Monday, September 14, 2009

The Progressive movement can be a policy agenda!

David Sirota wrote a great article entitled "Progressives pay the Price for Confusing a Party with a Movement", claiming that progressive constituencies within the Democratic party engaged in party building activities to elect Democratic candidates against their own best interests. And he wrote about the reasons why some of the players in the progressive movement did this - in order to ensure their access to the power once we won the election. And how access to this power is keeping many progressive leaders from being effective with advancing their agenda.

I respect David Sirota, and agree with him on many things. But David is wrong about this. Not all parts of the party are loyal to their own power regardless of policy agenda. And not all movements are loyal to their own policy agenda regardless of which party champions it. The Progressive Democrats are a perfect example of this.

We are quietly and not so quietly building a progressive majority within the Democratic Party. Howard Dean said it best: If you want to take back your country, you must first take back your party. In our case, we are working to take our party back from the very people who are leading it at the national and state party levels - but leading it in a way that does not honor or even take seriously our party platform.

This is a perfect time for me to explain my feelings about what political parties are. The word "politics" comes from the Greek word "polis" meaning state or city. "Politikos" describes anything concerning the state or city affairs.

An association is a group of individuals who voluntarily enter into an agreement to form a body (or organization) to accomplish a purpose. A political party is an association of people to accomplish the purpose of being involved in city/state affairs. It's not just about winning elections, no matter how much the party leaders tell us. Winning elections is only a part of the equation.

What are the other parts? First - you have to provide some sort of organizational structure for people to come together under. You have Roberts Rules of Order and the NC Democratic Party Plan of Organization as a guide. You have the precincts, then the counties, then the US congressional districts, then the state party, then the DNC. Since the group is an association of registered Democrats, that is obviously one qualification for membership. You show up at your precinct meeting, where only Democrats can speak, run for office and vote. You elect precinct officers, and nominate other Democrats for delegate positions to other groups like the county convention. People elected at one level serve the next level up, where they repeat the process.

Now we have the association, and the rules and plan for organization, and the officers - what next? Next is what we stand for - and we decide that by using the rules and plan for organization to determine our Platform using committees and the resolution process.

Once we have our platform - how then do we get influence city or state affairs? By either finding candidates who feel the same way we do or they find us - because they believe in our platform. Just how much of our platform they believe in us usually a factor in our primaries, or at least it should be if we have more than one person running for a particular race. But as of late, we have been allowing our votes to be influenced by party leaders who tell us that one candidate is more "electable" than another - usually for reasons such as "they can raise more money (from big donors who may not share our collective values)", or "candidate A is more acceptable to the majority of voters in (insert whatever jurisdiction you wish) than candidate B based on gender, age, race, etc. Or sometimes we just defer to the opinion of someone just out of force of habit or custom, even though by doing so we are voting against some of the very things that the party stands for.

Once we have decided on our slate, that is when we can work to get them elected. At a bare minimum, the same organizational structure that was set up to elect the organizational leaders and determine our platform can be used to help get our party candidates elected by getting out the vote of our party members. We can certainly help a candidate get votes from voters other than those in our party, but clearly this part of the GOTV effort must be directed by the candidates campaigns themselves, since a candidate for one race might be targeting a different group of non Dems in one race than a candidate might need in another race.

OK - now that we have them elected - what do we do? It's not enough to create a platform. select candidates and then get them elected - you have to be able to hold them accountable. That is where I disagree with David Sirota - a political party is a perfect place to have a policy agenda. The policy is your party platform. But how do you hold the elected leaders accountable?

You have a way to measure how well or poorly your elected leaders follow your policy agenda. Certainly if your party is not in a majority or leadership position, it's difficult to grade them when they don't control the respective branches of government. But when your party does this, there is no excuse for not holding them accountable.

We have a very good process for determining what our party stands for - it's the platform and resolution process. The problem is, we have no good way to evaluate how well or poorly our elected officials are working to implement the platform and resolutions into their legislation. I would suggest organizing resolutions along the lines of our party platform, and then issuing a report card at the municipal, county, congressional district, state, and national levels. Sort of like how the NAACP does with the HKonJ 14-Point agenda. We don't have a way to make sure our elected officials are accountable to us. Lobbyists and the big money donors who support them have those ways.

Once we have a way to measure how well or poorly our elected officials are following, then what do we do to hold them accountable? Do we continue to support them when they don't support us? This can be tricky, because party officers from the precinct chairs on up can be removed from their positions for supporting candidates of another party besides our own. But should we be required to support candidates who call themselves Democrats who don't support the party and/or our platform?

We can always run a challenger to an incumbent. Our county party replaces party officers all the time with challengers when the incumbents don't live up to our expectations - we did this in 2007 with the Wake County Chair, and in 2009 with the Wake Board of Elections. To some extent we did this in 2005 when the NCDP State Executive Committee elected Jerry Meek over Ed Turlington who was Governor Easley's choice for Chair. Jerry had the advantage of being 1st vice chair for a while and being well known across the entire state.

At times you even have to remove an officer during their term of office. The Wake Dems felt that a particular municipal vice chair was not working out (especially after sending out an e-mail encouraging the mass defection of Democrats from the party) and so we used the Council of Review and Executive Council procedures to remove this person from office. It wasn't pretty, and this person went out kicking and......well, I'll just say she didn't go quietly. But it had to be done. And the County Party did it.

What do we do when there is no challenger available and the incumbent is not representing the interests of the Democratic Party? This is a good question because Party officers who support a candidate of another party or any party other than the Democratic Party can be removed from office. Why is there no similar requirement that candidates support the party or it's platform?

Could it be because there are party officers at upper levels who really don't support the party or it's platform, but merely act as slight biased referees who see big money coming into the party from donors who want it directed to specific candidates who have promised to take specific action on behalf of those donors? We have seen this happen in our own state with the Democratic Party and the Sleasley mess. And we have heard of the bouts between Rahm Emanuel and Howard Dean over the 50 State strategy. Dean's 50 State strategy was a big part of the reason why we were successful in 2006 and 2008. It was a long-term strategy designed to strengthen and build up the party based on Dean's slogan: "If you want to take back your country, you first have to take back your party."

Emanuel didn't like the 50-State strategy, and is actively dismantling it now. When you put former OFA campaign staffers in charge of party building for the Democratic Party, do you seriously expect them to act in the best interest of the party or for the candidate, his campaign advisors or donors? Do they have any particular allegiance to the Democratic Party? Have they ever worked as a precinct chair or delegate to any level party convention? Did they ever serve as a party officer or as a member of the SEC? Were they even Democrats before the election?

The party is many things, but it can be a movement based on what the party stands for. Some candidates would rather us not think of the Democratic Party as a way to influence their policies. But going back to the definition of what politics is, a political party is made up of people who want to influence the affairs of state. We have every right to expect our candidates to reflect our views - not the other way around. And we have every right to tell our candidates that we expect them to take our party platform seriously - and that we work together. We work to get them elected and they should work to implement our platform. If they don't like the platform - don't run as a Democrat. But if you come to our Party meetings and ask us to work for you - you must expect us to expect things from you.

Grassroots Democrats are not paid professional political operatives. But those operatives have got to realize that they will not be able to win elections in 2010 and 2012 without us. If they continue to take us for granted and act in opposition to our party platform and the promises they made to rank and file Democrats and our constituency groups, they will find themselves out of power. The people with the money have no political party allegiance - they go with whomever makes them the most money. They are just using the Dems now to keep a little bit more of what they have than if they stuck with the GOP and had no influence with our party.

There is no reason why Progressive Democrats in our Democratic Party cannot be part of a movement within our own Party. There is no reason why the platform of the Democratic Party shouldn't be a way to measure how well or poorly our elected officials do the jobs we elected them to. We can exert our influence and make the politicians do what they promised. We just have to get some backbone and tell them we hold them accountable for what they do. And whenever possible - run someone in a primary against them.

Progressives Pay the Price for Confusing a Party With a Movement

by David Sirota

The difference between parties and movements is simple: Parties are loyal to their own power regardless of policy agenda; movements are loyal to their own policy agenda regardless of which party champions it. This is one of the few enduring political axioms, and it explains why the organizations purporting to lead an American progressive "movement" have yet to build a real movement, much less a successful one.

Though the 2006 and 2008 elections were billed as progressive movement successes, the story behind them highlights a longer-term failure. During those contests, most leaders of Washington's major labor, environmental, anti-war and anti-poverty groups spent millions of dollars on a party endeavor-specifically, on electing a Democratic president and Democratic Congress. In the process, many groups subverted their own movement agendas in the name of electoral unity.

The effort involved a sleight of hand. These groups begged their grass-roots members-janitors, soccer moms, veterans and other "regular folks"-to cough up small-dollar contributions in return for the promise of movement pressure on both parties' politicians. Simultaneously, these groups went to dot-com and Wall Street millionaires asking them to chip in big checks in exchange for advocacy that did not offend those fat cats' Democratic politician friends (or those millionaires' economic privilege).

This wasn't totally dishonest. Many groups sincerely believed that Democratic Party promotion was key to progressive movement causes. And anyway, during the Bush era, many of those causes automatically helped Democrats by indicting Republicans.

But after the 2008 election, the strategy's bankruptcy is undeniable.

As we now see, union dues underwrote Democratic leaders who today obstruct serious labor law reform and ignore past promises to fix NAFTA. Green groups' resources helped elect a government that pretends sham "cap and trade" bills represent environmental progress. Health care groups promising to push a single-payer system got a president not only dropping his own single-payer promises, but also backing off a "public option" to compete with private insurance. And anti-war funding delivered a Congress that refuses to stop financing the Iraq mess, and an administration preparing to escalate the Afghanistan conflict.

Of course, frustrated progressives might be able to forgive the groups that promised different results, had these postelection failures prompted course corrections.

For example, had the left's pre-eminent groups responded to Democrats' health care capitulations by immediately announcing campaigns against these Democrats, progressives could feel confident that these groups were back to prioritizing a movement agenda. Likewise, had the big anti-war organizations reacted to Obama's Afghanistan escalation plans with promises of electoral retribution, we would know those organizations were steadfastly loyal to their anti-war brand.

But that hasn't happened. Despite the president's health care retreat, most major progressive groups continue to cheer him on, afraid to lose their White House access and, thus, their Beltway status. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that has "yet to take a clear position on Afghanistan" while VoteVets' leader all but genuflected to Obama, saying, "People [read: professional political operatives] do not want to take on the administration."

In this vacuum, movement building has been left to underfunded (but stunningly successful) projects like, Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and local organizations. And that's the lesson: True grass-roots movements that deliver concrete legislative results are not steered by marble-columned institutions, wealthy benefactors or celebrity politicians-and they are rarely ever run from Washington. They are almost always far-flung efforts by those organized around real-world results-those who don't care about party conventions, congressional cocktail parties or White House soirees they were never invited to in the first place.

Only when enough progressives realize that truism will any movement-and any change-finally commence.

David Sirota is a bestselling author whose newest book is "The Uprising." He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network-both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at

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