Challenges within the primaries allow us to define what it means to be a real Democrat — to insist that the party truly puts the interests of working people first.
That’s what makes elections like Tuesday’s run-off in Arkansas between Bill Halter and incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln, the victor, so important. Labor and progressive movements got together to target Lincoln because she had opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, helped to block a robust public option in health care reform, and refused to back one of President Obama’s key nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
Conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party states that we need strong majorities in order to pass better public policies in Washington, DC. But the logic of “more” doesn’t add up if those people we elect do not provide us with the votes we need. As long as our political strategies ask only that candidates have a “D” behind their names, we’ll never get the type of majorities that will take hard stands to confront the power of big business and create real reform.
Going back to the Carter years in the 1970s, we had large Democratic majorities in Congress, yet we saw labor law weakened and the right to collective bargaining eroded. Under Clinton, Democratic majorities gave us NAFTA and more unfair trade.
If we don’t want history to repeat itself with the current administration, we cannot get wrapped up in the temporary excitement of a given electoral campaign. We need to have the memory, foresight, and strategy to craft something different. That’s why we should hope that challenges within the primaries become more standard.
‘Different,’ not ‘more’
Doing politics differently means two things:
1) having a higher standard of accountability; and
2) judging our success in electoral contests based on a dual bottom line.
Accountability first means being clear about what our agenda is. Strong health care and labor law reforms are key structural changes needed in our economy if we are to rebuild the American middle class. We can’t forget these in the next Congress and simply move on to new matters. Rather than waiting for the White House to lead and hoping that candidates follow, we must lead by putting our priorities forward. We don’t need friends on issues that are foundational to working people, such as health care, living wages, and making collective bargaining the norm; we need champions.
There have been countless calls from labor and other progressive constituencies for accountability from politicians. Nobody disagrees that elected officials should be made to answer for their votes. But there is not much said about how to make this happen – about what the vehicle for ensuring accountability will be.
The answer is an organized base. None of the progressive lobbies in Washington, DC can hold any elected official accountable without strong, organized, permanent grassroots organization in the home states.
The dual bottom line
That gets to my second point about doing politics differently. When labor and progressive movements enter into any electoral contest, they should measure their success based on a dual bottom line: Did we get our candidate elected? And what did we leave behind in terms of lasting organization?
If we have to parachute people in to run a campaign, it’s a good sign that we need to invest more in building local talent and developing local capacity in the area. In A New New Deal David Reynolds and I profile case studies from around the country that show how regional activism will lead to building the type of progressive infrastructure we must have to hold politicians accountable: We need local organizations that have their own ability to run their own political campaigns. We need organizations that can form alliances across institutional boundaries, crafting coalitions between unions, community groups, and other progressive institutions. And we need organizations that can develop policy proposals and do top-flight research.
This type of organization is what will allow us to be part of a governing coalition. Accountability means that, in candidates’ eyes, our core constituencies are as just as essential to governing as they are to getting elected.
Labor and progressives have an urgent need to think long-term. Let’s not abandon our strategy just because we lost on the Halter drive. It will take several attempts before we will really start to send a message about what a new approach to politics means.
Come November, simply restoring or exceeding a 60-vote majority won’t solve the problems we face. Instead, we must go beyond “more” and start doing politics “different.”
Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992 – 2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.