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Building a movement
Author: Will in Chicago    Date: 2016-04-14 08:04:27

An old cliche states that Rome was not built in a day. Neither is a political movement.

I would argue that we are seeing reactions to rising income inequality and a feeling among many Americans that George Carlin was right on at least some level when he made the following statement: "The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it."

The rise of a progressive movement in the Democratic Party seems to be a reaction to this frustration. Meanwhile, many Republicans are turning to a billionaire reality show star who sometimes spouts populist rhetoric about money in politics while denigrating entire categories of human beings..

(It is perhaps not surprising that the childish behavior of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is beginning to impact our children. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report "The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation's Schools." The report shows increased interests of bullying of racial and religious minorities in our nation's classrooms.)

In this presidential campaign, I have friends who support Senator Bernie Sanders and others who support Hillary Clinton. Personally, I support Sanders as the more progressive of the two candidates while I have doubts about Clinton's judgement on several matters and many of her associations. Regardless, I am prepared to support the nominee of the Democratic party for several reasons.

One, the current crop of GOP candidates seem like refugees from a bad comedy. Secondly, I think that both Clinton and Sanders would appoint judges in the mold of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka the Notorious R.B.G.) than Antonin Scalia. Thirdly, I see the possibility of preserving gains made by women, the LGBT community, and other Americans.

Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of the Nation, recently wrote about the changes in the Democratic Party that highlight a growing progressive movement. I believe that this movement will continue to grow, as we are hearing Senator Clinton, long associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, now stressing the need for a higher minimum wage along with other issues.

Trade policy, however, is just one of the many issues on which Sanders and progressive leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are challenging the party orthodoxy. As John Nichols has written in the Nation, the “Warren wing” of the Democratic Party, as it is now commonly known, has adopted a different kind of “values-based politics” — one in which fairness is among the primary objectives in everything from tax policy, to education, to health care. And as a result, they are changing how we define what it means to be a Democrat. Today, the Warren wing has become an ascendant force within the party, so much so that during her campaign, Clinton has moved to the left on many issues, including trade.

Take, for example, the role of income inequality in our political debate and Democratic politics in particular. When Obama embraced the issue as a theme of his reelection campaign, declaring income inequality “the defining issue of our time,” The Post’s Chris Cillizza reported that he had “borrowed rhetorically from Massachusetts Senate candidate — and liberal heroine — Elizabeth Warren to make his case.” Now five years later, the Warren wing’s influence is apparent in the national momentum for a higher minimum wage, a cause that Sanders has long championed. It can be seen in the congressional support for the “The People’s Budget” from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Sanders co-founded in 1991. It is evident in the Obama administration’s recent steps to crack down on loopholes that enable corporate tax “inversions.” And it, along with the Sanders campaign, continues to inspire local candidates and activists across the country.

As progressive activist and pundit Van Jones recently put it, “there is a rebellion in this party” that has been simmering for years and is gaining steam. Instead of working to suppress it, however, Clinton and the party elite should embrace dissenting views among Democrats and encourage participation in the debate. This will be especially critical to keep prospective voters engaged and mobilized through the Democratic convention and the election. If they do, the party will be more vibrant and better positioned for victory in November and moving forward. But if they keep fighting to limit what it means to be a Democrat, the party will suffer as a result, as will the country.


In the Atlantic, Clare Forman wrote that many of Sanders supporters are preparing to join with others to create a more progressive movement - regardless of who wins the Democratic Party nomination.

“There is definitely a danger that people that are excited will lose momentum when we either win, or we don’t win, so we need to start thinking about that now,” said Maria Svart, the national director for Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that backs Sanders and has spent thousands of dollars to support him. “There needs to be something long-lasting that comes out of this. We just don’t know what it will look like yet.”

It won’t be easy to keep people interested and engaged after the election. Laying the groundwork while the primary is still in full swing for political machinery that can push a progressive agenda might be the best way to capitalize on the success of the campaign.

If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz wins the White House, a well-organized contingent of progressive activists could act as an opposition force. If Clinton wins, the same political network could be activated to push her further towards the political left. Even in the long-shot scenario of a Sanders win, a strong grassroots movement might be needed to pressure Congress to embrace his agenda. No matter what happens, an engaged grassroots could help elect like-minded candidates in state and local races.


There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that a group of activists showed up at a meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to present a proposal to him. He nodded in agreement and said "Now you have to make me do it."

Presidents and elected officials need a mixture of support and pressure. Pressure to do the right thing, and support to point to in their battles with reluctant allies. I would argue that one mistake that President Obama made was not doing more with what was Obama for America and became Organizing for America. Too often, progressives assume that winning the election is everything. It is important, but it is just the first step on a long road of enacting change. There is a need to act on issues, to support candidates at local, state and national levels (or become one), and remember that politics is often not a spring but a marathon.

Jim Hightower points this out in his article "How Do You Make Change Happen? Show Up."

Thanks for asking. The first thing you can do to bring about change is show up. Think of showing up as a sort of civic action, where you get to choose something that fits your temperament, personal level of activism, available time and energy, etc. The point here is that every one of us can do something — and every bit helps.

Simply being there matters. While progressives have shown up for elections in winning numbers, our movement then tends to fade politely into the shadows, leaving public officials (even those we put in office) free to ignore us and capitulate to ever-present, ever-insistent corporate interests. No more. Grassroots progressives — as individuals and through our groups — must get in the face of power and stay there.

This doesn't require a trip to Washington, though it can. It can be done right where you live — in personal meetings, on the phone, via email and letters, through social media (tweet at the twits!), on petitions, and any additional ways of communication that you and other creative people can invent. Hey, we're citizens, voters, constituents — so we should not hesitate to request in-person appointments to chat with officials back home (these need not be confrontational), attend forums where they'll be (local hearings, town hall sessions, speeches, meet & greets, parades, ribbon-cuttings, receptions, etc). They generally post their public schedules on their websites. Go to their meetings, ask questions, or at least say hello, introduce yourself, and try to achieve this: MAKE THEM LEARN YOUR NAME.

OK, you're too busy to show up at all this stuff, but try one, then think of going to one every month or two. And you don't have to go alone — get a family member, a couple of friends, a few members of the groups you're in to join you. Make it an excursion, rewarding yourselves with a nice glass of wine or a beer and some laughs afterward.


I have done such things as phone banking and canvassing. One time, when I canvassed for Tammy Duckworth, I came in to the office as the campaign staff were cleaning up. In Phoenix, I spent six hours canvassing in 90 degree heat in 2008 with just water to keep me going. We do not need to go to such extreme measures, but every action helps. Let's not forget our own power to create change. Yes, do get out and vote, but be ready for a lot of work after this November -- regardless of whom becomes our next President.

7 comments (Latest Comment: 04/14/2016 17:10:27 by Will in Chicago)
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