Building an independent political organization (but not quite a party)

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This piece is part of the Perspective’s series on the strategy of progressives over the next 40 years.

THElast May, 125 organizers from 23 states gathered near Baltimore to discuss the very issue that the Perspective asked. The November election was on our minds, but the discussion was more than just a look at the present moment. How, we asked ourselves, can we help ensure that 2013-2016 is not a repeat of 2009-2012? More deeply, how do we build the kind of multiracial, class, and capable political organization that is essential to saving the country from the selfishness and stupidity of modern conservatism?

This proposal certainly does not claim to prevail over all the others. Nonetheless, after convening the Maryland meeting and participating in many similar conversations since the electoral erasure of 2010, we propose the following approach to consider: level; (2) knit this organization and power across state boundaries into a national network; and (3) use it all to pull, push, pull and get Democrats to move in a more progressive direction. Otherwise, the right will continue to set the agenda, and the best Democrats come up with is a less mean version of what Republicans have to offer.

A more generous and egalitarian society does not start its life in Washington, DC The “power of money,” as the populists called it, simply won’t allow it. But we can change the policy and the results in Sacramento, Springfield, Madison, Albany, Tallahassee, and other state capitals, and then use those successes to gain power and respect higher up the political food chain. Each member of Congress pays attention to their country of origin, and this is where our comparative advantage lies. Win a few unexpected legislative races in the states, take out a county-level ally of a bad congressman, advance legislative initiatives in ten states at the same time, put groundbreaking voting measures in front of voters – do this and more again, and the Democrats in place take you seriously. Recognizing that we are not strong enough right now to affect national politics in any substantial way does not mean that we can never be. But we need to invest our resources at the state level and build a network to coordinate our issue and our electoral work across state borders for this approach to take off.

This is not a sexy strategy. We are from the “politics is difficult” school. The best organizers we know along the broad spectrum of the left understand the need to develop power where you can win, and only then to take it to the next level. As it is the leaders and organizers who wake up every day thinking about how to empower those who are not rich or well connected, any progressive version of the Powell Memo must play with them or not play.

To be precise, therefore, we suggest that liberals invest time, effort, money and brainpower in creating sustainable independent political organizations (IPOs), focused on issues of race, gender, class, climate and employment, in enough states to matter. (We will fail if the DNA of this work does not fully recognize the centrality of race and the enduring effects of America’s “original sin” and its new mutations.) There are many good political ideas behind which the forces states can unite. But political choices come later. Power comes first.

Over the next two years, progressives can create or expand such organizations in 12 to 15 states, with a measurable effect on legislative sessions and election campaigns from 2013-2014. It might seem like a small number of states, but about 66% of Congressional Democrats come from just a dozen states. It probably makes sense to start, but not end, in these. Do it right, and we’ll help recapture the House, with a more progressive Democratic majority, in 2014 and influence the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

Fortunately, the characteristics of a dynamic IPO are not mysterious. We expect many readers to recognize their own work and their own strategy in this brief glossary.

• By independent we mean able to challenge Democratic business – ideologically, legislatively and electorally – even as we help Democrats defeat Republicans. How? ‘Or’ What? By recruiting progressives to run in the Democratic primaries against center-right incumbents, paying early attention to recruiting candidates from open seats, and focusing on defeating a few Republicans in each cycle. Let’s be clear: this is not about taking control of the Democratic Party. It won’t work. They take charge of you, not the other way around. We are proposing to build something outside the Democratic Party because we want to retain the ability to think like strangers. We want – we must – combine electoral work with community organizing, organizing low-wage workers, legislative lobbying and even direct action. We have many allies in the Democratic Party, but even they bow to caucus discipline and donor pressure. At their best, they will admit that they need pressure from the left, outside the party, to stand up to banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, tech billionaires.

• By policy, we mean having a basic competence in electoral work and a public brand to support this work and make known what we are defending. Unions and some community organizations and issues advocacy groups are seriously engaged in electoral politics. But even the best do not have electoral work as their main activity and basic skill all year round. No one on the left has the power of the Tea Party brand at their disposal.

Politics is not only elections, of course, but also ideas and problems. If we are serious about, say, increasing spending on schools and cutting spending on prisons, then we have to defeat a Democrat who’s bad on this issue in a primary, defeat some Republicans when we need to topple a relevant chamber, and then say l repeatedly story of how this happened. A new discourse on criminal justice and education will emerge. If we’re on our game, we’ll also be placing great new legislative staff in target states and deepening our relationships with leaders. The causes that should be easy (raising the minimum wage, say) will be easy, and we can save our energy for the toughest fights.

• By organization, we mean an ongoing and sustainable operation throughout the year, not just an election-time coalition that borrows personnel, resources and expertise from its constituencies. This means having a separate permanent staff, resources, relationships, campaigns and activities that take place outside and in addition to the work of the constituent organizations. This will require real power sharing, transparent rules and independent money. No single organization or constituency can dominate internal decision-making, but all will need to exercise power commensurate with their contribution and potential.

If this sounds like a political party, it is not entirely wrong. Think of it as an “in-out” operation, and don’t panic that it will end up like the Greens in 2000. We stand on the shoulders of the election organizers and speakers of the abolitionists, the populists, the Non-Partisan League, the suffragists, the IOC, the civil rights movement, and more. Like them, we want to change the rules of the game.

We need to do to the Democrats what the Tea Party did to the Republicans: build an effective organization that represents the often overlooked political base of Democrats. The Tea Party was not born out of nowhere but rather from decades of working for causes like the Goldwater Campaign and the John Birch Society that predated the Powell Memo. We are also keenly aware of the role that money and the right-wing media have played in advancing the Tea Party agenda. Their rich guys seem so much more willing to dig in the long run than our rich guys (or maybe we really don’t have a lot of rich guys on our end).

It has taken a long time for the left to become as weak as we are, and we see no alternative to the patient building of power and ideas that is best done at the state level. We know that a large number of people will support such an effort. We should be able to recruit a million Americans over the next ten years to contribute $ 15 per month, if they believe we are real. That would come to $ 180 million per year, which is not enough but a good start.

We are not going to quickly create a modern version of social democracy, but the fundamental elements: respect for all; a welfare state that is both a safety net and a trampoline; a fair balance between state, market and society; a strong set of organizations for people in the workplace; a desire for peace, not militarism – are always good goals and virtues. If we have the power, the organization and the ideas, we can fight for them with confidence.

Read the other pieces in this series:

  • Powell’s diagnosis and ours

  • Retiling the playing field

  • Who is going to pay for this?

  • Train young organizers

  • Create a million jobs in the public service

  • Futurism Movement

  • Make voting compulsory and filibuster extinguished

  • Elect more women

  • Reclaim the courts

  • A new commitment to principles

  • Recruit the next generation of donors

  • Recruit the next generation of donors

  • New workers’ organizations

  • Six tasks for progressives

  • Struggle for universal voter registration


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