Progressives Can't Practice Stale Techniques of Modern Campaigning and Expect to Beat the Establishment

Earlier this month, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her intent to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency. While polling shows the majority of Democrats in the country would like to see a competitive race for the nomination, with around 40 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters saying they'd prefer “someone else” to take the nomination, it is also taken for granted that Clinton will easily win this primary. After all, Clinton has a huge donor database built on her decades-long career in politics, elite support from the highest echelons of her party and tremendous name recognition.


So far, that's been enough to help keep the field of challengers empty. Few leading Democrats are considering a challenge to Clinton, with former Senator Jim Webb and former governors Lincoln Chaffee and Martin O'Malley all weighing bids many speculate are more about nabbing the vice presidential spot or a cabinet position. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) is going to join the race shortly. None of these candidates are expected to be able to defeat Clinton. But perhaps there is a path for progressives to give Clinton a run for her money, if they dispense with traditional political campaigning.

In jujutsu, the popular form of martial arts, one is instructed to use one's opponent's strength against him. Progressives can adapt a form of this technique for political combat. They can choose to campaign in a way that accepts that they will have far less money, support from national media and corporate backing than either Clinton or the Republicans, yet use all of those facts to turn the public against governing elites, sparking the “political revolution” Bernie Sanders he has said he wants. Here's how.

Can't Challenge Clintons' Fundraising Prowess

Hillary Clinton's campaign has already announced it plans to raise $100 million during the presidential primary. Her general election warchest will likely be somewhere closer to $1 billion. It's no secret where this money will come from. Clinton is famously close to corporate America, which has paid her and her spouse, former president Bill Clinton, over $100 million in speaking fees since 2000.

So far, Clinton's likely challengers have been pitching policies to the left of hers (O'Malley has called for breaking up the banks, Bernie Sanders wants a Medicare For All single-payer healthcare system), but they've been campaigning in entirely conventional ways. They're giving stump speeches at Democratic party conventions, and attending traditional primary hotspots in Iowa. They're laying out their platforms and echoing concerns about income inequality and the middle class. The problem is, this sort of traditional campaigning is easy to co-opt and even easier to simply ignore as the same old thing. And when Clinton has many times the budget her opponents are likely to have, she'll simply have more resources to get her message out. She can't be beaten by playing the same game.

But there is another way to go about campaigning against Clinton. So far, she is simply admitting that inequality exists; it doesn't do much to antagonize the corporate elite, like the Goldman Sachs mega-bank that paid Clinton $400,000 in speaking fees since she left her perch at the State Department.

The most sure way Clinton could possibly alienate those backers would be to propose policy that directly targets these bad actors while condemning their behavior. That would mean denouncing Goldman Sachs' financial practices and heavy influence over our government. It would mean directly condemning JP MorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon. (As I learned working at the Center for American Progress, Dimon is a close personal friend of Clinton campaign chair, John Podesta.)

Politicians rarely ever attack any powerful corporation head-on, except after a particularly galling event such as the BP oil spill in 2011. But for the most part, politicians avoid these head-on attacks and they pick their battles carefully. For example, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has been an outspoken opponent of Comcast, but he's also a huge ally of Big Agriculture; he even voted to preserve subsidies rather than cut them to finance food assistance. At best a politician may challenge one or two corporations, but rarely will he choose to take them all on. Doing so would unleash an avalanche in attack ads, all manner of corporate-funded smears, public relations campaigns, and threats. Traditionally, that's an entirely rational thing for someone seeking higher office to avoid. But not for a hypothetical progressive challenger. 

If a progressive candidate were to choose to pick the fights Hillary won't, he would indeed trigger an avalanche in attacks upon himself, but in his case, that would actually elevate his profile. Take the example of Iowa, where one of Hillary's top fixers is Tom Crawford, a former Monsanto lobbyist. Clinton, who spoke in favor of genetically modified organisms like the ones Monsanto pioneers, is unlikely to object to Monsanto while she campaigns around the state. But maybe that's not exactly what Iowans want. For years, the company has used products designed to crush competition from small farmers and family farms, the backbone of Iowa's populists; it was subject to antitrust investigation just a few years back.

What if a progressive chose not to attack Hillary head-on, but instead took aim at Monsanto? Imagine a progressive leading rallies and marches of thousands of family farmers against Monsanto offices, forming a veritable army on the ground based not around a future platform like single-payer healthcare or carbon tax, but a pressing nemesis right in the backyards of voters. It would instantly grab headlines. Local news outlets would be bedazzled by this strategy of campaigning. Even if national networks would be shy about covering campaigns against the very corporate conglomerates that own them, local outlets that have covered corporate villains for decades would be fascinated by a candidate who decided to make their local beats into national news.

This political jujutsu would pick different fights in different states. Monsanto and other Big Ag companies that are likely to be friendly to Hillary and the Republicans are a target-rich environment in Iowa, but the campaign would mutate as a progressive candidate traveled to other states. In Kentucky and West Virginia, progressives could take up the cause of holding Big Coal accountable for poisoning environments and crushing worker unions. There's a history behind that particular cause; the West Virginia socialists once campaigned directly inside of strike zones, even as the governor called military and private militias in to suppress the strikes.

In Georgia, a progressive candidate could stand alongside Delta's flight attendants, who have been denied the right to join a union. In New York, Clinton's backyard, a progressive candidate could stand with activists fighting fracking companies. In Pennsylvania, where Comcast enjoys tens of millions of dollars of support from taxpayers, progressives could show up and demand that it get off the dole.

In each case, the most important thing is to link up with activists who are working on existing campaigns and to specifically target individual corporations that Clinton and the GOP would be unlikely to condemn by name. The beauty of this strategy is that it actually doesn't require a whole lot of legwork.

In every state in the union, dedicated progressive activists are working to hold corporations accountable, stop abuses of civil liberties, protect the environment, expand the rights of workers, and various other progressive causes. The activists and the networks already exist. A progressive candidate could bring these disparate causes together into a juggernaut of a presidential campaign that elevates them into a national force. Unlike the Clinton and Republican campaigns that will focus on vague concepts and high-minded platforms, a progressive campaign could inject energy into win-or-lose fights that are being decided every single day.  

Pushing Through

For political jujutsu to work, a progressive campaign must take aim directly at the corporations and causes that Hillary and the Republican field are unable to touch. Progressive candidates must tell activists that they will stand with them and help them win their fights, whether it's a teacher strike, fracking referendum or single mother with cancer being denied a claim by a health insurance company. The important thing is to take the 2016 debate out of a hypothetical dialogue about grand platforms and insert it into the very real fights happening in every town in the country.

This strategy is not without historical parallel. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition brought together diverse activist coalitions to launch two presidential campaigns in the 1980s. Though the Rainbow Coalition was led by a left-wing African American minister, it was able to recruit the support of many white Americans, including constituencies no one thought Jackson would win. He campaigned alongside picket lines, shut-out factories and farmers who had lost their livelihoods—a strategy that paid off in a way no one thought was possible. During his second run for the presidency, Jackson won 10 percent of the white southern Democratic vote; among Georgia's white farmers, once a backbone of Jim Crow segregation, that rose to 33 percent.

Jackson did not defeat his Democratic Party rivals, let alone win the presidency. But his political coalition changed the priorities of the Democratic Party, making it take issues like multiculturalism seriously. It also elevated individuals like Paul Wellstone, a campaign staffer who went on to be a progressive U.S. senator. It served as a miniature “political revolution” that changed the nature of politics in the country for the better.

There are also more contemporary examples. Orlando, Florida is hardly a hotbed for the left: yet Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) didn't simply run a routine campaign laying out his platform to win people over. He adapted his own confrontational style, starting with campaign ads pointing to his opposition to powerful war contractors he sued for overcharging the U.S. government. Watch one:

Grayson's media-savvy confrontational fights have made him a national star; he is the only member of the House of Representatives who received a majority of his campaign donation support from small donors.

The other major contemporary example is the one woman with the greatest chance of success who won't be running for president: Elizabeth Warren. Rather than state her principles or rattle off facts or even a progressive platform, Warren chose to take on one of Washington's most powerful interest groups, the banks. Shortly after taking office, she became a national star for her confrontational hearings with administration officials where she attacked Wall Street CEOs by name. In one speech, Warren made one of the most radical and direct attacks on a corporation ever uttered in the Senate: "So let me say this to anyone who is listening at Citi: I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces."

Grayson and Warren understand that the establishment's greatest strength—its money and concentrated influence and power over our institutions—is also its greatest weakness. By confronting the powerful forces that run our politics, progressives can provoke an overreaction that draws clear battle lines and rallies people to our side. This form of political jujutsu could topple the most powerful of political figures, even the seemingly inevitable Hillary Clinton.

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