Co-authored with your friendly neighborhood policy wonk, Brandon McKoy.
Ever since last November, we have seen an upsurge in progressives calling for a Tea Party-style political activist agenda, encouraging those upset with the results of the election to speak up at town halls, run for office, and lobby their elected officials, among other things. Even though these efforts are noble and important, they are not enough to make lasting change. Taking lessons from the Tea Party playbook will become a futile exercise if progressives don’t understand history and circumstance and do more.
Think about it.
Progressives aren’t fighting to reinstate progressive policies, they are fighting for this country to finally implement them. For instance, we are the only advanced nation on earth without a national paid leave policy. Progressives across the country are working to change that.
Currently, there seems to be a spectrum between running for office and engaging with your elected officials. It is critical to understand that there are things across that spectrum which are just as worthwhile. And it is what progressives do with these opportunities that will decide just how successful they are in securing their vision of America. We have a few ideas.
First, there should be an apparatus to train and teach folks how to successfully pursue and administer campaign staff positions. Lately, there has been much ado about getting progressives to run for office. On the one hand, it seems intuitive — instead of advocating for policy changes, just make those decisions yourself. On the other hand, simply electing progressive candidates is no guarantee that they’ll support and enact progressive policies. That’s why there’s reason to doubt that passively electing “qualified progressives” will be enough to undo harmful policies— especially those that hurt marginalized people.
Rather, helping people understand the mechanics of political fundraising and training them on the ways opposition research is conducted will be central to future success. Politics is like football and it’s true that progressives need a deep bench, but they need more than just quarterbacks.
Second, take policy analysis to the streets. Both of us attended policy school and, while some of those lessons aren’t worth the price tag, they were extremely valuable for us, especially as we needed the knowledge and network to conduct research on budget and tax policy. For folks who don’t have access to policy school or even the desire to attend, the critical basics of policy analysis can — and should be — understood by more activists and advocates. If possible, auditing or enrolling in policy courses should be a priority. The more that policy details and analyses are understood, the more effective advocates will be in fighting for progressive policies.
Third, progressives need to read and share more research papers. It’s not that everyone should become an expert — it’s that folks should have access to factual information. There are plenty of listservs that send around talking points, but they send them without a more in-depth understanding of the issue at hand. Seriously, anyone can spout talking points about the importance of increasing the minimum wage, but advocates are more likely to be effective if they can reference the plethora of research showing that the minimum wage increases the standard of living, creates more jobs, and helps grow the economy.
Finally, progressives need to give people options to get involved — especially options that pay. Over-emphasizing certain ways to get engaged, like writing letters to your elected officials, may lead to political participation fatigue. It’s critical for progressives to encourage people to work for public service whether as a legislative assistant or a staffer in a government agency. It goes without saying that it’s much easier to do good in service of the public interest when it’s your day job, and few would disagree that government-related staff could use more people who actually believe in the ability of government to have a positive impact on the lives of everyday people.
This past Friday can be considered a victory for progressives, since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal and replacement plan has, for the time being, failed. But it’s important to remember that the ACA is full of ideas that originated in conservative circles. That’s why progressives shouldn’t become prisoners of this moment. For them, complacency is not an option, and neither is grandiosity. The real work starts now.