Mainstream-media coverage of midterm Democratic primaries has settled into a routine. The press notes the continuing success of women and Democratic base’s energy. They tally the record of candidates endorsed by Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez versus those promoted by the Democratic establishment.
After last week’s races in Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Connecticut, the usual conclusions were trotted out: “Democrats go for diversity; Republicans pick pro-Trump candidates,” Salon reported. Midwest Democrats’ answer to Trump, Politico declared, is “white, conventional and boring,” focusing on the gubernatorial nominees. Democrats have abandoned efforts to have a unified agenda, The New York Times reports, allowing candidates to define themselves. Basic trends remain the same: Democratic turnout is up; Trump is remaking the Republican Party; and control of the House is still in play.
But the media are missing a critical story of these primaries: Progressive populists are beginning to build for real power, starting from the ground up. One needs only to look to Wisconsin to realize the remarkable change that’s happening inside the Democratic Party.
Under Scott Walker, a corruption of democracy has reached new extremes in the state. Deregulation of campaign finance has allowed deep pockets and corporations to dominate funding. Independent expenditure groups can work directly with campaigns. The Koch network made Walker and Wisconsin the test case of its big-money right-wing clout. Worse, after the recall election against Walker failed, less outside money came in on the liberal side.
Wisconsin Citizen Action is challenging this distortion of democracy. It supports organizers to create membership organizations—“co-ops”—particularly in targeted rural and small-city areas outside of deep-blue Madison. The co-ops sustain permanent organizers on the ground, while building a cadre of volunteers.
The permanent presence makes it easier to identify and recruit true progressive champions, often from their own membership. The co-op then helps run true grassroots campaigns. Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin (an affiliate of the national People’s Action) said that canvassing is entirely different when it is done by local volunteers rather than by paid outside canvassers hastily assembled for an election. The relationships formed in the election help build the co-op that stays in place not only to build greater power but also to keep the officials they help to elect accountable.
To hold candidates accountable, Citizen Action WI went through an arduous—sometimes painful—process of creating a remarkable, detailed, eight-year reform agenda, the Rise Up Platform, From Protest to Power. Key reform areas include education (free public education from preschool through college or advanced training), health care (moving to Medicare for All), a just sustainable economy (including a $15 minimum wage, worker empowerment, investment in areas vital to workers from daycare to mass transit, and the transition to a “low carbon economy”), criminal-justice reform (an end to mass incarceration and a focus on restorative justice). The platform lays out broad goals and specific bold reforms in each area.
Citizen Action WI grills all perspective candidates on their commitment to this platform. The detailed reforms make it harder for candidates simply to nod and move on. The process helps identify true progressive champions ready to make the case in their campaigns.
Different state affiliates of People’s Action are experimenting with versions of this same model. Wisconsin is the most advanced, but Kraig is nothing but a realist. “Democracy is tough,” he noted in an interview. How to develop a sustainable, low-dollar political approach at the state and local level still isn’t clear. Bernie Sanders showed it could be done at the national level, but that model—a charismatic candidate gaining national attention and fueling a campaign on small donations—isn’t available for city council or state senate races.
Worse, liberal donors tend to pile into high-visibility races, and are often reluctant to invest in building permanent capacity on the ground. “We’ve proven that you can create co-ops that are almost—but not completely—self-sustaining,” Kraig says. The permanent capacity is far more effective in recruiting candidates and building true grassroots campaigns. Kraig now looks to see if the co-ops can capture some of the money and the “flex capacity” that gets built during campaigns, so the campaigns expand the membership and volunteers that stay active after the election is over.
A new progressive populism is moving in Wisconsin—but it has only just begun. Kraig thinks there is a decent chance to take the state senate this year, even though that requires victory in some very conservative districts. Walker is vulnerable, although the establishment candidate who won the Democratic nomination for Governor, the former education commissioner, won’t light the world on fire. Kraig hopes that Trump and Walker will help in building a blue wave.
And the results are already visible. Mandela Barnes, a board member of Citizen Action and member of one of its organizing “co-ops,” captured over two-thirds of the vote to become the first black candidate for lieutenant governor in the state. Marisabel Cabrera, an immigration attorney and member of the Citizen Action WI Accion Ciudadana co-op, upset an entrenched incumbent in a working-class district in Milwaukee’s South Side, to move towards become the second Latina and an outspoken LGBTQ member of the Democratic state-assembly caucus.
Jeff Smith, a rural populist taking on big-agriculture interests, beat the Democratic establishment’s candidate to win the nomination for the State Senate. In all, 15 members of Wisconsin Citizen Action co-ops are running for the state legislature, and Citizen Action co-op member Randy Bryce is running for Paul Ryan’s seat in the House. This after 49 members were elected in the spring to a range of county and local offices: mayors, city and county councils. And given what Kraig calls the “endless levels of local government” stemming from Wisconsin’s progressive history, “we’re just getting started.”
The emphasis on local offices reflects a strategic choice. In Wisconsin—as is true across the country—massive Democratic losses left the party without a deep bench. There was no farm system of elected officials who were prepared to run for higher office. As progressives move to fill the void, they face, in Kraig’s words, “huge capacity questions.” Winning the nomination for governor, for example, was, Kraig believes, “a bridge too far,” but Mandela Barnes’s run for lieutenant governor will not only drive the challenge to notorious Governor Scott Walker but could also set a true progressive up for the future.
Electoral politics isn’t easy. Big money dominates both parties. Hit-and-run campaigns are the norm, with campaign operations built quickly and then packed up after the campaign whether successful or not. Consultant gunslingers define message and strategy. The primary job of candidates is to raise the necessary dough. Even if candidates are aided by progressive movements or organization, they seldom remain accountable once elected.
What’s going on in Wisconsin exemplifies the stirring that is taking place at the local and state level across the country. Populist progressives have begun the slow, difficult effort to remake the Democratic Party. They are driving the agenda nationally. They are electing more and more true champions in blue districts at the national level, and, importantly, beginning to run and win at the state and local level, building the movement for local reform and a farm team for change in the future.
They are experimenting with how to build and sustain local organization that can take on the function that local labor unions used to play on the left, and that the Christian evangelical churches increasingly play on the right. The transformation won’t come easily and won’t be done in one sweeping election cycle. The stunning victories won and progress made since 2016 does offer energy and promise for the future.