Just a few weeks ago, as Romney continued to gain in the polls, The New Republic’s Michael Kazin preemptively indicted liberals for the last four years: if Obama loses this election, he argued, liberals will have themselves to blame. His case centers on the simple fact that there wasn’t a vigorous left to push Obama in a more progressive direction. Here’s how he puts it:
[T]his progressive president could not rely on surging liberal movements to help him advance his key legislative goals and to counter the powerful, and predictable, opposition of conservatives. Labor unions were struggling to stop decades of declining numbers and political clout, and advocates of universal health insurance had never been able to reach much beyond a passionate but small cohort of policy wonks. Obama certainly should have made a better case for his health care bill and for his American Jobs Act. But his task was a lot harder in the absence of vigorous pressure from a growing left.
I think this is a little unfair to the large number of liberals who have tried to pressure the administration on everything from financial reform and healthcare, to Afghanistan policy and drone strikes. With that said, it’s absolutely true that the Obama presidency has revealed the extent to which the left has grown anemic. When it comes to the actual exercise of power, liberals have a hard time standing up to the entrenched interests that dominate American politics.
What’s the solution? To put it in the simplest terms, the first step to greater relevance for progressives is winning.
This sounds obvious, but it’s often missing from conversations around how to out-maneuver conservatives and bring progressive ideas to bear on national problems. Ask liberals how to best move forward in advancing policies, and you’ll get some constellation of familiar answers: “Better education,” “getting money out of politics,” “more grassroots activism,” “better messaging.”
But the history of the conservative movement—and its triumph over moderates in the Republican Party—tells a different story. Yes, conservatives built think tanks, trained messengers and developed new ideas. But they also invested in the hard and dirty work of winning elections. And not just on the presidential level—for decades before the GOP revolution of 1994, or the election of George W. Bush in 2000, conservatives were building political organizations at the local and state level. Conservatives—some organized, others inspired—worked to dominate school boards, city councils, state legislatures and other more granular positions in American political life.
A seat on the school board, or the city council, offers much more influence than you might think. You can push new approaches to education, affect curriculum and push ideas for how to run schools. You can influence zoning decisions, clamor for tax cuts and tilt policy in your town or city to favor business and other interests. Local and state officials have a tremendous influence on the lives of ordinary people, and over time, Republicans have used this to build support for conservative policies.
There’s a second reason to focus on the local and state: today’s city council members, mayors and state legislators are tomorrow’s congresspeople, senators and governors. Conservatives built a deep bench of like-minded candidates by first electing them on the local level, and then grooming them for higher office.
It took decades of work for conservatives to have the strength and organization to control Congress and the presidency. Liberals aren’t as behind as they might think, but they’re not close to where they need to be. Even at the local level, where it’s easier to avoid compromise and elect left-wing officials, politics requires hard work. Liberals will lose many battles, and it will be a while before this investment pays off. What’s more, this will require coordination between all elements of the progressive movement—labor, think tanks and activists—as well as continued efforts to make national politicians more progressive.
Indeed, regardless of who wins the presidential election, the time to start is now. Over the next four years, progressives should work to build their strength at the local level, and at the same time, try to use the party primary system to push the Democratic Party in its favored direction. Some liberals prefer third parties, which is understandable—Democrats have been lackluster, at best, when it comes to advancing progressive ideas. But to borrow a phrase, we fight with the system we have, not the one we want. Odds are low that the United States will move away from a first past the post, winner-takes-all electoral arrangement. As such, odds are even lower that we’ll move away from a two-party system. For now at least, the Democratic Party remains the best vehicle for progressives, and we should take advantage of that. Doing something as straightforward as replacing a moderate Democrat with a liberal one can go a long way toward increasing the currency of our ideas.
The pay off to all of this isn’t just a strong roster of progressive lawmakers—it’s a country where progressives have deep influence in the halls of power, and can exercise power in a serious way. It may take a generation to succeed, but as we’ve seen with the conservative movement, it can and will work.
For more on the role of the left in this election, check out Ilyse Hogue on “2012: Don’t Forget About the Hood.”