One of the greatest issues of our time is how to reform our economic system. Communism and socialism – defined as state ownership of the means of production – have clearly failed. Global capitalism has lifted billions of people out of poverty, but at the same time it has widened the gap between the very rich and everyone else to ridiculous proportions. Progressivism seeks to reduce this disparity markedly, allocating wealth much more broadly. The immediate question confronting us as progressives is whether, and to what extent, we should support progressive candidates exclusively in 2018 and 2020.
The results of the 2017 elections in Virginia and elsewhere help answer this question. Ralph Northam, a low-key moderate Democrat who had voted for George Bush, defeated progressive candidate Tom Periello 56-44 in the primaries and went on to win the governorship in the general election by a similar margin, 54-45. The center of the political spectrum held fast in the face of an opportunistically racist and xenophobic challenge from the right. At the same time, a diverse group of Democratic candidates of various political persuasions won in the contests for the House of Delegates. The winners included Latinas, a socialist, a transgender woman, and only the second African-American elected statewide since Reconstruction. So who were the biggest winners in these elections? Democrats across the board!
These outcomes point to a clear strategy for the elections of 2018 and 2020. As progressives, we should not get too far ahead of the electorate. If we do, we’re likely to suffer the fate of George McGovern, who lost every state except one to Richard Nixon in 1972. To be sure, the times have changed since then, but Nixon was relatively liberal on social and economic policies, and the national political spectrum has shifted to the right, even as women and LGBTQ have made remarkable gains.
All this suggests a two-step strategy to enable a progressive agenda: First, take power from Republicans by appealing to a wide range of voters. Second, enact the building blocks of progressivism. Here’s an outline of the steps that need to be taken.
Long-term goal: A progressive agenda aimed at
- Reducing income inequality;
- Making capitalism fairer;
- Promoting equality and civil rights for all;
- Making health care a right; and
- Saving the planet.
Step 1: Adopt a specific strategy to take power from Republicans. This means winning elections at all levels of government.
1. To win elections, build a big-tent Democratic Party, including centrist Democrats, independents, and even some disillusioned Republicans, as well as Bernie Sanders progressives.
- Relegate the Hillary/Bernie fight to the past.
- Reform the Democratic Party along the lines suggested by Sanders to make it more inclusive, e.g., no more super-delegates, open primaries to independents, promote more transparency, encourage small contributions.
- Support Democratic candidates who can win in state and local elections, regardless of their ideological position.
- Promote and support women candidates for public office. They are a fresh new alternative to the good-old-boy establishment. A massive political change began with Trump’s election and the Women’s March, and it has the potential to transform American politics.
- Advocate straight-ticket Democratic voting.
2. Take a bluntly pragmatic approach to advocacy and action. Winning elections is the over-riding goal, and sometimes other worthy goals must be subordinated. This doesn’t require selling our souls. There are many areas where doing the right thing will also pay electoral dividends. For example, resisting ICE deportations will show Latino voters whose side we are on, and resisting the defunding of Planned Parenthood will increase our support among women. On the other hand, the “right-to-life” and Second Amendment are high-priority, high-intensity issues for many rural voters. Choice and gun control are no-win issues for Democratic candidates in these areas, and supporting them would be very costly. Candidates should focus on other issues where Democrats have a clear advantage, such as health care and student debt.
At the same time, allow the Republicans to damage themselves on actions that would inflict harm. For example:
- In the current battle over the Republicans’ tax plan, their reconciliation rule (enabling passage of a bill with a simple majority in the Senate) allows an increase in the national debt of up to $1.5 trillion. However, the Senate’s “Pay-Go” rule requires offsetting decreases in spending that would include a $25 billion cut in Medicare. The Pay-Go rule can be waived, but only with 60 votes. Democratic senators can and should vote no on waivers. Dare the Republicans to pass legislation that would cut $25 billion from Medicare.
- Republican efforts to sabotage or destroy the Affordable Care Act will deprive millions of health insurance, including many Trump voters. Democrats can’t prevent administrative actions such as ending subsidies to insurance companies and individual mandate recipients, and they shouldn’t waste their time trying. Let Trump have his way on this, and let Republicans own the consequences.
3. Allocate resources efficiently. In elections, this means prioritizing support for candidates according to cost/benefit analyses.
- Prioritize elections for offices with the greatest benefit/cost ratio. For example, the Virginia State Senate has 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats. Winning one seat in 2019 would flip control of the Senate to 20/20 with the Lieutenant Governor casting the deciding vote. The cost of winning would not be great; the payoff would be huge.
- Prioritize Democratic candidates in close contests. A little extra help will push them over the top.
4. In canvassing campaigns, Maryland progressives should consider high-payoff elections in purple states, as well as key elections in our own state. As a practical matter, the purple-state elections should be nearby, e.g., in Pennsylvania and Virginia (though some would argue Virginia is no longer a purple state).
- In canvassing, advocate straight-ticket voting (as above).
- Rather than running down Republicans or boosting Democrats, draw contrasts between the candidates on issues, point by point. This is an objective and effective approach.
Step 2. After winning power, enact the building blocks of progressivism.
1. Remove Republican obstacles to progress.
- Appoint liberal and progressive judges, especially to the Supreme Court.
- Get big money out of politics. Reverse Citizens United.
- Dismantle voter suppression laws in conservative states.
- Undo the 2010 gerrymander. Support more politically neutral means of re-districting. (Here, I don’t think Democratic partisanship would be a good thing.)
2. Build support for the progressive agenda. Health care is probably the best place to start, as many people have come to assume that it is a right. Beginning now, Democrats must develop a single-payer plan that is both financially and politically feasible. Obamacare was the only feasible plan in 2009, but by 2020 the landscape will have changed substantially. If Democrats have a well-thought-out plan, they will be in a position to legislate and begin implementing it. Student debt is a big issue for millennial, who turned out in unusually large numbers in Virginia. They are a key element of the progressive coalition. Also, by 2020 women will have a lot more political power. Will that be the time to re-ignite the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment?
David Boesel is a long-time activist from Anne Arundel County.
Comments? Please see this post on our Facebook page.