Progressives are on the move once more. Wisconsin lit the spark, as workers, students, teachers and farmers occupied the state’s capitol in February and launched recall elections that sobered conservative Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies. Occupy Wall Street turned that spark into a conflagration that swept the nation. Last week, in Ohio and Maine and even Mississippi, voters overwhelmingly rejected efforts to trample worker rights, constrict the right to vote and roll back women’s rights.
These electoral victories have led pundits to wonder whether Occupy Wall Street will imitate the Tea Party and stand candidates for office. But Occupy is a protest movement — one that has transformed the landscape of politics, by forcing the country to face the reality of entrenched inequality and power and address what should be done about it. It will take others to fill the space that it has opened.
Progressive Majority (PM), the only progressive organization dedicated to the recruitment and support of candidates at the state and local level, is leading the effort to turn that protest into power. It has just launched Run for America, joining with partners such as Moveon.org, US Action, People for the American Way, Rebuild the Dream and the New Organizing Institute in an audacious drive to recruit, train and support 2,012 candidates in 2012 for state, local and national office. In barely two months, PM President Gloria Totten reports that more than 1,000 activists have signed up to run. The energy of Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street is finding its way into the electoral process.
Progressive Majority’s initiative is a good example of how movements transform politics. Now marking its 10th anniversary, PM has elected hundreds of progressives to office, helping to flip six state legislative bodies — from Washington to Minnesota — and some 40 local governments.
In 2010, while PM’s candidates fared better than most, progressives shared in the beating voters delivered to Democrats. Dismay at the rotten economy, enthusiasm among followers of the Tea Party and a deluge of conservative money swept through the elections. Republicans not only captured the House of Representatives, they picked up state legislatures, winning a total of 675 legislative seats, a tidal wave larger than any since 1938.
But Republicans mistook Tea Party passion for majority opinion. Led by Wisconsin’s Walker and Republican “young guns” in the House, they drove an extreme agenda, championing cuts in taxes for corporations and the wealthy while savaging investment in public education and public health, assaulting worker and women’s rights, and, since they knew this wasn’t a popular agenda, systematically working to make it harder for students, minorities, the poor, and blue-collar workers to vote.
Voters recoiled — opening space for Progressive Majority and its partners’ unprecedented effort for the 2012 elections. This isn’t just a partisan revival. Corporate interests and lobbies rent Democrats as well as Republicans.
“Putting hundreds of people in office isn’t enough,” Totten says. “If we keep electing the same old kind of Democrat, we are not going to get the kind of change we need.” So Progressive Majority is recruiting citizen activists, many of them people of color and relatively young, prepared to challenge both monied politics and office-holders in both parties.
These candidates will campaign on positions that have widespread support. Large majorities of voters want Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid protected — even as Republicans try to dismantle them and Democrats offer them up for cuts. Large majorities are looking for action on jobs. They support tax hikes on the wealthy and Wall Street, want the troops to come home and the money saved to be used on America. They want Wall Street held accountable, not bailed out. They support Buy America policies, not corporate trade accords. And they look for candidates who will make government accountable to citizens, not contributors.
But truly populist candidates face harsh obstacles. Opponents will be well funded; the right-wing media and message machine will have a powerful voice. Voters not only have to be reached, they have to be persuaded to overcome their cynicism about politicians in general.
Only mobilization can overcome special-interest money by enlisting volunteers, contacting voters and raising small donations. By using new media and benefitting from movement energy, progressive candidates in 2012 will have a better chance of representing the people without mortgaging themselves to the interests. Progressive Majority also offers candidates a range of remarkably sophisticated services — from crafting stump speeches to putting together finance plans.
In 2012, the question of whether Barack Obama can win a second term despite flagging poll numbers and a lousy economy will capture most attention. But the conservatives in the House of Representatives, and in state legislatures across the country, are held in even deeper disregard by the public. Whatever happens at the top of the ticket, voters will be looking for champions of the 99 percent. Occupy Wall Street has set the tone. Now a new generation of gutsy and populist progressives may just be ready to Occupy Congress and statehouses across the country.