LIBERALISM IN THE UNITED STATES faces a giant contradiction. President Obama’s approval rating is higher in late 2016 than it has been anytime since he was inaugurated. But Democrats have since lost more than 1,030 seats in Congress, state legislatures, and governor’s mansions, and they control both the legislative and executive branches in only six states. Republicans have unified control in 25, despite an incoming Republican president who has a net-negative favorability rating.
Despite the popularity of their agenda, Democrats just can’t seem to build power machines that transfer the momentum into the future. Obama had many strengths, but he abandoned ground-up political infrastructures, whether the Democratic National Committee’s “50-state strategy” successfully pursued by Chairman Howard Dean (2005–2009), or the powerful Obama for America (OFA) organizing machine built for his primary and general election victories in 2008. As a former community organizer, he should have known better.
Obama’s choices echo and flow out of nearly a century of beliefs and practices among Democratic Party elites. Left-liberals in the United States have lacked a nationwide, ground-up political infrastructure to strategically organize and build electoral power since the origin of the terms “progressive” and “liberal” themselves in the late 19th century.
Collective action has been a disaster for liberals. On one side lies a fetish for short-term incremental policy victories; on the other, an aversion to engaging with partisan, electoral politics. Liberalism needs a commitment to strategy and to organizing for the long-term. The late Senator Paul Wellstone emphasized how important it was for “grassroots organizing, electoral strategy, and progressive policy” to mutually reinforce one another. It’s tempting to blame Obama. But a look at history shows a consistent refusal to build power structures that would carry the agenda past a single presidency.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included too many remarkable policy accomplishments to bother listing here. But this came at the cost of work to build up a liberal Democratic Party. FDR talked a good game. However, with the exception of a belated attempt to back liberals in primaries against conservative Democratic incumbents during the 1938 congressional midterms — ably chronicled by Susan Dunn in Roosevelt’s Purge — he refused to spend energy on such partisan efforts.
What’s more troubling, however, is the previously unreported fact that FDR actually shut down incipient but rapidly growing independent groups that were seeking to build a progressive base within the Democratic Party. In the run-up to the 1932, 1936, and 1940 presidential elections, FDR covertly created “independent progressive groups” called the National Progressive League (NPL), the Progressive National Committee (PNC), and the Independent Citizens Committee for Roosevelt and Wallace (ICC), respectively, to support his candidacy. As it turned out, these groups served an unmet need, a hunger among grassroots left-liberals for an organizational home, a platform through which to unite and work together to advance their agenda in the electoral arena. They could be considered some of the first antecedents to groups like People for the American Way and MoveOn.org.
In each case, the group, with a distinguished roster of board members, took on a momentum of its own in cities and states across the country. Grassroots members and local leaders pushed to put the groups on a permanent basis after the election and in all three cases, Roosevelt, working through trusted advisors like Frank Walsh who ran the groups behind the scenes, pulled the plug. Wary of a new and competing power center, FDR chose the devil he knew — working with big-city machine bosses and white Southern Democrats — over an ideologically aligned force he couldn’t control.
In 1943, a group along these lines emerged under the auspices of the industrial union movement. The National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC), began as part of industrial union movement’s CIO Political Action Committee, but soon became a full independent entity. Its all-star national roster and remarkable proliferation of local and state chapters demonstrated the pent-up demand for an electoral vehicle for progressives to call their own. But in the summer of 1944, when FDR made the fateful decision to replace Henry Wallace with Harry Truman as his vice-presidential candidate, progressives could muster only anemic opposition. The CIO led the objection, and the NCPAC hadn’t been around long enough to develop the clout it would have needed to thwart such a move. The NCPAC eventually became the nucleus of the Progressive Citizens of America, which then morphed into the Progressive Party of 1948, but the damage had been done.
In spite of several decades of Democratic dominance achieved by FDR’s New Deal, his political decisions blunted the spear of those who most aggressively sought to expand the progressive aspects of the New Deal. Aside from unions, there was no overarching national organization, with federated state and local chapters, to advance the progressive agenda through electioneering and grassroots lobbying. Instead, political engagement followed lines of attraction to presidential personalities, residual party loyalty, and appreciation for tangible programs like Social Security.
The parallels between FDR’s course of action and Obama’s decision to unwind the grassroots OFA by rolling it into the Democratic National Committee are unnerving. In this decision and Obama’s corresponding strategy of governing, it’s possible to see one major source of Democratic losses in 2010, 2014, and 2016. Like FDR, Obama chose to work with existing center of power, to cut deals, rather than build a grassroots force to his left that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to manage.
Every president comes to office with a limited amount of political capital. Some policy victories can add to their clout with elected officials and with the voting public. Others can detract from it. Too often with the Obama administration, the animating impulse seemed to be a fetishism for policy details that neglected the political and movement implications of policy design and ended up creating a process-oriented contraption that was hard to explain, defend, and tout.
The simplest illustration of this problem is how the administration handled direct stimulation of the economy through a payroll tax holiday. Instead of cutting an outright check to taxpayers, Obama slightly increased the take home amount in workers’ paychecks over a long period of time. Considerable political benefits were sacrificed on the altar of slightly higher economic impact.
However, the most consequential instance of the administration’s approach was Obamacare. Originally a Heritage Foundation concept enacted in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney, the concept appealed to the Administration’s wonkish tendencies to do things like “bending the cost curve” and digitizing health care records. It held out the allure of being able to secure Republican support by compromising ahead of time.
That naïve belief ran into Republican intransigence, one grounded in many years of practice and openly proclaimed by then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. So Obama turned to cut deals with the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, two of the most despised sectors in the American political imagination. And he attacked progressive groups like MoveOn.org for pressuring moderate Democrats to include the “public option” in the bill. The once-formidable OFA did almost nothing, much to the frustration of grassroots activists chronicled by Micah Sifry in the winter of 2010.
The deal got done and the political outlook for Democrats and progressives went downhill. Obama had spent his political capital on a deal that alienated the base, demobilized his own political force, and left him open to the lying demagoguery of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” and the 2010 Tea Party surge. The program helped tens of millions of people, but the political results were terrible. Equally troubling, the decision to spend capital on Obamacare sidetracked the pursuit of policies that would have directly strengthened progressive and Democratic political power.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a measure designed to empower organized labor — still the strongest financial and people-powered base for the progressive movement — didn’t even get a hearing. Immigration reform, which previously had significant bipartisan support, could have granted citizenship to millions of people who were likely to become Democratic voters. But it was delayed in earnest until after the 2010 midterms. When Obama pursued administrative remedies on this front such as DACA, he left himself vulnerable to attacks of being undemocratic and his policies vulnerable to nearly instant repeal by administrative fiat. Again, he pleased neither base nor middle ground, leaving him, his party, and his base politically weaker. He demobilized rather than amplified the movements and momentum that had gotten him elected. Despite being a deeply compelling political figure, he left his legacy at the mercy of a hostile Republican Congress and president.
There are analogues to this type of self-defeating policy among Democrats going all the way back to Roosevelt. The most catastrophic example is the racially discriminatory social welfare policies and “urban renewal” programs that passed during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. In Ira Katznelson’s succinct phrase, this was When Affirmative Action Was White. As Katznelson’s recent book Fear Itself shows, FDR was pushed into these racialized policies by the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. The consequences were disastrous. In addition to their injustice, these policies ruptured the geographic base of Democratic support, creating new wealth and entitlements for whites, rapidly suburbanizing into more homogenous neighborhoods, while undermining urban black and Latino neighborhoods and laying the ground for hyper-segregation, of lily-white suburbs and the infamous inner-city ghettos that have loomed large in the political imagination for nearly a half-century.
As Matt Lassiter masterfully documents and analyzes in his book The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, the new landscapes created the fertile grounds from which a new Republican base emerged, able to remain blissfully ignorant of the government role in lifting up the white working and middle classes while ghettoizing blacks and Latinos. In this process of segregation, a yawning gap opened up between black progressives in the city and white ones in the suburbs, a breach whose consequences reverberate down through the present.
“White collar professionals” came to set the agenda and tone for the Democratic Party, as Lily Geismer shows in Don’t Blame Us, putting the party’s appeal to working-class people on a downward trajectory. This was especially true among whites, drawn by racial and cultural resentments into the GOP. It took another shape among communities of color, depressing turnouts and partisan involvement generally.
There are many lessons to take from this history — among them the enduring power of soft white supremacy — but when we strategize on how to build progressive power, the key point is this: policies shape not only year-to-year politics but also the social landscapes out of which political coalitions emerge. Progressive policy design should prioritize policies that build lasting power. Losing elections is an express highway to major policy and social setbacks.
Democratic officeholders aren’t the only ones guilty of ignoring these fundamentals. Ironically, their policy fetishism and anti-partisanship are mirrored among activists. Too many left-wing movement leaders have neglected to invest energy in electoral politics, regarding it as less important than their ability to speak directly for and with oppressed communities. Then they wonder why elected officials aren’t responding to their loud marches and moral exhortations. It’s one thing to have a radical analysis of social inequality and injustice; it’s entirely another to follow a strategy geared toward winning the political power necessary to shift policy. The rarity of such exceptions as unions and the joint California Calls-PICO-ACCE “Million Voter Project” prove the trend.
For the rest of us, in these challenging times, it’s worth thinking about the role social movements have historically played in building electoral power. When you hear the word “movement,” you probably think of those iconic moments — of MLK giving a spellbinding speech at the Lincoln Memorial or the crossing of the bridge at Selma. Maybe the massive antiwar protests of the 1960s or early 2000s come to mind. Or more recently, the Occupy Wall Street encampments and the Black Lives Matter shutdowns of freeways. You wouldn’t be wrong. Those were key aspects of powerful social movements.
There is another type of movement that’s far dimmer in our collective imagination. We don’t even have a commonly accepted term for it. I’m talking about political movements and political movement infrastructure. Almost every time that a social movement accomplishes its policy goals, whether conservative or progressive, there has been a parallel political movement.
Social movements are cultural phenomena through and through. As deeply organized by formal groups and loose networks of grasstops leaders as they are, social movements make prophetic claims on the body politic. They attempt to reframe accepted social realities, to turn public attention on to problems that have been ignored or taken for granted, to reset the public agenda to focus on solving these moral and practical failings.
Political movements feed off of social movements. They’re not parasitical or seeking to co-opt social movements. They represent a next step. They are a force that translates the social movement’s prophetic demands into an agenda that candidates can run for election on. They are a force that builds organizations tailored to the demands of winning elections and directly lobbying policymakers they helped to elect. They attract deeply principled people who are nonetheless more comfortable working within the confines of “the system,” of tailoring messages and mobilizations in order to win over a majority of voters.
The work of political movements isn’t as photogenic. Its oratory is less edifying. But without them, it’s nearly impossible to build progressive political power. They are the crucial translator of social movement values and visions into political practice. It’s the mundane work of recruiting candidates, identifying and persuading influencers, running media and field operations to turn out voters.
In 2008, the hope of many on the center-left was that Barack Obama’s historic organizing and mobilization operation would become exactly this kind of political movement infrastructure. Instead the opposite happened. The OFA virtually disbanded and the ascendant Obama forces turned away from 50-state strategy of building the Democratic Party from the ground up, relying instead on presidential oratory, star power, and media savvy. That the same thing has happened repeatedly since FDR should tell us something about the need to ground this infrastructure outside the control of presidential campaigns.
Anti-partisanship runs deep in American culture and institutions, dating back to George Washington’s Farewell Address warning against the danger of permanent factions. And although partisanship reigned supreme for much of the 19th century, the progressive reformers of the early 20th century blamed parties for the subversion of the public interest. In the early 1930s, the more left-leaning deans of this reform movement steered their peers away from a takeover of the Democratic Party, and insisted on taking the form of groups like the National Progressive League. Which unbeknownst to them was controlled by FDR and inhibited the project of building electoral power.
Even in Southern California where the Democratic Party had been reconstructed on left-liberal grounds in the wake of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, groups like the NCPAC and the Hollywood Democratic Committee endlessly debated how to relate to the local Democratic Party. It proved challenging to form and sustain a united progressive electoral infrastructure during the 1930s.
This problem has bedeviled progressives since the 1930s. And as Theda Skocpol recently argued, it’s gotten worse:
We on the center left seem to treat these presidential machines as organization, and they are, but they are not as effective as longstanding natural organized networks. To get some of those working for him, Trump made deals to get the NRA, Christian right and GOP federated operations on his side. They have real, extensive reach into nonmetro areas. But off the coasts, Democrats no longer have such reach beyond what a presidential campaign does on its own. Public sector and private sector unions have been decimated. And most of the rest of the Democratic-aligned infrastructure is metro-based and focused. That infrastructure is also fragmented into hundreds of little issue and identity organizations run by professionals.
There’s much to be learned from a few key moments in US history where political movement infrastructure successfully translated between social movements and the leadership of elected officials, in the 1930s, the 1960s, and the early 2000s.
History textbooks showcase the 1930s and 1940s with the towering image of FDR on one hand and of labor militancy on the other, with some social realist art mentioned on the side. Discussions of that period’s “Popular Front” against fascism paint it as an alliance between establishment New Dealers and radical Communists. The political movement infrastructure remains nearly invisible. Yet it was there and it mattered.
Groups like the NPL, the PNC, and the NCPAC were one manifestation. There were many others that confound the simple left-wing outsiders versus Democratic establishment elected officials dichotomy that still permeates our public discourse. California elected a governor in 1938, Culbert Olson, who had initially entered the State Senate as part of Sinclair’s EPIC slate. In cities and states across the country, Labor’s Non-Partisan League backed left-liberal candidates and its role was inherited by the industrial union movement’s CIO-PAC. New York’s American Labor and Liberal parties, North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League, Wisconsin’s Progressive Party, and Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, all ran winning campaigns.
Some of these groups persisted in spite of McCarthyism. In the supposedly quiescent 1950s, older grassroots liberals and a new generation of them sought to defend the New Deal’s legacy and ensure its promise of security embraced a wider circle of Americans and people worldwide. Social democratic, human rights, and even early stirrings of anti-anticommunism themes percolated. In California, the leftward shift of the Democratic Party that started under Upton Sinclair gained steam as Democratic clubs initially formed in 1934 joined together to exert their influence over the party. In the wake of Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential candidacy, local supporters came together with the existing clubs under the umbrella of the California Democratic Council (CDC). By 1958, Democrats were able to win control of all but one statewide position by creating a federated organizing infrastructure that funneled people and resources upward from an extensive network of neighborhood clubs and enabled city, county, and statewide coordination. A similar story echoed across the country in New York City, where “Reform Democrats” founded clubs that succeeded in toppling the Tammany Hall Machine.
When the social movements of the 1960s — Civil Rights, Free Speech, Antiwar, Women’s Liberation, Black Freedom — gained traction, they found champions on the inside — not among top Democratic leaders generally, but among the grassroots and grasstops. The “New Left” social movements were echoed by the “New Politics” political movement that seemed to burst out of nowhere during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Those sympathetic to the New Left had been working within the political system for many years. There were liberals inspired by FDR and Stevenson, and civil rights activists like the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. As a result of their pressure after the 1968 campaign, further reforms drastically democratize the party’s procedures and membership. That meant that 1972 Democratic Platform echoed nearly every demand of the New Left movements. And post-Watergate, a new group of aggressive liberals flooded into Congress, like Henry Waxman, who had emerged from the California Democratic Club movement.
The story repeats itself again in the early 2000s, amid a much atrophied grassroots progressive base. Those at the forefront of the social movement organizing against corporate-led globalization in the late 1990s became crucial to antiwar and pro-civil liberties mobilizations during the George W. Bush years. They gained political traction as the “netroots” began to organize through websites like Daily Kos and Howard Dean campaign alums moved into local party organizations. Their demand that Democrats start fighting back fiercely against the Bush agenda helped win the battle against Social Security privatization in 2005 and led to the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006. A new vision, responsive to the era’s realities and mood, found success through brass-tacks political organizing that pushed Democratic leaders to take more inspiring positions and then also provided the infrastructure that could deliver votes on election day.
What’s so galling about the Democratic Party’s leadership since 2008 is the total and utter failure to appreciate the relationships between movements, policy, and the effort to build enduring political power. Obama’s policy and political strategy, especially the abandonment of grassroots organizing and down-ballot investments in the Democratic Party, is a big part of the problem. Obama himself was sui generis. Despite the beating Democrats took in the 2010 Tea Party wave, Obama was able to cruise to reelection in 2012 through virtue of his remarkable personality and personal attraction. One would think that the negative results of 2014 would have alerted Democratic bigwigs to the brewing dangers. Alas it was not so. Hype around the “demographic advantage” of the “emerging Democratic majority” was one distraction. Hillary Clinton’s preemption of intra-establishment competition for the nomination, fueled by massive early fundraising, and offering the promise of plum positions for early supporters was another.
There have been no shortage of progressive social movements over the last eight years — Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for $15 all made their mark. More importantly, these movements injected a new energy and a new generation into the public arena. The challenge for Democrats was to capitalize on that new energy and on frustrations with economic and social stagnation that were fueling these movements in the first place. People across the spectrum were clamoring for change, except among the economically comfortable metropolitan professionals who comprised Clinton’s core constituency, even more so than Obama’s.
Missing from this mix have been corollary political movements. The Tea Party quickly moved from protest to a full-court press in the political arena, targeting elected officials with lobbying campaigns and threats of primary challenges. Occupy and BLM, for all their value, did little along these lines. A sense that “the system” was broken, never really “theirs” to begin with, led them to focus efforts elsewhere, whereas the Tea Party’s sense that “the system” they had once owned was being taken from them led to an effort to reassert political dominance.
Unions and liberal organizations began tapping the “99 percent versus the one percent” rhetoric but new organizing efforts among ordinary citizens hardly emerged. Obama’s great personal popularity and his commanding, comforting presence among the base dampened any sense of urgency. So did his insistence that things were getting much better for most Americans.
Thus, the greatest opportunity to create a new political movement infrastructure, along the lines of the OFA, and to craft a new rhetorical and policy approach that echoed the post-2010 hunger for change, was the 2016 presidential election. Elections, at their best, act as forges in which new repertoires of political combat are honed and tempered. Certainly, we saw the way in which Trump turned the Republican Party into a open, explicit advocate for xenophobic, racist right-wing populism against the wishes of the party elite, by tapping powerful undercurrents among the party’s base.
Democrats, tragically, did not gain the same opportunity to forge a new political approach, tailored to the social and political realities of 2016. In an echo of 1968, the Democratic establishment, including Obama, prevailed in pushing its continuity candidate to the nomination. Hubert Humphrey and Hillary Clinton were accomplished public officials, skilled and devoted, but they were unable to secure Electoral College victory over their opponents. Bernie Sanders’s seemingly quixotic quest demonstrated the appetite for something new, against all the powerbrokers’ and pundits’ claims, tapping into the country’s deep unease and the energy of the recent movements. We cannot know if Sanders himself would have won in a face-to-face contest against Trump.
But we can imagine what might have happened had the Democratic field not been cleared of all other serious contenders before the primary season began. If Clinton had sat out, the likely outcome would have been a competition among a stronger, broader range of candidates that would have pushed forward an ultimately nominee, like an Elizabeth Warren, who was suited to the mood and demands of 2016. It’s a lesson Democrats cannot afford to forget.
In the meantime, we confront the far more difficult question of how to build a political movement strong enough to realize electoral victories in 2018 and 2020. Clinton convincingly won the popular vote and if it hadn’t been for FBI Director James Comey’s spurious 11th-hour announcement, she likely would have won the Electoral College, too. But it never should have been close. Large majorities of Americans agree with Democratic positions on key policies. And yet Democrats are continually losing and losing strength.
Blame “fake news” and the right-wing propaganda machine, bemoan partisan gerrymandering, fault Russia’s outrageous interference in the election, decry the terrible con job Trump pulled off on working-class votes, his pathological narcissism aided and abetted by the media and the GOP establishment. But at the end of the day, there’s no higher political authority to appeal to. Liberals have only themselves and that’s going to mean getting serious about political power. Might doesn't make right, but liberals can’t afford just to be right without might to back it up.
Amid a wave of right-wing authoritarianism and Democratic disarray, what should bring hope is that democracy has emerged from deeply hierarchical and repressive societies many times. In the last third of the 20th century, military dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea all were replaced with civilian governments; colonized nations in Africa and Asia broke the shackles of empire. More recently, a host of “color revolutions” found success against autocrats in the places like the Philippines, Georgia, Ukraine, and Burma. And while we are not there yet, the power of ordinary people acting together can never be forgotten. Despite the wave of hate unleashed by the election, despite the plutocratic, antisocial agenda of the new administration, our divided society still has the resources necessary to fight back. If democracy’s success is not as inevitable as it feels in good times, neither is its degeneration.
What matters most now is building political infrastructure from the ground up in every state, contesting all elections as vigorously as possible, and pouring resources into organizing the unorganized and bringing the base to action. Progressive politics has no choice but to lessen its overweening emphasis on symbolic gratification — the pride in the righteousness of our causes and leaders, trotted out on social media and “Love Trumps Hate” bumper stickers, on John Oliver take-downs — and to get out into the wider world. More effective organizing of those folks not already on the “team” requires a message that resonates specifically with them. It demands a policy agenda that backs up the rhetoric and can deliver major social and political impact if enacted. The 2008 Obama organizing mantra “Respect, Empower, Include” is far more applicable than Obama’s presidential inclination to soaring, comforting rhetoric.
Paeans to American greatness seem amiss when huge swaths of “Red” America are left out of all economic growth, when deep blue districts see the economic immiseration and displacement occurring as wealth floods out racially unequal cities, when good jobs are elusive, existing social safety programs aren’t working well enough, and a sense of purpose is hard to find. As economic insecurity escalates and the concentration of financial and social capital steadily grows, democracy itself becomes more difficult to defend to the populace in formal, process-oriented terms. Xenophobic, right-wing nationalisms work by exploiting this vulnerability, scapegoating ethnoreligious outsiders and hyping strongmen authority figures who promise to deliver on democracy’s seemingly failed promises and offer a meaningful framework to comprehend the world’s turbulence.
Fighting back requires a movement to make democracy social, in how politicking is practiced and toward what ends. That means creating a progressive political infrastructure — socially grounded in communities across the country and tapped into the veins of everyday struggles and stories — capable of enacting policies that yoke together the interests of the working poor and the struggle middle classes, of blacks and Latinos, whites and Asians, and continue the virtuous circle of building power; in other words, an updated version of social democracy, one designed to shift racial and gender structures toward equality as well as class structures.
Social democracy in the United States has almost always spoken a progressive populist tongue, focused on economic fairness and reclaiming the value of American democracy itself, not terribly concerned with abstract theoretical debates of the nature of capitalism. Today, led by figures such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Keith Ellison, and others, it offers the potential of appealing to working poor and struggling middle-class voters in unlikely pairings, from black Rust Belt cities and white Rust Belt towns — rural places left behind and gentrifying neighborhoods where disadvantaged communities are being rapidly displaced away from the new jobs and transit. Racial hierarchies and cultural tribalism impede this organizing project in the United States, as they always have. But there’s not much of an alternative. On balance, the Clinton-Obama-Clinton political strategies of the last quarter-century have failed. Thwarting the continued degeneration of liberal democracy requires that the Democrats set out on a new path, one that commits to fully realizing the promise of democracy amid a pervasive sense of material and spiritual insecurity, in the multiracial, globalizing world we inhabit.
David Levitus is a long-time organizer who recently co-founded LA Forward to activate a new generation of leaders in the struggle for a fair, vibrant, and sustainable Los Angeles. He earned a PhD in History at USC and is preparing his manuscript, The Progressive Dilemma, for publication.