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Primary Importance

For leaders of interest groups and social movements, power comes from being able to show elected officials that you know who, where, and how numerous these hell-or-high-water voters are within your ranks, and within their districts, at all times

Hans Johnson

It was the best bit of electoral agitprop of its generation. And it helped unleash what movements coveting legitimacy and long-term influence must hold as a gold standard: measurable impact on the presidential primary.

In late 1991, the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP produced a sticker to dramatize what leaders hoped would be the visible involvement of its loose, ungovernable chapters in the Democratic nomination of 1992. Sixteen years ago, as today, the implacable sense of change was in the air. Voter disaffection with what singer Rufus Wainwright calls an ogre in the Oval Office,” so unfeeling in the face of inequality and a health-care crisis that he could not even guess the price of milk, gave permission for more urgent rhetoric. 

And come it did, from activists so used to being ignored that getting told to shut up by a heckled chief executive felt like flattery: people living with HIV, people dying of AIDS, lovers, parents, friends, professionals in health and wellness, punks, junkies, students. Some who would as easily have burned their voter registration card as kept it in their wallets made certain they could cast a ballot and boned up on the primary election date and convention delegate selection process in their state. Others pressed the Democratic candidates on their proposals, through questionnaires and shouting matches, which in themselves were added testimony that the days of dying quietly were over. Care, prevention, education, investment in a cure became the benchmarks of compassion and evaluation.

The sticker crystallized the mood. Its colors at once mimicked and mocked the earnest patriotism of the flag, showing a bloody handprint on the map of America. In place of the customary slogan, asserting Bush’s government had blood on its hands, this image held a pro-active injunction, in both English and Spanish: VOTE as if your life depended on it.” 

Such urgency survives today, rampant in the Democratic faithful. It defies the brain-dead news frame that reduces the demand for justice and redemption of the nation’s founding principles to a fight between Barack or Hillary. Heirs to mobilization exemplified by ACT UP in 92 now exert themselves in the race for the 08 nomination. They include anti-war veterans, immigrants, fair trade proponents, advocates for church-state separation, Muslims, New Orleanians, foes of torture, and climate-change experts. They are joined by a new generation of AIDS activists determined to stop the spread of the epidemic and to end federal windfalls for abstinence-only sermons in schools. 

These constituencies, having built their lists, are checking them twice, hoping to turn out their supporters in the closely watched primaries – Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina. In doing so, they follow the only gospel shared by all political insiders: pursuit, persuasion, and activation of 4 of 4” voters. That is, they emphasize finding, swaying, and ensuring participation by voters whose track record shows that they cast ballots in the two most recent general elections (2 of 2) and in the much less ballyhooed primary elections that preceded them (the other 2 of 2). In nearly every context, the single biggest predictor of likelihood to vote in a caucus or primary election is having voted in a previous primary. For savvy candidates and their staff, as well as nonpartisan groups rallying their own supporters, the means to identify, reach, and facilitate turnout by this die-hard corps of voters commands top dollar in their campaign plans. 

For leaders of interest groups and social movements, power comes from being able to show elected officials that you know who, where, and how numerous these hell-or-high-water voters are within your ranks, and within their districts, at all times. Equally important to building and sustaining political influence is growing” this pool year after year and toeing” the pool to be sure that leaders within the interest group, union, or coalition understand the concerns of frequent voters, so as to effectively represent and engage them. 

Savvy movement leaders don’t overlook one other dividend of ongoing mobilization and development of these 4-of-4’s from their own rank and file: the emergence from within of talented candidates. Like longtime union steward, now Democratic Congressman Phil Hare of Illinois, these ambassadors of the cause carry their priorities, in life and legislation, directly from their shop floor, community, or district to the Capitol, eager to effectuate them on a grander scale.

A favorite exercise of Jim Dickson, standard-bearer in the disability-rights movement, is to ask the activists he trains to rank the perceived clout and access to policy-makers of a variety of causes, from abortion rights to labor to poverty to youth services. The upshot? Activists’ impression of these groups’ influence in the political arena closely tracks the actual prevalence of voters espousing these priorities in exit polls from primary elections. 

For Dickson and the cadre of leaders he nudges and nurtures, the message is clear: The more we ply and marshal the voting base of 47 million adult Americans with disabilities to make them a force in state and federal primaries, the more we awake a sleeping giant that will compel lawmakers’ attention for years to come. 

Dickson’s work is nonpartisan and necessarily bipartisan, including in the presidential primaries. But reporters and editors who treat the two parties and their nominating processes as simply mirror images of one another are trafficking in a lie. According to the common paradigm, the Republican and Democratic primaries are about equivalent passions, movements of the left and right that jockey to articulate their grievances, mobilize their members, and cajole the candidates to bend toward their beliefs. 

But likening GOP candidates’ embrace of discredited evangelists such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson to the nods toward Democrats from union leaders, environmentalists, or anti-war advocates is as unfair as equating the anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and anti-gay movements with the movements for reproductive health and privacy, nonviolence, and human rights. 

To treat illiberal causes bent on depriving people of freedom as the legitimate counterparts to movements or organizations devoted to expanding freedom – for workers, for women, for minorities of language, sexuality, or race – is insulting. This bogus equivalency also gives Republicans a pass on the bigotries that waft through their primary, especially those against immigrants and gays. 

Such was the case in 2000 – the last presidential primaries with no incumbent. Media coverage overlooked Bush’s racist slime and skullduggery against McCain in the primary battleground of South Carolina. Meanwhile we watched carefully as Gore and Bradley tut-tutted the fine points of the budget surplus. And today we are still enduring the end result of that imbalance of scrutiny.

Yet it plays out again this primary season. In June, when Elizabeth Edwards dialed into MSNBC on air to challenge anti-Semitic Republican mouthpiece Ann Coulter for using an anti-gay epithet and a taunting death-wish against her husband, it was more than a call on the carpet. It was a call back to Earth.

On the ground, the press has helped create a tilted playing field on which progressive movements must fight uphill, even in a Democratic primary, to be sure their voices get heard, that polls fairly reflect their concerns and leanings, that their votes get fully counted. They must also confront the cynicism that poet Maya Angelou 15 years ago aptly characterized as a scar across” the face of the nation. 

Such cynicism labels a serious federal campaign against poverty, as Edwards has proposed and indeed helped launch in post-Katrina Louisiana, as naive or at best a pipe dream. 

That Coulter remains a go-to commentator on GOP politics speaks to the prevalence of extremists among her party’s base and their power in determining the frame of modern political discourse. That Elizabeth Edwards, with her husband, has to battle to break into the frame in their party’s primary is further evidence of the exclusion of class and economic justice from coverage that has further warped the parameters of debate during the Bush years. In spite of the distortion, Democratic voters have an obligation to make sense of their options, and the stakes.

Change is a sacred word. Primary voters, the time is now.

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.
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