Political organization

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

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

LLast May, 125 organizers from 23 states gathered near Baltimore to discuss the very issue that Perspective asked. The November election was on our minds, but the discussion was more than just a look at the current moment. How, we asked ourselves, can we ensure that 2013-2016 is not a repeat of 2009-2012? More deeply, how can we build the kind of multiracial, class-oriented, competent 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. Yet, having convened the Maryland meeting and participated in many similar conversations since the 2010 election erasure, we offer the following approach to consider: level; (2) unite this organization and power across state lines into a national network; and (3) use it all to pull, push, pull and coerce Democrats into moving in a more progressive direction. Otherwise, the right will continue to set the agenda, and the best the Democrats will offer is a less mean version of what the Republicans have to offer.

A more generous and equal society does not start in Washington, DC “Money power,” as populists called it, simply won’t allow it. But we can move politics and results to Sacramento, Springfield, Madison, Albany, Tallahassee and other state capitals, and then use those successes to win power and respect higher up the political food chain. Every member of Congress cares about their home state, and that’s where our comparative advantage lies. Win a few unexpected state legislative races, eliminate a county-level ally of a bad congressman, propose legislative initiatives in ten states at the same time, put revolutionary ballot measures in front of voters – do this and more , and the incumbent Democrats will make it take you seriously. Recognizing that we are not strong enough right now to substantially influence national policy does not mean that we never can be. But we need to invest our resources at the state level and build a network to coordinate our issue and electoral work across states for this approach to take off.

It’s not a sexy strategy. We are from the “politics is difficult” school. The best organizers we know across the broad spectrum of the left understand the need to build power where you can win, and only then take it to the next level. Since it’s the leaders and organizers who wake up every day thinking about how to empower those who aren’t wealthy or well-connected, any progressive version of the Powell Memo must play with them or don’t play.

To be more specific, then, we suggest that liberals should invest time, effort, money, and brainpower in building sustainable Independent Political Organizations (IPOs), focused on issues of race, gender , class, climate and jobs, in enough states to matter. (We will fail if the DNA of this work does not fully recognize the centrality of race and the lasting effects of America’s “original sin” and new mutations.) There are many good policy ideas behind which the forces at the state level can unite. But the 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 the 2013-14 legislative sessions and election campaigns. It may seem like a small number of states, but some 66% of Democrats in Congress come from just a dozen states. It probably makes sense to start, but not finish, in these. Do it right, and we’ll help retake 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 strategy in this short glossary of terms.

• By independent, we mean able to challenge Democratic businesses – ideologically, legislatively and electorally – even if we help the Democrats defeat the Republicans. How? ‘Or’ What? By recruiting progressives to run in the Democratic primaries against center-right incumbents, paying early attention to recruiting candidates into open seats, and focusing on defeating a few Republicans each cycle. Let’s be clear: this is not about taking control of the Democratic Party. It won’t work. They support you, not the other way around. We propose to build something outside of the Democratic Party because we want to retain the ability to think like outsiders. We want – we need to 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. In their best moments, they will admit they need pressure from the left, from outside the party, to stand up to the banks, the hedge funds, the insurance companies, the tech billionaires.

• By politics, we mean having a core competence in electoral work and a public brand to support this work and make known what we represent. Unions and some community organizations and advocacy groups engage seriously in electoral politics. But even the best do not present electoral work as their main activity and their core competence throughout the year. 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 it on prisons, then we have to defeat a Democrat who is bad on this issue in a primary, defeat some Republicans when we have to flip a relevant chamber, and then tell the story repeatedly of how it happened. A new discourse on criminal justice and education will emerge. If we’re on our game, we’ll also place great new legislative staff in target states and deepen our relationships with leaders. Causes that should be easy (raising the minimum wage, for example) will be, and we can save our energy for the tougher fights.

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

If that sounds like a political party, it’s not entirely wrong. Think of this as an “inside-out” operation, and don’t panic that it will end up like the Greens did in 2000. We lean on the shoulders of campaign-minded organizers and speakers for the Abolitionists, Populists, Non-Partisan League, Suffragists, CIO, Civil Rights Movement, and more. Like them, we want to change the rules of the game.

We must do to Democrats what the Tea Party did to Republicans: build an effective organization that represents the often overlooked political base of Democrats. The Tea Party didn’t come out of nowhere, but rather from decades of work in causes like the Goldwater campaign and the John Birch Society that preceded the Powell Memo. We are also acutely aware of the role money and 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 side).

It took 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 many people will support such an effort. We should be able to recruit a million Americans over the next ten years to contribute $15 a month, if they believe we are for real. That would be $180 million a year, not enough but a good start.

We are not going to quickly create a modern version of social democracy, but the essentials – 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 the right goals and the right virtues. If we have power, organization and ideas, we can fight for them with confidence

Read the other pieces in this series:

  • Powell’s diagnosis and ours

  • Tilt of the playing field

  • Who will pay for this?

  • Train young organizers

  • Create a million public service jobs

  • Futurism Movement

  • Make Voting Mandatory and Filibuster Extinguished

  • elect more women

  • Recover Courts

  • A new commitment to principles

  • Recruit the next generation of donors

  • Recruit the next generation of donors

  • New organizations for workers

  • Six Tasks for Progressives

  • Fight for universal voter registration