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November 18, 2012 / needhamgrassroots

Alternet: If You Want to Build a Grassroots Base, Don’t Look to Powerful Democrats

Even electing better candidates won’t accomplish much unless the base is organized and functional enough to keep them accountable.

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.

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?

In other words, it’s up to us.
from Alternet […] 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.
* * *
“Bringing the vibrancy and democracy of activist movement culture to a political campaign is necessary but complicated,” said Torie Osborn, a longtime progressive organizer in the Los Angeles area, whose dynamic grassroots campaign for the state legislature nearly advanced to the November ballot. “Activist protest culture is spontaneous, often angry and wildly uncontrollable. Campaigns have to be rigorously disciplined and controllable.”
The mismatch takes a toll. “Ultimately one shortfall of our heartbreaking 1 percent loss was that our volunteers did not show up in force until the very end,” Osborn told me. “Our field program counted on a ‘movement’ turnout, but our experience was that the energized volunteers didn’t really want to do what the campaign needed. They wanted to be on Facebook, to blog, to go to events, even drive around and put up lawn signs, but not the voter-contact work of walking and phoning—at least not at the scale we were counting on.” […]
During my run for Congress, I participated in Occupy demonstrations in more than a half-dozen cities across our far-flung district. (Because of my long record as an activist, some local Occupy organizers set aside their aversion to allowing a candidate to speak.) A deft organizer of some of those protests, Pat Johnstone, coordinated much of my campaign’s fieldwork.

“From the beginning, Occupiers have expressed concern about being ‘co-opted’ by progressive groups,” she observed. “Occupy provided a renewed vision of what is possible when we rise up together. However, the success of any movement depends on building and sustaining capacity. Partnerships and coalitions are an important part of that growth. How strong can any grassroots movement be without the strength of numbers?”

 […] After campaigning nonstop for eighteen months, I received more than 25,000 votes in the primary (15 percent) and missed getting into the November runoff by 174 votes. (Huffman finished in first place, with 37.5 percent.) With just two Republicans among the dozen contenders in the “top-two open primary,” one of the GOP candidates slipped through to the fall ballot. If I’d gotten past the primary and consolidated progressive support, I would have gone into the general election with an initial base of about 30 percent. At that point, I would have had to pull quite a populist rabbit out of the hat to win.
“Technically, our campaign has ended,” I wrote to supporters after the protracted vote count. “Politically, it’s continuing—with plans to build an ongoing coalition on the foundation of what we’ve already done together.” Dozens of people involved in my campaign quickly went to work on other ones with heightened skills, knowledge and abilities to draw in volunteers. Meanwhile, our campaign is morphing into a coalition for the long haul ( GrassrootsProgress.org), aiding efforts to elect progressives to local office within our district as well as to Congress elsewhere in the country.
* * *
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.[…]
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?
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