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SEIU's Accountability Project -- Making Politicians Do The Right Thing

I don't actually blame Democratic elected officials for the "spineless" way they have been acting. I blame all the rest of us for not getting the public behind our ideas.
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I am at the SEIU 2008 convention in Puerto Rico. Todd Beeton posted earlier today over at MyDD about the SEIU's Accountability Project and I'd like to add to this discussion. This is a big, big deal for progressives! As Andy Stern said in his address to the convention today we are tired of, "Politicians who want your vote but after the election are at your throat."

In his post Todd explained,

. . . In a nutshell, after November, the SEIU intends to hold our Democratic representatives to their promises and let them know that there is the money, the organization and the will not only to fund primary challenges but to recruit and even train qualified candidates around the country if they don't do what they said they'd do.

What makes this threat real, of course, is that SEIU was instrumental in the defeat of Al Wynn by Donna Edwards in Maryland's February 12th primary. The SEIU spent $1 million on that race alone. Next year and all during the ensuing cycle, they're prepared to spend $10 million to target Democrats who don't follow through on their promises. Think about what the SEIU got for their money in MD-04: Congresswoman Donna Edwards who will champion progressive legislation on issue after issue affecting not only those in her district but impacting people's lives for the better all over the country, as every new and better Democrat added to congress by definition does.

The primary race between Al Wynn and Donna Edwards was a very big victory for progressives. Prior to this race Democrats in Congress only saw one effective power bloc on the playing field which meant going against those big corporate interests could cost them their jobs. Whatever they might want to do, politics is about what you make them do. Wherever their hearts might have been, elected Democrats could see that only one side was able to rally the only real support or punishment that counted: enough votes. Yes, Ned Lamont caused some problems for Joe Lieberman but it's still Senator Lieberman.

So I don't actually blame Democratic elected officials for the "spineless" way they have been acting. I blame all the rest of us for not getting the public behind our ideas. Politicians are not leaders -- that is not their job in a representative democracy. Their job is to be followers and do what the people want them to do. I think it was LBJ who said about civil rights, "I'm completely with you on this, now go out and make me do it." That's how it has to work -- you have to make them do it or else why should they? Votes is how you measure that. If you like what they're doing you keep them in office and if you don't you boot them.

In my view it takes long-term movements to change the public's thinking and create the demand that politicians respond to. Movements persuade and educate the people and then they look for politicians who say they will do what the people want. The conservative movement has been engaged in traditional marketing demand creation activities for 30 years and our side has not. And so it got to the point where all a conservative politician had to do was point and shout "liberal!" to win an election.

As I see it American history is a series of movements working to persuade people that they have the best plan for the future. Over time, after the public absorbs and comes to agree with ideas, then they elect candidates who promise to follow through on those ideas. Lincoln came out of a long period of public wrangling over ideas, including slavery. FDR didn't just show up and tell people how it was going to be, his New Deal was the result of the earlier progressive movement that followed the Guilded Age.

My view here of movements creating demand says that a lot of the work of getting things done has to be outside of the election cycle and long-term year-round, because it is about building broad, popular support for ideas, not just for candidates. But here we are with the very progressive organizations needed to accomplish that dying on the vine for lack of funding. George Lakoff's Rockridge Institute just closed. The Center for Policy Alternatives just closed. These were two movement-building organizations. I know that many others are desperately struggling to keep their doors open, at a time when Obama and Clinton are raising hundreds of millions of dollars for short-term election activity. And, of course, progressive bloggers remain largely unfunded even though they are the primary channel for spreading progressive ideas and information.

So to sum that up, it takes a movement to change minds and create demand and make politicians do the right thing. SEIU is in a position to help all progressives make this happen. They are in a position to get some real things done here. They have people, funding and commitment. And they are working very hard to make this a bottom-up, diverse grassroots effort. As Todd wrote about the Accountability project,

The details of the program include:
  • $10 million fund to take on elected officials who fail to live up to their promises.
  • Calls for SEIU members to make at least 10 million phone calls to members of Congress after the election to hold them accountable.
  • At least 50 percent of the union's organizing budget and 50 percent of its non-organizing staff at the national and local levels will be devoted to the effort
  • A commitment to jump start a much broader, permanent grassroots movement of working people by actively involving at least one million SEIU members in the "justice for all" effort by 2012, and creating leadership roles for at least 200,000 (or about 10 percent of the union's membership).
So SEIU will step up to the plate with serious resources that does two things. First, it finally gives politicians whose
are with us a reason to
with us. Second, it tells politicians who don't agree with a progressive agenda (of reducing corporate power over our lives and restoring democracy to the people) that their time is past, that we will run candidates against them in the primaries and these candidates will have strong support.

While this is election activity, it begins to put an enforcement component onto our progressive movement's policy agenda. But SEIU is also beginning to engage in broader movement-building activite with the upcoming Justice For All campaign, Tim Tagaris writes about at Open Left, and which I will expand on in another post. As Todd writes, SEIU will focus on an agenda broader than the direct needs of only SEIU members:

The issues the SEIU is particularly interested in pursuing accountability on are
  • Affordable, quality health care for all.
  • The freedom for all workers to form a union without employer interference.
  • Quality services in our communities with fair, reliable funding.
  • An economy that rewards all workers, not just a few at the top.
  • Citizenship for hard-working, taxpaying immigrants.

I will write about the Justice For All campaign in a later post.

[Disclaimer: Blogger hotel and airfare paid for by the SEIU]

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