December 2012, Week 1


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Build an Independent Political Organization (But Not
Quite a Party)

David Cantor and Anthony Thigpenn
November 28, 2012

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on
progressives' strategy over the next 40 years.

Last May, 125 organizers from 23 states gathered near
Baltimore to discuss the very question that the
Prospect has posed. The November election was on our
minds, but the discussion was more than just a look at
the current moment. How, we asked ourselves, can we
help ensure that 2013–2016 is not a repeat of
2009–2012? More deeply, how can we build the kind of
multiracial, class-oriented, competent political
organization that is essential to saving the country
from the selfishness and stupidity of modern

This proposal surely does not presume to trump all
others. Still, having convened the Maryland meeting and
participated in many similar conversations since the
2010 electoral wipeout, we offer the following approach
for consideration: The single most valuable strategy
for progressives is to (1) build durable, electorally
oriented organization and power at the state level; (2)
knit that organization and power together across state
lines into a national network; and (3) use it all to
pull, prod, yank, and compel the Democrats to move in a
more progressive direction. Otherwise, the right will
continue to set the agenda, and the best that Democrats
will propose is a less nasty version of what the
Republicans have to offer.

A more generous and egalitarian society does not begin
life in Washington, D.C. The “money power,” as the
populists called it, simply will not permit that. But
we can move politics and outcomes in Sacramento,
Springfield, Madison, Albany, Tallahassee, and other
state capitals and then use those successes to win
power and respect further up the political food chain.
Every member of Congress pays attention to his or her
home state, and that’s where our comparative advantage
lies. Win a few unexpected state legislative races,
take out a county-level ally of a bad member of
Congress, move legislative initiatives in ten states at
the same time, put groundbreaking ballot measures
before the voters—do this and more, and sitting
Democrats will take you seriously. To acknowledge that
we aren’t strong enough right now to affect national
politics substantially doesn’t mean that we can’t ever
be. But we must invest our resources at the state level
and build a network to coordinate our issue and
electoral work across state lines for this approach to
take flight.

This is not a sexy strategy. We’re from the “politics
is hard” school. The best organizers we know along the
broad spectrum of the left understand the necessity of
building power where you can win, and only then moving
to the next level. As these are the leaders and
organizers who wake up every day thinking about how to
build power for those who are not wealthy or well
connected, any progressive version of the Powell Memo
has got to play with them or it doesn’t play.

Getting specific, then, we suggest that liberals should
invest time, effort, money, and brainpower in building
durable independent political organizations (IPOs),
focused on issues of race, gender, class, climate, and
jobs, in enough states to matter. (We will fail if the
DNA of this work does not fully recognize the
centrality of race and the enduring effects of
America’s “original sin” and its newer mutations.)
There are many good policy ideas behind which state-
level forces can unite. But policy choices come later.
Power comes first.

Over the next two years, progressives can build or
enlarge such organizations in 12 to 15 states, with
measurable effect on the legislative sessions and
electoral campaigns of 2013–2014. That may seem like a
small number of states, but some 66 percent of
congressional Democrats come from only a dozen states.
It probably makes sense to start, though not finish, in
those. Do this well, and we’ll help take back the
House, with a more progressive Democratic majority, in
2014 and influence the Democratic presidential primary
of 2016.

Fortunately, the characteristics of a vibrant IPO are
not mysterious. We expect that many readers will
recognize their own work and strategy in this short
glossary of terms.

• By independent, we mean able to challenge corporate
Democrats—ideologically, legislatively, and
electorally—even as we help the Democrats defeat
Republicans. How? By recruiting progressives to run in
Democratic primaries against center-right incumbents,
by paying early attention to candidate recruitment in
open seats, and by focusing on defeating a few
Republicans each cycle. We should be clear: This is not
about taking over the Democratic Party. That won’t
work. They take you over, not the reverse. We propose
building something outside the Democratic Party because
we want to retain the ability to think like outsiders.
We want—we need—to combine electoral work with
community organizing, low-wage worker organizing,
legislative lobbying, and even direct action. We have
many allies inside the Democratic Party, but even they
bow to caucus discipline and donor pressure. In their
better moments, they will admit that they need pressure
from the left, from outside the party, to stand up to
the banks, the hedge funds, the insurance companies,
the tech billionaires.

• By political, we mean having a core competency in
electoral work and a public brand to accompany that
work and advertise what we stand for. Unions and some
community organizations and issue advocacy groups
engage seriously in electoral politics. But even the
best do not feature electoral work as their primary
activity and core competency on a year-round basis. No
one on the left has anything like the power of the Tea
Party brand at his or her disposal.

Politics is not just elections, of course, but ideas
and issues, too. If we are serious about, say,
increasing spending on schools and decreasing it on
prisons, then we need to defeat one Democrat who is bad
on this issue in a primary, defeat some Republicans
when we need to flip a relevant chamber, and then tell
the story repeatedly of how this happened. A new
discourse on criminal justice and education will
emerge. If we are on our game, we’ll also place great
new legislative staffers in the target states and
deepen our relationships with leadership. Causes that
should be easy (raising the minimum wage, say) will be
easy, and we can save our energy for the harder fights.

• By organization, we mean a permanent, durable year-
round operation of its own, not just an election-season
coalition that borrows staff, resources, and expertise
from its constituent groups. This means having a
separate permanent staff, resources, relationships,
campaigns, and activities that happen outside of and in
addition to the work of the constituent organizations.
This will require genuine power sharing, transparent
rules, and independent money. No one organization or
constituency can dominate the internal decision-making
process, but all will need to exercise power
commensurate with their contribution and potential.

If it sounds like a political party, that’s not
entirely wrong. Think of it as an “inside-outside”
operation, and don’t freak out that it will end up like
the Greens in 2000. We are standing on the shoulders of
the electorally minded organizers and lecturers for the
abolitionists, the populists, the Non-Partisan League,
the suffragists, the CIO, the civil-rights movement,
and more. Like them, we want to change the rules of the

We need to do to the Democrats what the Tea Party has
done to the Republicans: build an effective
organization that represents the Democrats’ often-
ignored political base. The Tea Party did not emerge
out of nowhere but rather from decades of work in
causes like the Goldwater campaign and the John Birch
Society that preceded the Powell Memo. We are also
keenly aware of the role that focused right-wing money
and media played in advancing the Tea Party agenda.
Their rich guys seem so much more willing to dig in for
the long haul than our rich guys (or perhaps we really
don’t have many rich guys on our side).

It has taken the left a long time to get as weak as we
are, and we see no alternative to the patient building
of power and ideas that is best done at the state
level. We know large numbers of people will support
such an effort. We should be able to recruit one
million Americans over the next ten years to contribute
$15 a month—if they believe we are for real. That would
come to $180 million annually—not enough but a solid

We are not going to create a modern version of social
democracy quickly, but the core elements—respect for
all people; a welfare state that is both a safety net
and a trampoline; a proper balance between the state,
the market, and society; a strong set of organizations
for people at their workplaces; a desire for peace, not
militarism—are still the right aims and virtues. If we
have power and organization and ideas, we can fight for
them with confidence.


David Cantor is executive director of the Working
Families Party. Anthony Thigpenn is chairperson of
California Calls.


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