Bold, plain-talk, progressive populism excites voters across many lines of difference


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What lessons can we progressives take from our ballot box wins last year (and, for that matter, from our losses)? What can we do to build on these victories and produce more in this year’s elections, and in 2020?

We must assess this broad strategy ourselves, for most of today’s mainline political analysts focus solely on “candidate politics.” Obviously, we need information about the principals who are asking for our votes, but too much “focus on the candidate” pushes America’s election story into the swirling shallows of gossip and puffery while ignoring the bigger, more significant story in 2018: movement politics. Thus, the media reduce our nation’s vital democratic exercise to comic-book buzzwords like “blue wave” and “red wall,” trivializing the extraordinary efforts of the multitudes who are striving to create a progressive future.

New York Times commentator Frank Bruni, for example, even consulted a Harvard professor of evolutionary psychology to develop his novel grasp of last year’s voter behavior. Normally a smart guy, he veered off into the psycho-pop ditch, writing after the election that the meteoric rise of such progressive candidates as Andrew Gillum in Florida, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, and Beto O’Rourke in Texas was attributable to a political quality they share: They’re “hot,” the scribe explained. More specifically, Bruni diagnosed Gillum and O’Rourke as “hunks,” while Ocasio-Cortez’s special appeal lay in “her gorgeousness.” Then he dismissed the candidates’ enthusiastic voters as “fangirls” and “fanboys.” The celebrated columnist conceded his political-pulchritude analysis is shallow, but nonetheless deemed it “honest.”

Apparently, the lesson we should take from these candidates is to prioritize hunkiness and gorgeosity in recruiting future progressive candidates. But before we consider adding swimsuit competitions to our endorsement process, let’s note that the theory of pretty-power only goes so far. While Gillum and O’Rourke ran effective and stunningly close races, they ultimately lost to extremist Republicans Rick Scott and Ted Cruz. (I leave it to you readers to characterize the beauty of those two.)

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Cartoon by Brian Duffy

Grassroots participants and some of us less prominent pundits would argue that in 2018 progressive forces prioritized a very different kind of political beauty: genuine democratic populism. Not just in the campaigns of the trio who “soared to fame,” as Bruni glibly put it, but in the gritty campaigns of hundreds of national, state, and local candidates who took on the odds, the establishment, and decades of conventional wisdom to win or come tantalizingly close. They and their millions of supporters have erected a framework for real change, based on such broadly attractive features as:

✅ candidates with authentic economic-social-political principles rather than poll-tested, consultant-designed “positions”;

✅ unabashedly progressive policies based not on the preferences of corporate donors but on concern for the Common Good;

✅ less arrogance/more humility, including a measure of recognition that the larger democratic movement is more important than any one ego.

This grassroots political movement has come a long way in a hurry. In recent decades, its seeds were planted and nurtured around the country by Fair Trade battles, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, gay marriage successes, the Fight for 15, women’s marches, immigrant Dreamers, climate change awakenings, pipeline rebellions, and so many other big struggles. But the movement only flowered into a nationwide political force in 2016, when much of it rallied around Bernie Sanders’ overtly populist presidential run. While his campaign fell short of electoral victory, it showed that a movement of populist integrity could succeed in advancing progressive candidates, causes, and policies. Two years later, the political outsiders who fueled the Sanders’ campaign had dispersed into hundreds of upstart candidacies, creating the hardy patches of wildflower politics that blossomed in 2018.

A bountiful harvest takes work


These groups are eager to share their organizing experience and skills.

Our Revolution Wishbone, jawbone, and backbone. OR president Nina Turner’s grandma reminds us of the three bones we all need to make meaningful change. Dream, speak the truth, stand strong —and join the people’s revolution.

Center for Community Change is helping build a movement “led by everyday people.” Download its free handbook: Messaging This Moment: A Handbook for Progressive Communicators.

People’s Action is a multi-racial, working-class network of 48 member organizations. It aims for “tangible victories in people’s lives” and lasting, on-the-ground coalitions.

The Working Families Party organizes year round on issues such as paid sick days, school privatization, green jobs, and student debt. Along the way, its activists also help elect progressives.

Democracy for America offers training “to be effective advocates for progressive policies, game-changing supporters of progressive candidates, and for candidates themselves.”

Campaigns end on election day. Movements don’t. Voting day is a time stamp for measuring our progress, and when the polls closed last November 6, it was clear that the intensive organizing by grassroots groups throughout 2017-18 had paid off. But let’s not forget that it’s all the days in between elections that matter on election day. We’re like the farmers and gardeners who do grub-hoe work through the summer for a good harvest in the fall. Let’s look at what we’ve learned.

Most political opinion writers assert that, with 2018 in the rearview mirror, it’s time to focus our full attention on 2020’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious presidential campaign. Given the exigencies posed by a deranged Trump, that’s an understandable instinct, but it’s wrong–at least for those of us who want to build a durable progressive movement with the public support needed to extend democratic government throughout America. For us, 2019 is the time to focus on … 2019! Already thousands of races for mayor, county office, school board, legislature, and more are gearing up.

Seeing them as inconsequential to Big Picture politics, many Establishment beings scoff at these “lesser offices,” which are actually key to movement politics. They:

  • hold serious power for directly improving common people’s lives;
  • engender campaigns that tend to be more issue-and-solution oriented and less vulnerable to sabotage by right-wing ideologues;
  • often have broad authority, allowing for bold policy innovations;
  • are training grounds for future contenders for higher office;
  • are winnable with principled, low-dollar, grassroots campaigns.

Indeed, these races are the essence of percolate-up politics: Build the farm team, and presidents will follow. Even more important: Genuinely progressive policies will follow.

November tells us what offices we won, but January starts the clock on what we actually gained. After all, the movement’s goal is not just to elect good people, but to enact good public policy. From my 8-year experience as Texas agriculture commissioner (elected 1982 and again in 1986), I can attest that the second goal does not necessarily follow the first. One major pledge of my campaign, for example, was to reduce pesticide poisonings of people and the environment and to promote organic production. On taking office, though, I was swarmed by chemical lobbyists, the Farm Bureau, powerful state officials, corporate media outlets, and other intimidating forces of the ag-poison complex, demanding that I “move to the middle of the road.” This furious onslaught was daunting, and my political resolve wobbled … until farmworker advocates and environmentalists confronted me. When a West Texas farmer friend scoffed, “Hell, Hightower, there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos,” that perked me up. We rallied, pushed ahead, and achieved my campaign promise.

I see three distinct steps for getting good policies from officials who mean well but might back away under pressure. We, the movement, must:

  1. Go inside with those we elect to provide aggressive public support, info, staffing, and expertise to shore up the progressive agenda that lobbyists and big donors will pressure our new officials to water down–and to expose the corporate powers trying to corrupt the people’s will.
  2. Confront our electeds when they drift, prodding them privately and publicly to be as bold as their promises.
  3. Ride the momentum of our election victories to push–from in-side and out–additional proposals for long-term structural changes to democratize America’s economic, social, and political systems.
There’s a sports cliche, often applied to political races, that devalues strong but losing contenders: “Close only counts in horseshoes,” they snort. For movement building, however, candidates, staffers, and volunteers who lose a vote but run good campaigns–especially in tough political terrain–are in fact winners. Their campaigns attract new activists; develop the skills, talents, and knowledge of all participants; increase support for progressive issues and values; build political organizations and networks; and plant the seeds of change for the next campaign–by both previously unsuccessful candidates and those who think, “Hey, with a few twists, maybe II could win.” In movement build-ing, success requires constantly expanding the group.

Bernie Sanders, for example, ran for office four times before being elected mayor of Burlington, VT, in 1981 (by only 10 votes!). But he didn’t get there by himself. Over the years, a steadily growing coalition organized around the wild-hare maverick and grew in numbers and governing abilities. When Bernie became the wild-hair maverick mayor, the coalition was able to implement a range of landmark progressive policies. More voters = more progress = more trust = more voters. Repeat.

Let’s take healthcare. If you have good insurance–as all corporate political and professional elites do–the quality of the US health system is merely an intellectual issue. But if, like millions, your coverage is iffy to non-existent, healthcare costs fall between a constant worry and a full-blown crisis. This glaring disparity cuts across all racial, ethnic, gender, religious, and even partisan lines, so that the demand for major reform unites a majority of voters–rural and urban, poor and middle class, young and old, workers and farmers, et al. The candidates who did well last year did not try to finesse this seething concern with vague proposals to “expand” Medicaid or “protect” Obamacare, but instead they hammered it with a clarion call for “Medicare for All.”

This kind of bold, plain-talk populism cuts across many of the same political lines to help candidates who advocate equal pay for women, access to higher education, affordable day care, banish-ing corporate money from politics, prison reform, and ending voter suppression. So, while national media mostly attributed November’s increased vote for Democrats to Trump’s negatives, the voter excitement that propelled many boldly progressive candidates was generated by their own positives. Their number-one appeal was advocating unabashedly for fundamental changes to address widening inequality and legalized oppression of workaday families. Comfortable elites don’t always see that, but regular people feel it every day–and seek candidates without corporate blinders, candidates who see, understand, and stand unequivocally with them.

Democratic movement building is not for wimps or those seeking instant gratification. Even in a good election year (as democratic populists certainly had in 2018), the movement has to turn right around and do it again. It’s physically straining and emotionally draining, with almost chaotic ups and downs, external ambushes, and internal ego eruptions. This bumpy path is why movements must take root and mature over time. Activists must learn cooperation and earn group trust, setting aside picayune matters and self-importance to work together for the Common Good. In any given year, even a successful, growing movement will lose more elections than it will win, but the key is to persist, gaining ground incrementally toward the big goals of fairness, justice, and opportunity for all.

There’s good reason why these efforts are called “struggles.” For starters, trying to hold together a naturally rebellious, widely dispersed, and wildly diverse people’s movement is like trying to load frogs into a wheelbarrow. And then it gets really hard, for the movement is directly challenging the concentrated wealth and power of entrenched elites who abhor our egalitarian ideals and will go all out to crush our efforts to democratize. (Witness December’s shameful power grabs by the GOP’s tin-pot autocrats in Michigan and Wisconsin. After they lost the governorships, partisan Republican legislators convened lame-duck sessions to force new laws that hog-tied voters’ demands for democratic change.)

So, yes, the struggle can be exhausting, and it can be tempting to just give up, especially where the political climate is harsh, the rules are rigged, and wins are scarce. Still, push on we must, for it’s the only way We the People have ever made progress toward the democratic society we seek. Indeed, experience shows that steady grassroots pushing pays off. It took decades of organizing, but Bernie went from a fringe, dark-horse mayor to America’s most popular senator, while people around the US outmaneuvered the old guard’s corporate-run political system to take top elected posts.

Push, push, push

You know your community and state. You know the people’s issues. You know your group’s talents and ingenuity. And you can see how progressive issues, candidates, and movements are advancing! So this is no time to get sucked down into the swamp of Trumpism or surrender to bubbling right-wing fanaticism. Our task is to keep doing what brought us this far: organizing, harmonizing, and mobilizing.

Together, step by step, we can do this.

I’m making moves!

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