A Progressive Prescription for the Post-Election Hangover

As you’ve no doubt noticed, election day was brutal for Congressional Democrats–especially in the House, where it appears we’ll lose roughly 60 seats and the majority. Now that most of us have uncurled ourselves from fetal position, there are a few things to note as we plan for what we do next:

First, the brutality was not evenly spread. Progressives fared pretty well, while Blue Dogs and New Democrats bore the brunt of the losses. The Congressional Progressive Caucus lost only three of their 76 House members: Reps. John Hall of New York, Phil Hare of Illinois, and Alan Grayson of Florida. By contrast, it looks as though the Blue Dog Coalition will lose 30 of its 55 members and the New Democrats will lose 27 of their 69 members. This will make progressives a much larger portion of the Democratic Caucus, with almost 40% of the Democrats in the House and roughly three times as many members as the remaining Blue Dogs.

It’s clear that the economy– specifically unemployment– was the major factor. With the unemployment rate hovering just under 10% and no light at the end of the tunnel, neither the Administration nor Congressional Democrats managed to clearly describe their plan for putting Americans back to work. Republicans were even more incoherent, but they could run against the failure, arguing Democrats had run up deficits without creating jobs.

In addition, the turnout and voting patterns strongly suggest that a degree of demoralization among the Democratic base played a significant role in the outcomes. Younger voters stayed home—not merely compared to 2008, but with a significant drop-off from 2006 numbers when the last Congressional midterm election was held. The same is true for blacks and Latinos. Women shifted sharply towards Republicans, from favoring Democrats by 14 points in 2008 to splitting evenly on Tuesday.

Suffice it to say for the moment that flagrantly throwing women, gays, organized labor, and Latinos under the bus, breaking campaign promises around which significant elements of your base have organized, abandoning the lofty rhetoric of the campaign to cut backroom deals with the people whose greed and bad faith created the messes we’re in, and actively and repeatedly insulting the people who communicate most often with your key supporters is probably not the optimal strategy for resounding political success. (But hey, bygones, right?)

So what do progressives do now?

Without a governing majority in the House, it becomes far harder for progressives to act as a swing block to win key legislative concessions. Sufficient power has been centralized in House leadership at this point to allow them to keep legislation off the floor at will, to move or not move bills according to their priorities, and to control what’s in any bill and what amendments are allowed to be offered. Since that House leadership will as of January be Republicans, there’s a good chance they will only move the things they believe are Republican priorities and for which Republicans will vote as a cohesive bloc; progressive votes won’t be needed.

Progressives have more tools at their disposal than just votes, however. We’re going to need to fully engage in order to try to keep bad things from happening, build progressive capacity, and set the stage for 2012 and beyond. A few suggestions that ought to keep us busy for the next two years:

Fully understand and use the levers of power of the system in which we’re operating.

Rather than complaining about how unfairly the Republicans are doing things, we need to put the pieces in place that will help us build and win. Some examples of this are:

1. Fix funding mechanisms for progressive infrastructure.
As delightful as it is begging rich people for money all of the time, it’s not a sustainable model–and it has some pretty serious drawbacks when income inequality is a big problem. Instead we need to focus on creating virtuous cycles where our success leads to increased capacity and reliable funding streams.

Strengthening organized labor is a key example of this: if labor can more readily organize workers, those newly-organized workers not only tend to have higher Democratic voting records, but labor then also has more capacity to fund progressive infrastructure. Developing and supporting entities like CREDO, where funding comes as an inherent part of the business cycle, is another way to address this problem.

2. Make it easier for our Congressional allies to do the progressive things we want them to do.
Right now there are serious capacity problems in Congress that make what we want very hard for even the best-intentioned members and staff to do. Staffers are profoundly overworked. The majority of all staff time goes to simply trying to keep up with the barrage of constituent communications. There’s very little time left to do strategically important work such as analyze legislation, create talking points, coordinate with other offices, prepare questions for committee hearings, do proactive communication with constituents, draft legislation, hold hearings, and engage with the press.

There used to be internal think tanks in Congress (such as the Democratic Study Group) to do some of the heavy lifting and organizing by analyzing legislation, creating shared talking points, and driving process reforms. Gingrich defunded them after the 1994 election to consolidate more power in the Speaker’s office while crippling Democrats. The Republicans invest in outside capacity to get those things done by funding the Heritage Foundation to the tune of almost $40 million per year; the Blue Dogs have had Third Way for the last few years with a $7 million per year budget. Progressives have, by contrast, invested almost nothing in Congress-focused capacity. Since a bunch of experienced, top-notch committee staff are about to lose their jobs when the majority changes hands, we have a great opportunity to snap up some of the cream of the crop to make this happen.

3. Change the rules when they’re rigged against us.
Filibuster abuse crippled the Senate, making it impossible to do the things necessary to aggressively create jobs, address climate change, and even fill key positions in the Administration and the courts. The country is suffering as a result. Fix the damned rule.

Progressives are incredibly reliant on the Internet as the backbone of our communications infrastructure, but without net neutrality the phone companies and the cable companies are free to turn off DailyKos while letting you see unlimited amounts of streaming Fox News. Don’t think they won’t: cell phone companies have already refused to allow text message fund-raising for organizations they don’t agree with, such as NARAL Pro-Choice America. Apply pressure to the administration for a Federal Communications Commission fix now.

And I don’t think I need to say anything about Citizens United except to point out that a true fix will require a Constitutional amendment establishing that corporations are not persons, and that such an effort is going to take many years and some extremely skilled organizing.

4. Get incentives right.
Progressives have gotten better about rewarding our friends and punishing our enemies, but if voting against key Democratic initiatives were to cost members support from the Democratic Songressional Campaign Committee or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and make them less likely to get committee chairmanships, they might be a little better behaved.

5. Fix the way we do campaigns.
We need to be strategic and data-driven. Right now we are rarely either.

We should be targeting districts now in which to recruit progressive candidates, looking at both pick-up opportunities (such as the 61 districts that Obama won in 2008 that will be held by Republicans as of January) and open Democratic seats where we can get a progressive over the primary line. We need to fully support those candidates a full year before the election, ensuring they are on track to have both the money and trained staff to be viable and win. We need to be way more aggressive at using (and sharing!) data to improve campaign processes and targeting. We need make it so that media consultants aren’t rewarded for wasting millions on TV when other communications channels would be more effective. And we need to fully leverage technology to actually reach voters with messages we know they care about.

Start treating politics as the team sport that it is.

We need to stop pretending that we can each focus on our own siloed issue and ignore the rest of the progressive coalition. Unless we build the capacity of the progressive coalition as a whole, we won’t win anything big.

6. Play nicely with each other across issues.
The fate of all big progressive issues is tied to the well-being of the broader progressive coalition and its capacity to move things. If progressive women are demoralized because they feel they’ve been thrown under the bus on choice, or if gay donors withhold their political contributions because Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell isn’t addressed, the broad spectrum of progressive issues bears the cost. Losing House seats because women shifted towards Republicans or because Democrats were greatly outspent makes it harder not only to address choice and Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell but also things like climate change and military spending. This means, in particular, that issue organizations need to think about the full costs of their endorsements of candidates who are bad on key progressive issues, because such support weakens the progressive coalition as a whole.

7. Help pick the right team captains.
In the next week or two the House minority leader for next year will be chosen. It might be a good idea to do everything possible to make it a progressive such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., since the minority leader will set the tone and strategy for the whole House Democratic Caucus.

8. Reward team players.
Progressives have gotten better at taking care of their own – witness the very small House losses for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona survived his election because progressives swooped in to help. But we should also apply pressure to ensure that people who undermine the Democratic Caucus don’t get rewarded with lots of campaign funding and plum committee positions.

9. Grow the farm team.
We need to nurture progressives who are willing to be bold and engage—whether they win or lose. On the right, think tanks have programs to employ key allies who are between elected positions, and career paths for activists from cradle to grave. On the left we leave people to their own devices and often let people drop completely off the radar after a loss or the end of a campaign. We need to invest in long-term capacity in the form of talent.

Expand the definition of engagement.

10. Find ways to engage people where they are, including online.
While Democrats are out of power in the House, there will be an opportunity to help some of them better reach their audiences via new methods. How might they better use Facebook? Twitter? Online question-and-answer mechanisms? Online video? They’ve got little to do but communicate; let’s help them figure out how to do it well.

11. Think outside of the box, especially with younger people.
Efforts like Drinking Liberally, the Oregon Bus Project and Trick-or-Vote have come up with some novel and very effective ways to make politics fun for younger people. It works, too—there’s measurable impact. Expand those programs nationally while continuing to innovate.

Focus on the things that don’t require Congress to pass laws.

It seems exceedingly unlikely that any progressive legislation will pass the House while it’s in Republican hands. We and our progressive allies in Congress can still do two really critical things:

12. Pressure the Administration to act on things it can do unilaterally.
The Obama Administration can do a whole lot by executive order, administrative rule-making, and strategic appointments. They could, for instance, end Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, implement net neutrality, stop separating families through deportation, require that all future Federal Reserve appointees agree to prioritize full employment as equally important as price stability, change procurement processes to reward the creation of American jobs, aggressively prosecute war profiteering, begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan as promised, rescind executive orders restricting access to legal abortions, throw the book at companies that break the law to thwart worker organizing, and enforce existing laws and safety regulations for oil and mining companies as a start. They could do that all today. And a concerted effort from the progressive community and our Congressional allies to force their hands might actually work, especially with 2012 now looming on the horizon.

13. Elevate a clear progressive message.
The American people are actually pretty progressive:

While we’re not going to duplicate the capacity of Fox News overnight (nor are we going to match the Heritage Foundation’s $38 million/year), we could do a lot more to leverage progressive members of Congress and the soapboxes they have by:

a. Making sure they have top-notch research on issues and messaging;
b. Ensuring that members and progressive spokespeople get top notch training and practice for media appearances and public speaking;
c. Having people whose job it is to book progressive members of Congress and spokespeople into the press;
d. Building new distribution mechanisms for content and information, whether by radio, on TV, over the Internet, in print, in person, by text message, by iPhone app, or some other way;
e. Coordinating messaging so that different people are saying things that reinforce each other; and
f. Insisting that progressive leaders use communications best practices, such as telling stories. Saying that “women should have access to abortions” is not going to work as well as talking about the woman who showed up at a Catholic hospital late in her first trimester of pregnancy suffering from pre-eclampsia which would kill her if the pregnancy didn’t end. The nun in charge got permission to end the pregnancy to save the mother – and then was excommunicated. The next woman who shows up in that emergency room with pre-eclampsia will die. By eliminating coverage for medically necessary abortions, we’ve ensured that similar stories will play out all over America: women will die because a bunch of lawmakers didn’t understand why what they were doing was a problem.

There is plenty for progressives to do post-election both inside and outside of Congress. Act as if the future of the country depended on it. Because it does.

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