Progressives on the March to Take Over Congress
By Katrina vanden Heuvel
November 14, 2011
Progressives are on the move once more. Wisconsin lit
the spark, as workers, students, teachers and farmers
occupied the state's capitol in February and launched
recall elections that sobered conservative Republican
Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies. Occupy
Wall Street turned that spark into a conflagration that
swept the nation. Last week, in Ohio and Maine and even
Mississippi, voters overwhelmingly rejected efforts to
trample worker rights, constrict the right to vote and
roll back women's rights.
These electoral victories have led pundits to wonder
whether Occupy Wall Street will imitate the Tea Party
and stand candidates for office. But Occupy is a
protest movement - one that has transformed the
landscape of politics, by forcing the country to face
the reality of entrenched inequality and power and
address what should be done about it. It will take
others to fill the space that it has opened.
Progressive Majority (PM), the only progressive
organization dedicated to the recruitment and support
of candidates at the state and local level, is leading
the effort to turn that protest into power. It has just
launched Run for America, joining with partners such as
Moveon.org, US Action, People for the American Way,
Rebuild the Dream and the New Organizing Institute in
an audacious drive to recruit, train and support 2,012
candidates in 2012 for state, local and national
office. In barely two months, PM President Gloria
Totten reports that more than 1,000 activists have
signed up to run. The energy of Wisconsin and Occupy
Wall Street is finding its way into the electoral
Progressive Majority's initiative is a good example of
how movements transform politics. Now marking its 10th
anniversary, PM has elected hundreds of progressives to
office, helping to flip six state legislative bodies -
from Washington to Minnesota - and some 40 local
In 2010, while PM's candidates fared better than most,
progressives shared in the beating voters delivered to
Democrats. Dismay at the rotten economy, enthusiasm
among followers of the Tea Party and a deluge of
conservative money swept through the elections.
Republicans not only captured the House of
Representatives, they picked up state legislatures,
winning a total of 675 legislative seats, a tidal wave
larger than any since 1938.
But Republicans mistook Tea Party passion for majority
opinion. Led by Wisconsin's Walker and Republican
"young guns" in the House, they drove an extreme
agenda, championing cuts in taxes for corporations and
the wealthy while savaging investment in public
education and public health, assaulting worker and
women's rights, and, since they knew this wasn't a
popular agenda, systematically working to make it
harder for students, minorities, the poor, and blue-
collar workers to vote.
Voters recoiled - opening space for Progressive
Majority and its partners' unprecedented effort for the
2012 elections. This isn't just a partisan revival.
Corporate interests and lobbies rent Democrats as well
"Putting hundreds of people in office isn't enough,"
Totten says. "If we keep electing the same old kind of
Democrat, we are not going to get the kind of change we
need." So Progressive Majority is recruiting citizen
activists, many of them people of color and relatively
young, prepared to challenge both monied politics and
office-holders in both parties.
These candidates will campaign on positions that have
widespread support. Large majorities of voters want
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid protected - even
as Republicans try to dismantle them and Democrats
offer them up for cuts. Large majorities are looking
for action on jobs. They support tax hikes on the
wealthy and Wall Street, want the troops to come home
and the money saved to be used on America. They want
Wall Street held accountable, not bailed out. They
support Buy America policies, not corporate trade
accords. And they look for candidates who will make
government accountable to citizens, not contributors.
But truly populist candidates face harsh obstacles.
Opponents will be well funded; the right-wing media and
message machine will have a powerful voice. Voters not
only have to be reached, they have to be persuaded to
overcome their cynicism about politicians in general.
Only mobilization can overcome special-interest money
by enlisting volunteers, contacting voters and raising
small donations. By using new media and benefiting
from movement energy, progressive candidates in 2012
will have a better chance of representing the people
without mortgaging themselves to the interests.
Progressive Majority also offers candidates a range of
remarkably sophisticated services - from crafting stump
speeches to putting together finance plans.
In 2012, the question of whether Barack Obama can win a
second term despite flagging poll numbers and a lousy
economy will capture most attention. But the
conservatives in the House of Representatives, and in
state legislatures across the country, are held in even
deeper disregard by the public. Whatever happens at the
top of the ticket, voters will be looking for champions
of the 99 percent. Occupy Wall Street has set the tone.
Now a new generation of gutsy and populist progressives
may just be ready to Occupy Congress and statehouses
across the country.
c The Washington Post Company
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