want to take power in 2004–and beyond.


George Bush is not the only one who has to fight a two-front war in the months ahead. So do progressives who want to take power in 2004–and beyond.

While we keep fighting for smarter ways to tackle the terrorist threat than war in Iraq, here are some simple rules for winning elections and building effective coalitions here at home.

Kumbaya Dammit. If life under W has proven anything, it’s that we can’t afford to fight with our friends. There are ways to stand for your principles without ending up in a fight over crumbs. That’s what we want the other folks to do, right? At the core, good meetings and sustainable collaborations start with everyone sharing their vision of what they want and what they need. The dammit part is pretty simple: Check your passive-aggressiveness at the door.

Agree on One Or Two Things–and Then Go! Let’s not forget that “the perfect” is the enemy of the good. The old coalition model of gathering everyone around a table, writing a mission statement and then hashing out the big strategic plan together is dead. Now it’s about picking a few things we can agree on and then working on a project or two together. Then rinse. Then repeat. Grover Norquist’s successful Leave Us Alone coalition is the perfect model–a coalition of gun owners, anti-taxers, home schoolers and more united by that one “leave us alone” principle. What’s ours? Maybe progressives are about families, communities and individuals building the new American dream. But maybe not? The mission statement can wait; your hottest campaign cannot.

Groundhog’s Day. If you haven’t seen this wonderful Bill Murray movie, rent it and see it (along with Network and Meet John Doe for the perfect political-cinematic trio). If you’ve seen Groundhog’s Day, you know this is a pretty good metaphor for the frustrations of progressive politics. Getting that Groundhog’s Day feeling during a campaign? Stop and change the vibe. Invite others to join you. We need a new script for success.

Practice Open Source Politics. We have lots of groups, players, fiefdoms, strategies–you know what I mean. They won’t go away overnight and no one should be forced to change their vision abruptly. So take a deep breath if this collaborative-kumbaya stuff gives you shortness of breath. Trust me, it’s gonna be OK. If you can’t work with someone who theoretically is on your side, don’t. But do find a way to share what you are doing. As in, “we’re organizing Missouri, stay the hell out!” Just sharing that is useful data–because transparency is a form of collaboration. Transparency, for progressives, is progress.

The Perfect Message. Uh…guess what. There isn’t one. We need to micro-target, organize and motivate different audiences, in different places, at different paces. This can work, especially if we mimic the right on one score: patience. Newt Gingrich, Eddie Mahe, Paul Weyrich and other top conservatives didn’t look for one single slogan to win power in an instant or an election cycle but for solid message, organizing and execution over many years. Let’s copy that.

2004: The Game Is Network, Not Party-Building. Enough with the Green-Dem Party infighting. It’s the world’s most boring topic. In 2004, we will win elections when and where we can create effective, multigroup state issue networks that bring progressives and Democrats to the polls. It might be healthcare, it might be education, it might be some other local issue. Find out how to build that network–and that “other stuff” will no longer be a center-stage issue.

Devolution Is Our Friend. Let’s get real. We can’t win diddly in Washington, and we win all the time out in the states on issues like living wage. So let’s leave behind an elite fighting force for existing federal regulations in DC and gather our strength in the hills. The Sierra Club’s new state strategy and the work of the drug law reform movement are instructive. Let’s call the bluff of “local control” hypocrites like John Ashcroft and Larry Craig on numerous community-based issues.

Don’t Bet the Farm, Build the Farm Team. Before we create another new group, or launch another new ad campaign, let’s leave behind a little money to seed success for the long haul. Just in case. Progressive funders should strongly consider a 10 percent “grassroots legacy tax” to support training, progressive infrastructure and farm-team efforts like Progressive Majority’s training academies. Groups can work together to define good legacy-building project menus for investors to choose from. That ain’t Groundhog’s Day, people–that’s a recipe for taking power.

Don’t Rush to Be Rush. How we build progressive talk radio, cable and new media is another murky shoal to approach with caution. Recycling proven voices and trying national media plays has failed already; why not focus on ground-up strategies to develop new voices no one knows yet? That’s how the music business does it. We don’t need to be Fox News or Clear Channel–we need to build an integrated Progressive QVC that connects our existing TV capabilities (check out www.worldlinktv.org) to radio talent, Internet radio, web activism, progressive book groups, living-room salons and, if necessary, progressive panhandling in airports–wherever our paying members want us to be. Community-based, membership-based media can pay for itself. And in the era of TiVo, trying to create an ad-based strategy is downright dumb. Let’s build a platform for media, entertainment and activism that can last.

Experiment! One hundred twenty million people don’t vote and millions more don’t do much more than that. Let’s not kid ourselves–we don’t know what engages folks. We know that traditional politics turns them off in droves. So let’s try new ideas and honor failure. But err, let’s not repeat it very often. So let’s share what we learn. The Institute for America’s Future’s new engagement program is already at work compiling this kind of data.

Shoot for the Moon. Oilman George Bush getting the creds for pushing hydrogen power and American energy independence in the 2003 State of the Union needs to be our low point. Let’s make it our business to recapture the Patriotic Power message before Earth Day.

This campaign and more to follow can be the building blocks of a new front dedicated to real results, accountability and true collaboration. Like the antiwar effort, this effort can’t wait.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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