Build an Independent Political Organization (But Not Quite a Party)

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

Last May, 125 organizers from 23 states gathered near Baltimore to discuss the very question that the Prospect has posed. 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 help 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 surely does not presume to trump all others. Still, having convened the Maryland meeting and participated in many similar conversations since the 2010 electoral wipeout, we offer the following approach for consideration: The single most valuable strategy for progressives is to (1) build durable, electorally oriented organization and power at the state level; (2) knit that organization and power together across state lines into a national network; and (3) use it all to pull, prod, yank, and compel the Democrats to move in a more progressive direction. Otherwise, the right will continue to set the agenda, and the best that Democrats will propose is a less nasty version of what the Republicans have to offer. 

A more generous and egalitarian society does not begin life in Washington, D.C. The “money power,” as the populists called it, simply will not permit that. But we can move politics and outcomes in Sacramento, Springfield, Madison, Albany, Tallahassee, and other state capitals and then use those successes to win power and respect further up the political food chain. Every member of Congress pays attention to his or her home state, and that’s where our comparative advantage lies. Win a few unexpected state legislative races, take out a county-level ally of a bad member of Congress, move legislative initiatives in ten states at the same time, put groundbreaking ballot measures before the voters—do this and more, and sitting Democrats will take you seriously. To acknowledge that we aren’t strong enough right now to affect national politics substantially doesn’t mean that we can’t ever be. But we must invest our resources at the state level and build a network to coordinate our issue and electoral work across state lines for this approach to take flight.

This is not a sexy strategy. We’re from the “politics is hard” school. The best organizers we know along the broad spectrum of the left understand the necessity of building power where you can win, and only then moving to the next level. As these are the leaders and organizers who wake up every day thinking about how to build power for those who are not wealthy or well connected, any progressive version of the Powell Memo has got to play with them or it doesn’t play. 

Getting specific, then, we suggest that liberals should invest time, effort, money, and brainpower in building durable 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 enduring effects of America’s “original sin” and its newer mutations.) There are many good policy ideas behind which state-level forces can unite. But policy choices come later. Power comes first. 

Over the next two years, progressives can build or enlarge such organizations in 12 to 15 states, with measurable effect on the legislative sessions and electoral campaigns of 2013–2014. That may seem like a small number of states, but some 66 percent of congressional Democrats come from only a dozen states. It probably makes sense to start, though not finish, in those. Do this well, and we’ll help take back the House, with a more progressive Democratic majority, in 2014 and influence the Democratic presidential primary of 2016.

Fortunately, the characteristics of a vibrant IPO are not mysterious. We expect that many readers will recognize their own work and strategy in this short glossary of terms.

• By independent, we mean able to challenge corporate Democrats—ideologically, legislatively, and electorally—even as we help the Democrats defeat Republicans. How? By recruiting progressives to run in Democratic primaries against center-right incumbents, by paying early attention to candidate recruitment in open seats, and by focusing on defeating a few Republicans each cycle. We should be clear: This is not about taking over the Democratic Party. That won’t work. They take you over, not the reverse. We propose building something outside 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, low-wage worker organizing, legislative lobbying, and even direct action. We have many allies inside the Democratic Party, but even they bow to caucus discipline and donor pressure. In their better moments, they will admit that 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 political, we mean having a core competency in electoral work and a public brand to accompany that work and advertise what we stand for. Unions and some community organizations and issue advocacy groups engage seriously in electoral politics. But even the best do not feature electoral work as their primary activity and core competency on a year-round basis. No one on the left has anything like the power of the Tea Party brand at his or her disposal. 

Politics is not just elections, of course, but ideas and issues, too. If we are serious about, say, increasing spending on schools and decreasing it on prisons, then we need to defeat one Democrat who is bad on this issue in a primary, defeat some Republicans when we need to flip a relevant chamber, and then tell the story repeatedly of how this happened. A new discourse on criminal justice and education will emerge. If we are on our game, we’ll also place great new legislative staffers in the target states and deepen our relationships with leadership. Causes that should be easy (raising the minimum wage, say) will be easy, and we can save our energy for the harder fights. 

• By organization, we mean a permanent, durable year-round operation of its own, not just an election-season coalition that borrows staff, resources, and expertise from its constituent groups. This means having a separate permanent staff, resources, relationships, campaigns, and activities that happen outside of and in addition to the work of the constituent organizations. This will require genuine power sharing, transparent rules, and independent money. No one organization or constituency can dominate the internal decision-making process, but all will need to exercise power commensurate with their contribution and potential. 

If it sounds like a political party, that’s not entirely wrong. Think of it as an “inside-outside” operation, and don’t freak out that it will end up like the Greens in 2000. We are standing on the shoulders of the electorally minded organizers and lecturers for the abolitionists, the populists, the Non-Partisan League, the suffragists, the CIO, 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 has done to the Republicans: build an effective organization that represents the Democrats’ often-ignored political base. The Tea Party did not emerge 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 keenly aware of the role that focused right-wing money and media played in advancing the Tea Party agenda. Their rich guys seem so much more willing to dig in for the long haul than our rich guys (or perhaps we really don’t have many rich guys on our side).

It has taken the left a long time to get 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 large numbers of people will support such an effort. We should be able to recruit one million Americans over the next ten years to contribute $15 a month—if they believe we are for real. That would come to $180 million annually—not enough but a solid start. 

We are not going to create a modern version of social democracy quickly, but the core elements—respect for all people; a welfare state that is both a safety net and a trampoline; a proper balance between the state, the market, and society; a strong set of organizations for people at their workplaces; a desire for peace, not militarism—are still the right aims and virtues. If we have power and organization and ideas, we can fight for them with confidence

Read the other pieces in this series:


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