Toss Out Your Milquetoast Campaign Slogans: It’s Time to Build Power

To win elections, People’s Action is mobilizing from the grassroots.

Theo Anderson July 17, 2017

Protest against President Donald Trump in Chicago, Illinois on November 19, 2016. (Ben Alexander)

Lau­rel Wales teach­es peo­ple how to run for pub­lic office, but her aim isn’t just to win elec­tions. She hopes to build a broad­er, stronger pro­gres­sive move­ment and a more rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. We want to change how elec­tions hap­pen,” she says. We’re teach­ing them not only how to run for office, but what it looks like to run with the move­ment, for the move­ment, by the movement.”

We are not afraid of challenging corporate or neoliberal Democrats.

Wales is the deputy direc­tor of move­ment pol­i­tics at People’s Action, which is cul­ti­vat­ing peo­ple to run at every lev­el of gov­ern­ment. It now has a slate of rough­ly 400 can­di­dates who are plan­ning to run on its Rise Up” plat­form, which begins: We are under attack — as poor and work­ing peo­ple, as immi­grants and refugees, as women, LGBTQ peo­ple, Mus­lims, as indige­nous nations, and as peo­ple of col­or. We are under attack by grow­ing cor­po­rate pow­er that takes from our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. But we refuse to be defined by these attacks. We know that, ris­ing up togeth­er, we will win.”

People’s Action (for­mer­ly Nation­al People’s Action) had its found­ing con­ven­tion in April, 100 days after Don­ald Trump took office. About 50 affil­i­ate orga­ni­za­tions and 1,300 mem­bers were present, includ­ing 72 of the can­di­dates that it has trained — a few of whom addressed the con­ven­tion. Wales recent­ly spoke with In These Times about what’s next for the campaign.

Theo Ander­son: How is a People’s Action cam­paign dif­fer­ent­ly from, say, a gener­ic Demo­c­ra­t­ic campaign?

Lau­rel Wales: If you’re work­ing for a [tra­di­tion­al] polit­i­cal cam­paign, you run for nine months and then, the day after the elec­tion, it all clos­es down. And that infra­struc­ture is gone. But we see elec­tions as a way to do deep lead­er­ship devel­op­ment with our base and train them on how to have con­ver­sa­tions with vot­ers. It’s not just about the can­di­date but about the pro­gram we’re build­ing and what we’re fight­ing for on a larg­er scale.

The oth­er piece is that we real­ly work with folks to not use mil­que­toast cam­paign mes­sag­ing — stuff that we hear all the time about good jobs and edu­ca­tion. We real­ly try to bring in the why.’ And we put bold issues in front of folks. And we do not shy away from race. We see racism as some­thing that has been used to divide us. If we’re not talk­ing about it, and if we’re not mov­ing vot­ers to think about their rela­tion­ship to that, we will nev­er build the move­ment that we need to win.

We real­ly try to put women, LGBTQ folks and peo­ple of col­or front-and-cen­ter when it comes to who’s run­ning for office. There are a lot of struc­tur­al bar­ri­ers that have been put in place that make it dif­fi­cult for them to run, and to win. So, we don’t want to throw just any­one out there and say, You have to run now.” We try to be strate­gic about who they need to know, what base they need to be build­ing, and how much mon­ey they need to raise. We want to be sure that we’re not just a protest move­ment, but that we real­ly are clear about how to win and gain gov­ern­ing pow­er. So, if it’s not the right time or moment for the peo­ple we’re work­ing with, we’re not going to force them to run.

Theo: What does the rela­tion­ship between People’s Action and the can­di­dates look like after the trainings?

Lau­rel: We’re look­ing to build sup­port struc­tures and rela­tion­ships. We believe that it’s incred­i­bly impor­tant to not think about this as one indi­vid­ual at a time, but as a cohort and a wave of peo­ple who are real­ly think­ing about governing.

We know that, once they get elect­ed, they’re going to face a set of oth­er pres­sures. Once you get into gov­ern­ment, it’s hard. You’ve got lob­by­ists com­ing to vis­it you. You’ve got con­stituents and com­mu­ni­ties com­ing to ask for your vote. So, we’re build­ing a cohort of folks who have run from our base, who are part of our move­ment, and can use each oth­er for sup­port once they’re in government.

Theo: What effect did the elec­tion last fall have on recruitment?

Lau­rel: Folks felt some inspi­ra­tion from the Bernie Sanders’ mes­sage around a polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion. And then, when Trump won, there was a lev­el of rage and out­cry against what had hap­pened. And those two pieces togeth­er have set peo­ple up to say, I can real­ly do this.”

We focus a lot on run­ning on peo­ple of col­or for office, and when they look at who cur­rent­ly rep­re­sents them, and they see a major­i­ty of old­er, white men, that is also help­ing spark a feel­ing of enough is enough.’ And with the sup­port that we’re able to pro­vide, and the com­mu­ni­ty they’re build­ing with us, they’re get­ting ready to take that step.

Theo: So many pro­gres­sives write off the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as a bro­ken vehi­cle for pro­gres­sive val­ues. How do you nav­i­gate that challenge?

Lau­rel: We are not afraid of chal­leng­ing cor­po­rate or neolib­er­al Democ­rats. We’re also not afraid to chal­lenge Democ­rats who have been bad on race, class and gen­der issues. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is a long­stand­ing insti­tu­tion and a field of strug­gle. There are a lot of rela­tion­ships and con­nec­tions to the par­ty. But, at the same time, we’ve seen Democ­rats pass and push for leg­is­la­tion that doesn’t work for work­ing peo­ple, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and low-income communities.

In a cam­paign led by Maine Peo­ple’s Alliance, vot­ers vot­ed to raise the min­i­mum wage and elim­i­nate the state’s tip cred­it. It was on the bal­lot last year and won by an 11-point mar­gin. And then, this year, we saw the Democ­rats restore the tip cred­it [which allows restau­rant own­ers to pay work­ers below the min­i­mum wage]. That was done by Democ­rats. They could have stopped it, and they didn’t. And we will not sup­port the kind of Democ­rats who do that.

Dif­fer­ent strate­gies might work in dif­fer­ent areas. And in some areas, a third par­ty might be an option. But that isn’t true every­where. We care more about how we get to a place where we have a stronger, more reflec­tive democ­ra­cy and can­di­dates who are will­ing to co-gov­ern with the peo­ple in their com­mu­ni­ty. So that’s why we we’re not just build­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but we’re build­ing some­thing that can both push and use the par­ty as a vehi­cle to do this work. We’re build­ing a move­ment that relates to a par­ty, or the par­ties. How do we get to a place of co-gov­er­nance, where the peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ties real­ly feel heard and feel that they are part of the gov­ern­ment process?

Theo: People’s Action is inter­est­ing and rare, in that it’s best known for move­ment work, but also does this elec­toral work, and tries to bridge the two.

Lau­rel: We can either let elec­tions hap­pen to us or for us. And, for a long time, the pro­gres­sive move­ment has let elec­tions hap­pen to us. As some­body who has gone back and forth between com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and elec­tion work, I’ve felt that deep divide for a long time.

But I real­ly feel that we can start to bring those two fields togeth­er. It can be deep, rela­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing in the con­text of an elec­tion. That’s what good pol­i­tics is. And that’s why we don’t call our­selves just a polit­i­cal pro­gram. We want a rad­i­cal change in the way pol­i­tics is done. And we’ve seen it work. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect dif­fer­ent results. We have to start think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly about the way that we do this work, and bring­ing those fields together.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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