Learning From the Right

Joel Bleifuss

Ten years ago, too many progressives hitched their wagon to Ralph Nader’s quixotic star. Vote for me, said he, Al Gore and George W. Bush are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

What progressives need is a calculated commitment to a strategy for making social change. The right appears to understand this necessity better than the left.

On Nov. 7, 2000, Gore lost Florida to Bush by 537 votes, while Nader clocked in with 97,421 votes. One result? The United States went to war in Iraq. The death toll: more than 3,400 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis (some put that figure much higher), and counting. 

Elections do matter.

In 2010, some fear that progressives, chagrined that their hopes for change have been thwarted, will sit out and allow Republicans to take back both the House and Senate.

As David Moberg points out in Midterm: Create Jobs, Contain Losses,” polls show that young people, unmarried women and people of color – crucial blocs that gave Obama the edge he needed to win in 2008 – are likely to abstain in this election.

Disillusionment is perhaps understandable, but its cultivation is not. Electoral engagement should not be a feel-good accessory dictated by the whims of prevailing political fashion. What progressives need is a calculated commitment to a strategy for making social change.

The right appears to understand this better than the left. In the cover story to our October issue, Tea Party Confidential,” Kate Zernike tells how Tea Party Republicans in Bucks County, Pa., have borrowed the tactics of the left in their attempt to take on the county’s GOP establishment. Zernike reports that in the May 10 primary, of the 100 candidates the Bucks County Tea Party slated for local party positions, 70 were victorious.

It is time for politically correct progressives to abandon their hubris and learn from the right. Or, perhaps learn from the example of two charter In These Times subscribers, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D‑Minn.), who more than 30 years ago began their political careers as community organizers and eventually built a state-wide network able to elect them to national office.

That level of grassroots political engagement is rare in progressive circles today. One notable exception is Detroit, where the 250 members of Detroit DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) – a good number of whom have been elected to local Democratic Party committee seats – are making change we can believe in.

In the Michigan primary on August 3, Detroit DSA fielded three solid progressive candidates for state senate, and two of them were victorious. One of the winners beat his more moderate opponent – a former prosecutor who was backed by the Democratic establishment and the UAW – by 200 votes. 

Primaries are where people with our politics can have a real impact, if we think strategically and work in a disciplined fashion,” says Detroit DSA Chair David Green.

The strategy is to get these progressives through to the next level,” says Green. Because that changes the conversation. If the conversation is going to be, Everybody is going to have to cut their budget, so much how do we cut?’ we lose that race. But if we are talking about cuts for K through 12 education, and one candidate says, Let’s cut,’ and the progressive candidate says, No, in this special situation, we need to raise taxes and institute a progressive tax increase,’ then the conversation changes. And that is a race we can win.”

And winning, after all, is what electoral politics is ultimately about.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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