The Next Campaign: Ideas

BY Christopher D. Cook

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While the Democratic Leadership Council and Democratic National Committee stubbornly retool their centrist Southern and Western strategy, the liberal/progressive wing of the party should pursue its own strategy: a long-term, non-electoral campaign of ideas. Democrats, Greens, labor unions, Nader-ites and others must unify around a set of core progressive ideas on which to educate and organize “Main Street” America.

No new construction of the Democratic leadership will change the reality that a great many Americans have grown deeply conservative, fearful and separatist. We cannot change this reality by electing a Democrat to the White House nor can we elect a liberal or progressive president without first changing this reality.

Progressives need a coherent long-term approach—apart from electoral campaigns—to shift the public consciousness toward basic progressive values and ideas. We need to undertake a patient grassroots national campaign to change thoughts and priorities that underlie people’s (and, to some extent, politicians’) choices. This is, after all, what the Right has so successfully engineered over the past 40 years.

This should be a minimalist list, possibly including: economic and tax justice that empowers workers and diminishes the wealth gap; investment in education; universal health care access; a foreign-policy based on non-preemptive multilateralism and reconstructing good will by combating global poverty; and the promotion of religious pluralism, tolerance, and the separation of church and state. Whatever the exact list and phrasing—the shorter and simpler the better—such a progressive values campaign is needed if liberal Democrats hope to ever get beyond today’s dreary national elections cycle, in which Democrats either tilt rightward or lose.

Some argue that Kerry’s loss was due more to Karl Rove’s Machiavellian hijinks or the senator’s own campaign trail missteps, rather than any ideological disconnect. After all, he was hardly running a populist progressive campaign. Yet, at least since George McGovern’s plunge in 1972, Democrats have traded away liberal ideas for power—even as Republicans have ascended by steadily reshaping public ideology (chiefly around anti-government fervor, religious fundamentalism, and zealous militarism). Through media mastery, relentless message discipline, and massive financial commitments, the right has paved an increasingly smooth road to electoral and legislative success with campaigns that are a triumph of belief and emotion over well-documented fact.

Progressives made great strides in 2004. The array of “527” groups backing Kerry, such as Move On and America Coming Together, exhibited the potential for serious outreach and mobilization. The need now is to go beyond candidates and elections, and speak directly—and creatively—about basic progressive values to people in communities across the United States.

Democratic and Green campaigns at all levels—particularly state and local, where there is more room for real discourse—need to articulate strongly principled ideas and values.  But to continually focus efforts on party leadership struggles and electoral races, without a coherent long-term strategy to change the way Americans think on core issues, is to badly miss the point.  The fundamental challenge today is not to move the Democratic Party to the left, it is to educate “mainstream” Americans about the need and potential for progressive economic and social policies such as universal health care, vigorous antitrust measures to decentralize corporate economic power, and serious wealth taxation.  We need to build a new, more progressive and critically informed base, a platform of support on which candidates can run progressive campaigns.

Armies of college volunteers, and experienced organizers and respected community members could be deployed to engage with citizens on simple core progressive values, backed up by an arsenal of fact. Town hall meetings, town mall meetings, door-to-door efforts, and quality dialogue should be the venues of choice, as opposed to last-minute media blitzkrieg, to slowly begin to turn this country’s non-coastal Republican red tide, community by community.

Such an effort can be costly and time-consuming, but there is no getting around it if liberals are ever to recapture America’s hearts and minds.

This battle is about more than electing a Democratic politician. Those who mourn the perennial defeat of progressivism and liberalism at the polls need to campaign vigorously on ideas. Rather than worry about the top of the next Democratic ticket, progressives and liberals need to work from the bottom to make their ideas and values trickle up.

Lay the proper groundwork, and progressive leaders will follow.

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Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. You can reach him at

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