When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Congressman Joe Crowley, a 10-term Democratic incumbent, in New York’s 14th district primary, her victory wasn’t just a coup for residents of the Bronx. It was a win for the left insurgency in the Democratic Party.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tried to downplay the significance: “They made a choice in one district.… It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.” But Ocasio-Cortez’s win demonstrates the viability of a left that campaigns on issues like single-payer health care, college-debt forgiveness, and affordable housing. Getting candidates like Ocasio-Cortez elected, however, is only the first step. Once in office, progressive politicians need to keep pushing left policies, and that requires grassroots support.
I talked with George Goehl—executive director of People’s Action, a community-organizing network that trains activists and policy-makers, holds protests, and helps direct progressive groups behind a common left agenda. We talked the day before Ocasio-Cortez won, and Goehl’s analysis speaks to what happens when she and other left candidates step into the halls of power.
Joseph Hogan: The collapse of the political center has had its share of bad effects—Trump, of course. But then there’s the possibility for something good to come of it too, right?
George Goehl: Without question. I think the collapse of the center opens up space for new ideas. The question is: Who can articulate them better and faster? Who can actually reach the working class? I think that’s in some ways a big part of our struggle. I question whether the left is talking to the working class—black, white, Latino, native, Asian—in the way we need to. But if we actually organized around a big agenda, I think we’d be pleasantly surprised.
JH: Democrats seem poised to win big in November. And let’s say they do. What next? What do we need to do to make sure that getting Democrats in office will actually lead to progressive change?
GG: We need to be ready to govern. We need to be organized around an agenda; people need to know where and how they’re supposed to move. If there’s going to be a blue wave, it will happen in statehouses—that’s where the biggest opportunities will be. So, how are we teeing up right now? We have to know, in each state, what is the plan to reach 100 percent renewable energy? How do we get to single-payer health care?
Let’s take a step back. Right now, you’ve got a whole sector of organizing that for years didn’t engage in elections. And now we’re saying, “Maybe we should be in charge.” Most of us—I’m part of this generation—weren’t trained to think about what we would do if we were actually on the inside. We were outside throwing rocks for 30 years. Now we’re trying to move inside, and it requires a whole different mindset, whole new strategies.
JH: I’ve been wanting to ask about this: “movement governing.” I’ve heard you use the phrase. What is it?
GG: To me, “movement governing” is a collective form of governance where we all have different roles. Somebody’s the elected official, of course, but somebody else represents the people’s organization, and somebody is the policy-support organization. We just have to think of governing as something we do together; it’s not just the elected official.
I used to call it “co-governing,” but in this moment, where social movements take off seemingly out of nowhere, we have to figure out how elected officials can govern in concert with movements.
JH: So, how?
GG: To start, elected officials need to hire staffers who see it as their job to relate to people’s organizations and movement organizations. They need to know how to do it—not see it as an extra chore. And people’s organizations need staff dedicated to building and nurturing relationships with elected officials.
A lot of people who got into organization work didn’t get into it to hang out with elected officials. Working with these officials is a new job that requires new skills.
The point is this: If there is a blue wave and we don’t deliver, that would be crushing. Right now, most people don’t believe elections matter. We have to win elections and produce tangible victories in people’s lives if we want people to come back to the next election and get engaged.
JH: It seems like elected officials would see the need for this kind of partnership, too. In a meeting with your organization, People’s Action, Keith Ellison [a Democratic congressman from Minnesota who won’t seek reelection so he can run for statewide office] admitted the difficulty of maintaining a strong progressive mindset in Washington: “You are surrounded 24-7 by colleagues and lobbyists who are constantly telling you how things work. You know they’re wrong but after a while you halfway believe their BS.” How can left organizations help elected progressives stay progressive?
GG: One thing we do is host political-education training for candidates and elections. We’ve done it for our members, so why not for elected officials?
Reclaim Chicago has run multiple elected officials through a political-education training program that’s really a dissection of the last 40 years of neoliberal policy and strategy. We do that because progressives who get elected and go into the halls of power quickly realize that neoliberalism is the baseline, the dominant politic. Quickly, their radical imagination starts to fade. They’re just surrounded by people who shrug and say, “Hey, this is the best way we’re going to win.” At the same time, progressive elected officials need to learn to be able to spot the way neoliberal assumptions and compromises can creep in. That’s critical. Otherwise, we elect people with great intentions, good politics, who still get swept up by the machine.
JH: What does the shift toward a movement governing style look like? What are the new best practices?
GG: Everybody that has a 501(c)(3) should create a sister 501(c)(4)—and from there, they should create a PAC. Instead of endorsing candidates, people’s organizations should get candidates to endorse them and their agenda. That’s how we do it at People’s Action. Organizations need to build significant candidate pipelines, too.
But most of all, they need to wrestle with questions of governance. If you’re outside the building and have no power, you can be pure. You never have to cut a deal, because no one wants to cut a deal with you, anyway. But once you get in, once you start being able to cut deals, you have to make tougher decisions. For political and people’s organizations, that requires a whole new curriculum.
JH: If progressive organizations and elected officials really could work together—not just during campaigns, but through an official’s term—what do you think would be possible? What could movement-governing activists and elected officials get done in the next few years—locally, nationally?
GG: Movement-governing organizations should focus on rules. They need to change the rules to shift power away from the opposition and toward us. That’s the way we can deliver tangible, noticeable wins for struggling communities. That’s the way to end mass incarceration at the county level and to single-payer health care.
Getting all this done requires that you change the rules. But that’s hard. People don’t wake up every day in your neighborhood and think, “Oh, I wish the rules were more fair.” They think, “Oh, I wish these potholes were paved,” or, “I wish my job paid a few more dollars an hour or that I could take leave when I’m sick.”
That’s the advantage the right has: The constituency they’re pleasing, the Koch brothers and other people up there, they know it’s all about the rules. They wake up thinking about the rules. In Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean writes that [conservative economist] James Buchanan realized one has to focus on the rules, not the rulers. The rulers are pawns to get stuff done. The rules are what we need.