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How to Build a Grassroots Power Base

By Norman Solomon (excerpted)

    Millions of Americans are eager, even desperate, for a political movement that truly challenges the power of Wall Street and the Pentagon. But accommodation has been habit-forming for many left-leaning organizations, which are increasingly taking their cues from the party establishment: deferring to top Democrats in Washington, staying away from robust progressive populism, and making excuses for the Democratic embrace of corporate power and perpetual war.
    It’s true that many left-of-center groups are becoming more sophisticated in their use of digital platforms for messaging, fundraising, and other work. But it’s also true that President Obama’s transactional approach has had demoralizing effects on his base. Even the best resources—mobilized by unions, environmental groups, feminist organizations, and the like—can do only so much when many voters and former volunteers are inclined to stay home. A month before the 2010 election, Obama strategist David Axelrod noted that “almost the entire Republican margin is based on the enthusiasm gap.” A similar gap made retaking the House a long shot this year.
    For people fed up with bait-and-switch pitches from Democrats who talk progressive to get elected but then govern otherwise, the Occupy movement has been a compelling and energizing counterforce. Its often-implicit message: protesting is hip and astute, while electioneering is uncool and clueless. Yet protesters’ demands, routinely focused on government action and inaction, underscore how much state power really matters.
    To escape this self-defeating trap, progressives must build a grassroots power base that can do more than illuminate the nonstop horror shows of the status quo. To posit a choice between developing strong social movements and strong electoral capacity is akin to choosing between arms and legs. If we want to move the country in a progressive direction, the politics of denunciation must work in sync with the politics of organizing—which must include solid electoral work.
    Movements that take to the streets can proceed in creative tension with election campaigns, each one augmenting the other. But even if protests flourish, progressive groups expand, and left media outlets thrive; the power to impose government accountability is apt to remain elusive. That power is contingent on organizing, reaching the public, and building muscle to exercise leverage over what government officials do—and who they are. Even electing better candidates won’t accomplish much unless the base is organized and functional enough to keep them accountable.
    Politicians like to envision social movements as tributaries flowing into their election campaigns. But a healthy ecology of progressive politics would mean the flow goes mostly in the other direction. Election campaigns should be subsets of social movements, not the other way around. Vital initiatives to break the cycles of capitulation and lack of accountability will come from the grassroots.
    Overall, progressive insurgencies did not perform well in House primaries this year. A few bright spots appeared when David Gill beat the Democratic machine in a central Illinois district and liberal challengers took out centrist incumbents in Texas and Pennsylvania. But even with high-profile support from national netroots groups, progressive candidates—notably Ilya Sheyman in Illinois, Eric Griego in New Mexico, and Darcy Burner in Washington State—lost by sizable margins. Each contest had its own dynamics (Burner was outspent six to one by a self-financed opponent who dropped $2.3 million, whereas Griego had a money advantage), but the pattern is grim.
    Yes, progressives are usually underfunded, and money matters a lot. But it’s hazardous to internalize Mark Hanna’s timeworn dictum, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first thing is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.” We forget the second thing at our peril. In a word, we need to organize.
    For progressives, ongoing engagement with people in communities has vast potential advantages that big money can’t buy—and hopefully can’t defeat. But few progressive institutions with election goals have the time, resolve, resources, or patience to initiate and sustain relationships with communities. For the most part, precinct organizing is a lost art that progressives have failed to revitalize. Until that changes, the electoral future looks bleak.
    In my race, basic progress ended up reflected in vote totals to the extent that I was able to reach out and talk with people over the course of years. Yet many of the shortcomings of my campaign were related to fieldwork. Votes slipped through our fingers when we didn’t do adequate follow-up with contacts made long before election day. As our campaign grew, so did the dilemmas of time, staff, volunteers, and money. By any measure, we ran the strongest grassroots campaign in the race, but it wasn’t grassroots enough.
    Fragmentation of core constituencies was another problem. From the outset, it was obvious that half of the twelve candidates didn’t have a snowball’s chance of getting through the primary. With rhetoric that sounded leftish, those six candidates received a combined total of 8.6% of the primary vote, while I lost by 0.1%. Huffman was no doubt exceedingly grateful to these anemic “protest candidates;” he could go on a cakewalk to the November runoff against a GOP candidate in a heavily Democratic district.
    My counsel to prospective candidates:

•    Do not launch a campaign unless you can give it your all and plausibly consolidate most of the progressive electorate along the way.
•    Do thorough groundwork for a long time.
•    Keep meeting people and adding to your database of contacts.
•    Listen and learn about political microclimates.
•    Work on building coalitions.
•    Encourage volunteers and treat them with respect.
•    Insist on meticulous, accurate and principled work from staff.
•    Remember that better process is much more likely to result in better decisions; when disagreements flare within the team, strive to assess the clashing outlooks.
•    Keep your eyes on the prize: not only winning but also making progressive activists and groups stronger for the long haul.

    A campaign with resonance should keep evolving after the election. Donor files, e-mail lists, working relationships, infrastructure, public good will, and more can sustain and expand alliances. High-quality compost from one campaign should invigorate the growth of others.
    Winning or losing an election can hinge on the decisions of just one group or even one individual. We may not feel powerful, but an internalized sense of powerlessness represents another triumph for a system that thrives on vast imbalances of power. Let’s get more serious—and effective—about gaining progressive power in government, shall we?

Norman Solomon is founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org. He co-chairs the national Healthcare Not Warfare campaign organized by Progressive Democrats of America. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.


[All opinions in editorials, action items, & calendar items are those of the writers, submitters,and involved organizations; and not necessarily the opinions of the HOPE Coalition or its volunteers. HOPE will consider rebuttal editorials from the progressive viewpoint.]