Editor’s Note: This essay was adapted from a speech to the United Steelworkers Union on August 8 in Dawson, Pennsylvania.
Progressives have spent the last four years in a state of shock, unable to believe what’s going on in this country, and holding out hope that things will get better by themselves. We watch as poverty rises and job growth declines; corporate profits skyrocket while employee healthcare and retirement benefits get eliminated; CEO pay rises as workers’ wages fall. Worse, the core economic issues that should be at the center of America’s political debate have been depoliticized, while the issues of personal and religious conviction that should be removed from politics have been most politicized, leaving us with a political debate almost entirely divorced from Americans’ day-to-day challenges.
This reality is shocking. But it shouldn’t be surprising, because it is thirty years in the making. Conservatives long ago realized what our side is only starting to comprehend: that successful politics starts with successful ideological movements, and that those movements are a prerequisite to any serious partisan gain.
In the context of President Bush nominating John Roberts, a wealthy corporate lawyer, to the Supreme Court, it is important to note that much of this movement began in 1971 with a memo from another wealthy-corporate-lawyer-turned-Supreme-Court-Justice, Lewis Powell. He argued that conservatives needed to ally with corporate interests to manufacture an ideological movement that would justify all of the economic results we progressives are stunned to see today. Powell, corporate interests and major conservative funders ultimately took to heart three very important points:
First, they understood that movements based on ideology and ideas are far more powerful than loyalties to any political party. Though many in the Washington, DC, bubble believe that Americans think of their world in purely partisan terms, it just isn’t true. People think of things in terms of their values and their worldview. Even the most politically disengaged citizen has some sort of personal ideology, and that ideology will always be far more powerful than any loyalty to a party label.
Second, conservatives understood that if the goal is seeing a more conservative country, then it doesn’t matter whether conservatism comes from Republicans or bought-off Democrats. In their subsequent efforts, that meant conservatives were willing not only to go after liberal Democrats, but also moderate Republicans. It is why, even today, you see right-wing icons like Grover Norquist loudly criticizing Republican turncoats–because conservatives realize that movements are built with carrots and sticks, and that those sticks put other potential defectors on notice that there are consequences to ideological disloyalty.
But these conservatives were not ignorant of partisan concerns, which gets to the final point: They understood that if they built a movement around a conservative ideology, the political benefits would naturally flow almost exclusively to the innately more conservative Republican Party. Get people to believe in a movement that supports destroying the government, destroying the tax base and permitting corporations to do whatever they want regardless of social cost, and you get people to be far more loyal and willing to devote time to the GOP than you would if you spent resources on purely partisan activities.
There are many who are understandably nervous about emulating anything that comes from the right. But progressives must get over our disgust at how the right has applied its odious ideology to these tactics, and use some of these tactics ourselves.
The Democratic Party is caught in a downward spiral and is using its supposed “big tent” as an excuse for its weaknesses. Democratic politicians have always said that “ideological diversity is the Democrats strength,” but that refrain is now being shamelessly used as a way to obscure the fact that the Democratic Party is ideologically rudderless. The party often permits and even congratulates those within its ranks who sell out America’s middle class, whether it be those who voted for the bankruptcy bill or those who consistently vote for corporate-written trade deals like CAFTA or NAFTA. The party elites–many of whom follow the corporate apologism of business-funded groups within its ranks–still believe they can ascend to power on the public’s loyalty to a Democratic Party label, even as that party label is almost completely meaningless to much of the public.
The only solution, then, is for progressives to stop solely focusing on partisan politics, and start focusing on movement politics. On every single issue, we must have a clear position that articulates not just a policy stance, but an overarching progressive ideology. Because without a movement, we have no ability to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, no ability to develop credibility with voters and no ability to win elections.
Think about it. In the corruption scandal surrounding Tom DeLay, our attacks rightly drive up conservatives’ negatives, but those negatives do not translate into support for us because we haven’t taken an ideological stand that says we are serious about cleaning up government through initiatives like public financing of elections and lobbying reform.
On the Iraq War, we see progressive candidate Paul Hackett almost win a Congressional seat in the staunchly conservative Cincinnati suburbs by running on a strong antiwar platform. Yet, in its postelection analysis, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee omits that fact, essentially urging Democrats to keep silent on the war, and thus negates any antiwar movement building that could power progressives to future victories.
On economic issues, the list is even longer. Polls show Americans of all parties and geography desperate for a movement that will articulate their concerns that Corporate America has far too much power. The response from Washington? A handful of high-profile Democrats undermine their party by supporting things like the bankruptcy bill and CAFTA, and by genuflecting to misnamed “moderates” who embrace an economic agenda that squeezes America’s middle class.
How do we change this downward spiral? We have to go where movements start: the states. Washington, DC, today is so overrun by Big Money and so controlled by an entrenched party establishment that there is almost no hope to change things there in the short run. And more important, truly successful movements in American history have always started at the grassroots level, not in the insulated halls of elite power.
Why? Because Corporate America has a harder time controlling fifty states than it does controlling one city. It is easier to buy off one set of politicians than it is to buy off fifty separate political arenas. Additionally, state lawmakers are inherently closer to the concerns of their constituents than any Washington politician ever could be.
This is where the progressive movement must focus its attention, and why I decided to help establish PLAN, the Progressive Legislative Action Network. There are literally hundreds of state lawmakers all over America right now ready to fight on behalf of ordinary, hard-working Americans, ready to start helping citizens raise their wages, improve their access to healthcare, protect their pensions and, in general, secure their economic future.
But too often progressive legislators are overwhelmed by organizations like the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)–a group whose sole focus is to pass the most economically extreme state legislation. Consider just one of ALEC’s most prominent bills–a piece of legislation that prevents cities within a state from raising their minimum wages. It has already passed in some states, and it could pass in even more.
Now it is time to fight back. PLAN will give state lawmakers the tools they need to more effectively fight for a progressive agenda. We will develop model legislation applicable in all fifty states, using the best and most successful models from all over the country. We will build a war room of policy experts to help support those lawmakers as they introduce the legislation and move it forward in their legislatures–something that is absolutely critical to most understaffed legislators. We will build a database of experts who will be available to testify on behalf of bills, and publicize legislation within a given state. And we will work with grassroots groups to run issue advocacy campaigns in states. Using both free and paid media, we will support those lawmakers who are serious about fighting for a progressive economic agenda.
Make no mistake about it–this is not a two-year or even a four-year project. And PLAN is not going to be simply another group that purports to be “progressive,” but is instead just a wing of one political party. As the conservatives realized in the 1970s, movements take longer to build than one or two election cycles, and they require an ideological commitment that can sometimes find itself at odds with partisan concerns. Moreover, it will require bringing together all the disparate pieces on the progressive side, much like the United Steelworkers and environmental community is doing with the Apollo Alliance.
None of this is impossible. Right now, America is being held hostage by one very conservative movement, and there is not an equally strong alternative force to counter it. That means there is a genuine thirst in our country for a new grassroots political movement that doesn’t use divisive social issues to pursue an elitist’s economic agenda, but uses unifying economic issues to pursue truly populist policies. It is time for the critical pieces of the progressive coalition to reconnect with our movement history, to become comfortable embracing an ideological agenda and to focus on true grassroots progress, even if it means angering politicians from one party or another. Because the hard truth is this: We can only win with an ideological movement that captures Americans’ hearts and minds, and we will never win if we just put our thumbs to the wind and pander for votes every four years.
This is the model for the future–a model that takes its cues from historical success of sharpening an ideology that truly speaks for America’s middle class, not the historical failure of trying to simultaneously appease both the Big Money perpetrators and their middle-class victims in a corrupt political system gone mad. This is a grassroots model that comes from America’s most successful political stories, not from the class of professional election losers in Washington who preach an ineffective, split-the-difference politics.
This, in short, is the way our country can take its government back. It is up to us to take the first step. If we do, America will follow.