A Winning Progressive Politics

Paul Wellstone

Many tributes and eulogies have been written for Sen. Paul Wellstone since his tragic death in October. He was widely praised, on both sides of the aisle, for his character, conscience and conviction. Yet in the hand-wringing and finger-pointing after the Democrats’ discouraging defeat on Election Day, his party’s leaders seem eager to disclaim almost everything Wellstone stood for, lurching further to the right.

In his book The Conscience of a Liberal, from which the following excerpt is taken, Wellstone passionately argued that the party’s strategy of moving rightward is tactically and morally bankrupt. Those who wish to honor his memory—whether from inside or outside the Democratic Party—would do well to heed his advice. —Craig Aaron

I have never understood arguments for the need for politicians to “move to the center” to get elected. What is the operational definition of “the center”? If what is meant is that you need to have more votes than your opponent, then I am all for being in the center. But this is too obvious.

If what is meant by the center is the dominant mood of the populace—the issues that are important issues to Americans and what they hope for—then I would again argue for the need to occupy the center. A politics that is not sensitive to the concerns and circumstances of people’s lives, a politics that does not speak to and include people, is an intellectually arrogant politics that deserves to fail.

When I am in coffee shops with people (these are great focus groups), no one asks, “Are you left, right, or center?” No one cares. What people want is that your politics be about them. Tip O’Neill once declared, “All politics is local.” But I would go further; all politics is personal.

Many Americans express an anger toward politics. That does not mean that people do not care what happens. They care deeply, sometimes desperately. But they also feel that their own struggles, the cares of their daily lives, are of little concern in the chambers of power, that whomever they choose will make little difference to them, their loved ones and their communities.

This is not a conservative America. These are people who more than anything else yearn for a politics they can believe in. They want politicians whom they can trust and who are at least most of the time on their side.

If I had to use labels, I would say that public opinion is populist and “center-left” on the issues. Yet politics, especially national politics, is “center-right.” Why the contradiction? The respected pollster Celinda Lake has data that are very instructive. Voters and donors (the top Democratic and Republican contributors) have widely divergent views on crucial reform and economic issues when given a specific example. The donors’ top policy choice is tax cuts; the majority are against tougher environmental and workplace regulations; and by a 2-to-1 margin, they believe free-trade policy creates more jobs in the United States than it costs. The voters have, by the same margins, the exact opposite views.

This polling data on the disconnect between big givers and voters tell an important story about American politics. The financial imperative severely weakens the policy performance of both parties. The investors dominate the rank-and-file party voters.

The gap is even greater, I believe, between the donors’ political viewpoint and that of the American populace at large, not just the voters. Nonvoters are disproportionately low-income, blue-collar, people of color and young. They come from a different world than the donors and put a much higher priority on bread-and-butter economic issues. Their viewpoint matters even less than the ordinary voters’ because they are not threats to officeholders.

Clearly, there is a forgotten American majority that our politics today fails to serve fully and fairly. This America faces major challenges: low wages, insufficient health care, non-existent pension coverage (the majority of private-sector workers have no pension coverage), daunting childcare expenses, rising college expenses and exorbitant housing costs. Only when these Americans are given a proportional voice in politics can we claim to live in a truly representative democracy.


There are three critical ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. Policy provides direction and an agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change; and electoral politics is the main way we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable.

Public policy is not about techniques of communication. Over and over again, I hear my Democratic colleagues talk about how to better deliver our “message.” But the question is not how to communicate our agenda, but whether we have an agenda worth communicating.

At least Republicans are consistent. They argue that when it comes to these pressing issues of people’s lives, there is very little the government can or should do. But most people don’t accept this. Most people know that this is a great philosophy only if you are wealthy.

There is a huge leadership void in this country that the Democratic Party, emboldened by political courage and a commitment to the issues that made our party great, can fill. Too many progressives make the mistake of believing people are galvanized around 10-point programs. They are not! People respond according to their sense of right and wrong. They respond to a leadership of values.

Not only do Democrats have too timid and too downsized an agenda, we also have failed to confront conservatives on core value questions. I call the Republicans’ philosophy the “New Isolationism.” Not as in foreign affairs, but in human affairs. It is a “Buddy, you’re on your own” philosophy. We need to replace isolationism with fellowship. We need to talk about community, about justice, about the goodness of America. People are ready for a politics that inspires them to be their best.

But it is not enough to inspire people with vision and good public policy. We need the power to make change. Effective grassroots organizing is the way to get there. Grassroots organizing involves listening to and lobbying and advocating for people by going directly to where they live and work. It is the antithesis of big-money politics. Organizing at the grassroots requires hard and mostly unglamorous work, easily identifiable goals and political sophistication. But it can be enormously effective and successful.

When Democrats controlled Congress for so many years, the labor movement relied on interest-group politics. If there was a problem, you called the committee or subcommittee, where you had a long-standing relationship. The grassroots base withered away while the Christian right learned how to mobilize support. They became good at our forgotten game: voter registration, door-knocking, phoning, electing people to school boards, writing letters to the editor, calling in to talk radio, turning out voters. Now labor and other progressive organizations must learn from their example.


Victories should be won by people where they live, but if the victories never affect national or international centers of decision-making power, then we are still not seriously contesting for power. This is the central challenge for progressive politics: how to build the local victories into a strong national and international presence that can crucially define the quality of life. Right now the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. Amazing people have done so much to make their communities better, but progressives hold little power on the national level.

Electoral politics is one crucial way we contest for power in America, and progressives need to get better at it. We tend to be attracted to politics because of the issues and far less excited by the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of political campaigns, much less the compromises that are inevitable in those campaigns.

I’ve met hundreds of great young organizers but very few young people who are campaign managers on any level. Electoral politics seems unsavory—and indeed it can be, depending on who is involved. The problem is that progressives fail to build leadership and gain power when we eschew electoral politics. You can be certain that the Christian right develops local leadership and runs candidates for school boards. Progressives too often don’t. In every state, we need to get serious about developing leaders—starting with school board, city council, county commissioner, mayoral and state legislative races. Money is much less a factor in these races than it is nationally, and well-organized citizen campaigns can win over and over again.

If we build our progressive political leadership, state by state, then we will also be in a much stronger position to thrust forward candidates for governor and for seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Right now, it is the same old approach in the Democratic Party. I thought it was bad in 1990 when I first ran for Senate, but it has gotten even worse. The DSCC is focused almost totally on whether a candidate is wealthy, already has power and status, or has access to big bucks. These criteria are not likely to produce many progressives focused on populist and economic-justice issues. A few might slip through, but they will be exceptions.

We need to build not a third party, but an independent political force that does a lot of organizing within the Democratic Party—especially candidate recruitment and elections. This new political force must introduce fresh perspectives into the political dialogue of our country; recruit candidates; provide the training, skills and resources for winning campaigns; build an infrastructure of field directors and campaign managers; have a savvy media presence; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; and build political leadership at the local, state and federal levels of government.

There is a wave of social activism on our campuses today, more than I’ve seen in the past 15 years. But most of these students are not joining the Young Democrats. I went to a very poignant neighborhood meeting in Minneapolis, with more than 100 people crammed into a home. Almost all the people there were under 30. Most were professionals. Their exclusive focus was on issues: education, health care, housing, the environment and community service. They had little interest in politics as usually defined—candidates, political parties and elections. They were incredibly bright and thoughtful, but as it stands they will not be future political leaders. This is why politics as usual shouldn’t work any longer. An independent progressive politics, combining intellectual integrity, grassroots organizing and electoral politics, is a force whose time has come.

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