This item by James Vega was originally published on July 12, 2011.
Chris Bowers one of the most consistently insightful progressive electoral strategists. In a June 19th Kos post he put forward a provocative thesis – that progressives should concentrate their resources on elections where a win is clearly recognized as a victory for progressive ideas.
You should read the whole piece but here is the gist of his argument:
We have to start winning elections in ways so that the majority of political observers believe the defeated candidate lost because s/he opposed one or more progressive legislative priorities. Just defeating someone who opposes progressive legislation with someone who supports it is not enough. A wide array of pundits, candidates and political professionals must believe that opposition to progressive policies was the primary reason an elected official was removed from office. That is the only way we are going to start convincing people that opposing progressive legislation is truly bad idea for someone’s political career. As such, it’s also the only way we’re going to start getting progressive legislation passed on a regular basis.
If political observers think we won an election because our opponent had corruption issues, it won’t build progressive power. If political observers think we won because the other side had crazy candidates, it won’t change legislative outcomes. If people think we won because we were well-organized or because we used clever new tactics, then they will come to our seminars about how to run a campaign-but they will not pass our desired public policy into law. Hell, even if we win because the country is in the dumps and we get a wave election, that will give us a brief shot at power but nothing over the long-term (see 1977-1980, 1993-1994, and 2009-2010).
Right now, there are at least two fights that fit this mold:
• The first is the recall campaign in Wisconsin. The vast majority of political observers know and admit that this campaign is about Republicans stripping collective bargaining rights. As such, winning the recalls has real potential to strike a blow against the idea that pissing off the left has no electoral consequences. We can show that stripping collective bargaining rights can and will result in the people supporting it being removed from office. This will have a major impact on other states.
• The second campaign that currently fits this model is the battle over Medicare. This is because it isn’t really that hard to get candidates, pundits and political professionals to believe campaigns can be lost for favoring cuts to Medicare and/or Social Security. …the NY-26 special election, even though it featured a semi-major third party candidate, was an important step in cementing that belief. Imagine how deeply ingrained that belief will become if we retake in the House in 2012 while defeating Paul Ryan!
If tactics are how you fight a battle, but strategy is the rationale behind what battles you choose to fight, then the strategy to building lasting progressive power is to choose to fight battles like Lamont vs. Lieberman, the Wisconsin recall elections, and going explicitly after Republicans–or anyone–on Medicare and Social Security. We can’t just win elections, and we can’t just win elections with Better Democrats. We have to win elections in which people believe the outcome was determined by popular support for progressive policies, and a backlash against those who opposed them. That’s the only way politicians will believe they have to support progressive policies in order to stay in office, and thus the only way progressives are going to stop being thwarted and disappointed even when Democrats are the party in power