The Left's New Majority

Something vital, exciting and underreported is happening across the United States: marginalised groups in the poorest communities are joining forces to improve their condition and win local electoral victories. This is the America of Latinos, African-Americans, religious progressives, union members, young people, and single women. Combined, these mostly progressive groups of the left constitute an actual and significant national majority. If the Democratic Party taps into this energy, it could help create the next social and political momentum in the United States and even win presidential elections. But typically, Democratic leadership does not work closely with these groups, their natural constituencies. This relationship has yet to become a reality.

The right's debt

Since the 2004 presidential election, the fashion on the American left has been to look at what the right did and try to do the same, as though the right have won a major victory in American consciousness. Even the second wave of progressive critics, who complain we obsess too much over Republican strategy, end up using the right's supposed victory over hearts and minds as an axis from which to build their arguments. But George W Bush never won a public mandate. The plurality he earned was largely a result of the withdrawal of Democratic campaigns from most states, in a flawed strategy to focus on "swing states".

My intention is not to deny the power of the Republican Party as an electoral machine, but to emphasise that that is all it is. Poll after poll has found American citizens largely in support of progressive solutions to public problems, even as Democratic Party support for these ideas has dwindled.

Every single American city with a population of over 500,000 voted for John Kerry in 2004. And more than half of all cities with over 50,000 inhabitants did the same. The American public rejected Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998, just as they rejected the vicious manipulation of the Terri Schiavo case in 2005.

In special elections in California in November 2005, voters rejected six right-wing legislative initiatives dealing with access to abortion, authority over union dues, and political lobbying. It was a failure for Republican superstar governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had personally endorsed four of the ballot initiatives. But it was a triumph for the coalitions of community-based groups that have been organizing aggressively around social values in recent years. These were the same groups who paved the way for former union leader and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa to become mayor of Los Angeles in May 2005. We can learn from their success. (Just think, as late as 1980 Ronald Reagan launched a presidential campaign from the Red Republican stronghold of California!)

The New World Foundation has just put out a report called "Building the New Majority" that describes how key voting groups - in communities of colour, among women, union members and young people - are forging a "new majority" for progressive causes. This web of both the old progressive base in American politics and the new demographics of immigration and youth already add up to the potential of a strong progressive oppositional force in American political life.

True, the right itself has effectively organised base constituencies of fundamentalist evangelicals, and disaffected and frightened working Americans. But the progressive work on the local frontline has not been about trying to "do something the right does", but rather about drawing effectively on old progressive organising traditions.

After all, the right learned its most effective strategies for organising at the base, directly from the leftist movements of the 1930s and 1960s. Even the most successful rightwing evangelical church models of recent years are practically a replica of Communist Party cells of the 1920s and 1930s. That was when the "red scare" referred to leftists and not to Republicans. Now, of course, the red scare is of a different political stripe.

Meanwhile the Democratic Party fixates on chasing the centre and the so-called "swing voter" in its electoral strategies. In chasing the right for ideas, it has forgotten what power it could gain from building a forceful position on behalf of Americans (potentially the vast majority) who are not represented by the priorities of the current Republican administration. Only by organising at the frontline in communities across America, will they establish a core political force for uncertain voters to swing to. Organising at the swing only dispirits the base.

In today's America, the political centre is located somewhere between the extreme right and the supposed extreme of the left. Actual progressive political life in America is completely discounted, even though it is thriving in cities across the United States, where communities elect progressive officials and pass progressive policies such as the living wage.

Indeed, one of the far right's biggest victories is that it has persuaded the political classes that a more progressive agenda for America holds no legitimacy. Yet the very ground the right stands on, and from which it claims a modicum of legitimacy, is ground that was won by progressive social movements in the recent past.

Today's Republican call to black and Hispanic voters is very different from their calls for segregation and immigration quotas in the past. It is to the credit of social-justice activists that Condoleezza Rice, a black woman, is secretary of state; and that a Hispanic man, Alberto R Gonzales is attorney-general. Life in America changed because of the social movements in the 1930s and 1960s. The public needs to be reminded that progressives were the ones who fought for civil rights, women's rights, and environmental protections, and that the public benefit is still best represented in that framework.

The left's roots

Another post-2004 election trend has been to say that Democrats need to "frame" their issues better and develop "values", as though moral and social values were something to be learned from the right.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about framing is that progressives, and especially Democrats, have been "framed" by the right as a political fringe without values, driven by self-interest, without regard for ordinary Americans.

The right has successfully taken its own description and projected it upon us. Unless we free ourselves from the frame they have put us in, we are cut off from our own traditions and from the people whose activism continues to drive an agenda based on concern for the democratic distribution of American prosperity.

What self-defeating pandering, when a national figure like Hillary Clinton says we have to "introduce values into the abortion debate." As if the abortion debate was ever anything but a values conflict! To retreat from such an obvious recognition is the expression of a form of defensive paralysis that has plagued Democratic Party leaders for years. The Swift Boat scandal of the 2004 campaign reinforced the illness. Since the destruction of Kerry, Democrats are even more loath to expose themselves to attack.

Hurricane Katrina helped expose what was hidden in America: race and class, poverty and discrimination. Our attention has since veered, but it didn't take new "messaging" or "framing" to create a moment of consciousness about racism and poverty in the Gulf of Mexico region when Katrina blew in. There is a backdrop of American awareness that allowed that to happen, and it derives from good old progressive ideas brought to national policy by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which are systematically rejected by today's Republicans who remain deeply attached to reinvigorating the ideas of Roosevelt's predecessor Herbert Hoover.

The ideas we are dealing with in American politics are not new. Republicans are not winning with new ideas against the old. They are winning because they embrace their ideas powerfully, and they deliver them to their most significant constituencies.

The Democrats' challenge

In December 2004, I explained on openDemocracy how the Democratic Party is not a party in the traditional sense. It has virtually no local presence or connection to people in most states. During elections, campaign workers are typically flown in and out instead of deploying local activists who can remain engaged from election to election. Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party, has begun to address this by appointing local party operatives. But it remains to be seen how connected to the base they will be.

It is at the local level where the right faces repeated rejection of its agenda, despite its best efforts and enormous spending. Supporting and strengthening the work of community-based organisations, like the ones identified in New World Foundation's report "Building the New Majority", is the underpinning for reenergising a progressive electoral force. We need to resource these local organisations, so they grow stronger regionally and can have a national impact.

Over 90 percent of black voters voted for Kerry in 2004. The majority of youth voted Democratic blue too. And the majority of people who didn't vote at all were black, brown, and young. 80 percent of Jews, and 70 percent of union members, voted Democrat. Newly naturalized immigrants voted overwhelmingly for Kerry too. These are the obvious constituents at the base who remain committed to the American democratic experiment. They have an understanding of their condition that is not reflected by the policies and speeches of centrist leaders.

Republican operatives will make inroads into all of these core progressive groups if the Democratic Party does not claim them. No one wants to back a committed loser. It is past time for the Democratic Party to promise tangible improvements in the lives of people who live under the least secure conditions in this country.

It may be possible for Democrats to win national office for four years with a mix-and-match "messaging" strategy that takes advantage of rifts on the right and the cycle of elector malaise. Such victories can be used to build stronger bases toward a powerful progressive agenda, but they should not be conflated with that goal. If we are to create an actual shift towards a public mandate for progressive ideas, a strong investment must be made in the local and state infrastructure that social-justice activists inhabit.

What has been achieved by the politically engaged all over the country is very powerful and ought to be compelling to national leaders and funders. A couple of examples will convey a sense of what is described in more detail in "Building the New Majority":

  • in Florida, on the same day George W Bush was elected, a coalition of small businesses, community organisations, churches and labour unions named Floridians for All, were to thank for the fact that 71 percent of voters came out in favour of raising the minimum wage by $1 to $6.15 (£3.44) per hour.

  • In Mississippi, a group called Southern Echo has been making its mark over the past thirteen years by organising largely disenfranchised African-Americans in the rural Delta counties. More than twenty of its leaders have been elected as school-board members, county supervisors and mayors. Recently, Southern Echo has overturned a Republican governor's decision to slash the education budget, and even got more funds allocated for crippled public schools.

The Bush administration continues to spend us into the ground with war, homeland insecurity, and callous tax relief for the wealthy. It is eroding America's ability to function democratically and equitably. If conditions don't improve anger will continue to rise.

As Bush's former national-security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, told the New Yorker, the "bad guys" are always the ones who rise to the top of a chaotic society, because they are always better organised. He was talking about the Egyptian elections, but I think the same holds true in America.

There could be a major shift toward progressive thinking in American politics over the next ten years. But it won't happen unless national leadership is either displaced by or starts to connect with the good guys who know how to organize, and are doing so locally as a matter of urgency.

Progressives have been in the political wilderness since the defeat of anti-Vietnam war presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. Instead of recognising this, the Democratic Party, in the Clinton era, played out the last hurrah of the political class brought into position by the New Deal and Great Society ethos.

The Mississippi Freedom Party once challenged and put a stop to racial segregation in the Democratic Party in 1964. It may be time to employ similar tactics. The right recognised that they were in the political wilderness after Barry Goldwater lost the presidential election in 1964, and the far right used that opening to take over the Republican Party. America cannot afford for Democrats to continue to wander blindly in the political wilderness. The Democratic Party has to be reconnected to its strong progressive core. Maybe there is something we can learn from the right after all.

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