Winning by Losing Well

The torrent of bad legislation coming out of Washington won't end anytime soon: an appalling budget; a throw-grandma-from-the-train Social Security proposal; hair-raising judicial appointments; bankruptcy, environmental, and tort-“reform” bills written by and for corporate patrons; and shredding what's left of the safety net.

Here's the trillion-dollar question for national liberal organizations and the Democratic Party: How do you play the game when you're losing most of the time? Although it's hard to admit, we're going to lose most battles at the federal level in the short run. But it matters profoundly how we lose. Do we lose by making clear what we stand for, and building support for the future? Or do we lose by making incremental and technical improvements in dreadful legislation and policy?

Many liberals in Washington have long approached our work as a technical exercise. We created a model of advocacy built on insider access and legislative expertise. The now-extensive network of policy and advocacy organizations is the product of social movements of the 1960s and '70s that created demand for government interventions, and of the Watergate-era reforms that opened up the process (albeit inadequately) to outside groups. Back when liberal Democrats controlled Congress, this network could have substantial influence on the laws of this country.

But that was then. Today, our side's institutional power is at an all-time low. The last election delivered a crowd of radical conservatives with the will and ability to implement their agenda, and it is under these circumstances that we must reconsider how we do our work. We have, in short, reached the limits of access and expertise as a strategy for social change.

Our job is no longer to help those in power craft the best policy possible. Our job is to make clear that the policies being advanced by this Congress and this administration are fundamentally unacceptable, and to define for the American public alternative values and policies. It is self-defeating and self-deluding for us to take extravagantly bad policy, make puny compromises to improve it slightly, embrace the outcome, and call it a “victory.”

By allowing ourselves to become complicit, by focusing on tiny victories in a tidal wave of bad policies, we delay progressive resurgence. “It could have been worse” is not a compelling public narrative, and few people will be inspired by an agenda that is not quite as bad as the alternative. Every time we trade away principle for a seat at the table, we cheapen all that we stand for. We would be much better off to take the loss in the short term but use it to frame public debate. Losses do have real-world consequences, and it is devastating when more needy people are denied benefits, even at the margin. But we will do far more for our constituencies if we can retake power.

* * *

The right spent a long time in the wilderness, and it used that time to create a clear, coherent, and concise vision of what it represents. Some of us remember when far-right members went to the empty House floor at night with paper bags on their heads to symbolize their outrage with the liberal majority. One of those bag wearers is now chairing the House Budget Committee. The right learned a core lesson from its time in exile: Governing and cutting deals is what you do when you are in power; principled, clear opposition, and deliberate polarization to give the base something to organize around, is what you offer when you are not in power. The right wing mau-mauing that brought down the Clinton health-care plan was neither subtle nor good policy. But it worked as part of a program to define the debate and regain power.

The right came to power for many reasons -- a powerful institutional base in corporate America and in the evangelical churches, lots of money, and more. But right-wing organizations and politicians took the opportunity of being out of power to achieve a kind of authenticity, a clarity of belief that plays itself out as a consistent thread through every policy debate. You could almost call it a soul.

By contrast, too many Washington-based advocacy groups seem to have lost their sense of true North. Too often our policy work isn't grounded in what we believe, but rather in what we believe is politically feasible. We have learned the arts of triangulation, negotiation, and policy compromise so well that we seem nearly incapable of mounting the full-throated opposition that would position us for the long haul.

* * *

On one issue -- Social Security -- outside groups have been clearly opposed to the president's plan. Bolstered by this support, Democrats in Congress have been (almost) united in their opposition. Liberal advocacy organizations have refused to play the compromise game. By having the courage to say what we believe -- and truly mean it -- we have set the terms of the debate. We didn't wait to react to a detailed policy proposal; instead, we went on the offensive against the broader agenda. When we did, a majority of people agreed with us, a lesson we should not dismiss lightly.

While it is possible that weak-kneed Democrats will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, principled opposition has worked so far. It didn't have to be this way. Based on the dynamics of the Medicare prescription-drug debacle last year, we could easily have seen a small band of conservative Democrats and AARP members defect to work out a “compromise” with the administration.

On less visible issues, however, uglier dynamics are in play. The renewal of the federal welfare law -- stalled for three years -- has deteriorated into a debate that has little to do with the actual needs of low-income families. Any welfare-reauthorization bill that comes out of this Congress will be worse than current law, and will create new obstacles for poor families. Yet rather than push for a more meaningful debate, Washington-based advocacy groups have argued the details of whether 70 percent of welfare recipients should work 34 or 40 hours per week. We have conceded almost entirely the argument that the real solution to these families' problems is just to demand that they try harder, and have allowed conservative ideas about “personal responsibility” to go unchallenged. Worse yet, some advocates were active participants in a proposal to pay for a paltry child-care funding increase by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for legal immigrants. Trading programs and constituencies away is exactly the wrong strategy as we face a conservative agenda that will pose this kind of challenge on a grand scale.

What would a different debate about welfare look like? There ultimately are only two coherent progressive arguments for social-welfare programs. The first is that we have a moral responsibility to care for one another and share the risks that might befall any of us. The second is that we are bound up in what the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called the “garment of destiny,” so that deprivation for some inevitably hurts the rest of us. Welfare's narrow social base always made it ripe for stigmatization. But rather than argue about arcane and minor changes in work hours and participation rates, we could have broadened the debate to talk about the conditions of the low-wage labor market and the struggles that all parents face in balancing their jobs and family commitments, and to make the point that the promise of upward mobility in exchange for hard work is broken in an economy where people can work full time and still live in poverty. That would have built alliances between the middle class and the poor, just as Social Security does. We might have lost the welfare wars anyway, but at least we'd have laid the groundwork for winning future debates and introduced to the American public an alternative values framework.

The tactical decision to fight tax cuts on the ground of “fiscal responsibility” rather than in the context of an argument about our responsibility to one another has paralyzed our ability to project any affirmative vision for government as a vehicle to meet people's real needs -- for education, health care, or anything else. And when some conservatives embraced or conveniently began to ignore deficits, this line of liberal argument left us without any ground to stand on at all.

Why do national liberal and progressive organizations get tangled up in policy knots and tactical weeds when principled opposition is the right course to take? Perhaps our horizons have been so contracted by 25 years of conservative dominance that the idea of positioning toward big advances in the future seems simply chimerical. Perhaps this incremental version of advocacy plays well with funders. Today, the broad social movements that once animated advocacy organizations are a distant memory, so that we're left with the technical apparatus of advocacy without the mandate that those movements created. The Washington advocacy groups are now dominated by “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart,” as Max Weber once put it in a different context. We need to break out of the iron cage of soulless, competent policy analysis and reconnect with the deeper purpose of our work.

* * *

This isn't to suggest that there's no role for these groups as we build toward a progressive agenda. In fact, we unquestionably need this kind of policy expertise; the point is more that this expertise alone isn't enough anymore. We need the expert groups to be much bolder and we need them to loom smaller in the overall division of resources and strategy.

If the current policy-heavy advocacy model, which once served us well, is now bankrupt, what changes are in order? Here are a few thoughts:

First, we should rethink the balance of resources that go to policy analysis, as opposed to communications and organizing. If our goal is to create the kind of movement that is needed to take back power in Washington, we will have to create a national echo chamber in which progressive ideals are lifted up and amplified, as well as more investments in grass-roots organizing so that the echo resonates with the lives of citizens.

Second, we need better connections with state- and local-level work, where opportunities for significant victories do exist. These victories can generate new ideas and maintain momentum; they are building blocks that will ultimately lead to broad social change at the national level. National groups need to be accountable to local coalitions. Accountability means that we need to shift from a mode of sending action alerts about the crisis of the day to already beleaguered local and state groups and instead invite them to the table to craft priorities and a long-term agenda.

Third, we need to make clear our long-term vision and values. In the economic-justice arena, we've been running on the fumes of the New Deal and the Great Society for a long time. While the Bush administration's “ownership society” is a disastrous and cramped vision for social policy, it is at least a vision. Without a clear compass indicating an alternate moral direction, each defensive battle leads us on a road to nowhere. With such a map, we'll be able to use the battles of the moment to advance the case for our long-term vision, even when we lose ground in the short term.

Fourth, we'll need to break some new ground by launching campaigns on issues where we can galvanize constituencies, even if legislative victory is not on the near horizon. Such an approach to issues will call for fewer single-issue organizations and more strategists and organizations that are capable of connecting issues and constituencies. We should not be afraid to test ideas that seem wildly outside what is actually possible right now. A campaign to change corporate charters to make companies responsible to the communities they are in, rather than their stockholders, has enormous potential to cut across constituencies and issues. We couldn't win this campaign today, but we can't be afraid to describe the world we want to see.

Fifth, we need to more clearly connect advocacy work to nonpartisan civic engagement. What we have now is a disconnected patchwork of canvassers who parachute in and disappear after election day, and issue-advocacy groups that are deeply disconnected from the base that cares about those issues. A healthy test for the saliency of issues is whether going door to door and talking about these issues can motivate people to participate in elections.

Finally, the pattern of funding for advocacy at the national level, which has resulted in a proliferation of advocacy organizations with a technical and policy orientation, will have to change dramatically. Most mainstream and liberal funders tend to fund short-term projects with lots of strings attached, and want to see measurable outcomes in a very short time frame. When we can point to instances where our perspectives are reflected in public policies, list the Senate offices that look to us for technical advice, or attach copies of news articles in which our staff is quoted, we seek to demonstrate our effectiveness to funders looking for results. It can be hard to justify funding long-term infrastructure investments when the building is on fire. We certainly understand that, and recognize that a strategy that argues we have to lose to win is one that goes against most funders' every instinct. However, it is simply undeniable that what we are doing now isn't working. Unless we take drastic steps to redefine our work, we will inevitably continue to lose -- not just this week or this year but for years and years to come.

In these dark times, scarce money ought to flow to four priorities: 1) investment in long-term base building to create a real constituency for social change; 2) issue campaigns that are designed not just to make specific improvements in public policies but to advance progressive values in the national conversation and energize important constituencies; 3) electoral mobilization connected both to base building and issue advocacy; and 4) the development of provocative ideas and visions that can galvanize large numbers of people into action.

It's time for the national advocacy community to find its voice again. We must stop defining our work by what is possible in Washington today, for as long as we do we will never change what is possible. As long as we continue to let the other side define the parameters of the debate, we lose before we even begin.

This year, the most important program for low-income people, Medicaid, is in the administration's crosshairs. Likewise food stamps, the EITC, the Family and Medical Leave Act. The list is long and sobering, and the urge to take whatever scraps we can in an effort to save these programs will be strong. However, we have a clear choice: We can dabble in policy minutiae without challenging the basic arguments of the other side (and lose now and continue to lose). Or we can use the battles of the day to articulate a different vision -- and ultimately win.

Deepak Bhargava is the executive director and Rachel Gragg is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Community Change.

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