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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lessons for Dems from John Lewis

The title of Joshua Zeitz’s Politico, article provides an irresistible teaser for this political junkie: “How John Lewis Transformed American Politics: He took his radicalism inside the establishment, forever changing the Democratic Party and America itself.” That should be enough to grab the attention of any good Democrat. Among Zeitz’s observations:

In his youth, long before he became a civil rights icon—a phrase invoked in recent days by the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, NPR and countless other news outlets—Lewis stood firmly in the American radical tradition. No less strident in his condemnation of American hypocrisy than Frederick Douglass or W.E.B DuBois before him, he shined a spotlight on systemic injustice. He deployed nonviolence with an implicit understanding that it would generate social and economic disturbance and compel civic and business leaders to bend to the movement’s demands. He was the scourge of liberals inside the Kennedy administration, conservatives on the editorial board of the National Review and centrists who counseled moderation and patience. In short, his role was to make Americans profoundly uncomfortable.

All Wikipedia lede true. But Lewis, unlike many self-described ‘radicals,’ was not content to rail against both political parties as ‘establishment pawns’ and call it a day. He understood that the most powerful role he could play in support of the causes he embraced was to run for congress and become a force on the inside for making the Democratic Party, as well as America, better. As Zeitz writes,

But radicalism is only one half of Lewis’ legacy. The other half is how Lewis, along with other movement activists who later held elective office—Andrew Young, Marion Barry, James Clyburn, Julian Bond, to name just a few—took his radicalism inside the establishment, forever changing the character of the Democratic Party and, with it, the political direction of America itself. They made civil rights an unnegotiable strain of the party’s DNA and built Black-led political organizations of a sort unknown since the heyday of Reconstruction.

One might well ask if electoral politics tamed the radicalism of movement leaders like Lewis. But the more important question is how those leaders transformed partisan politics and gave birth to a new Democratic Party positioned for long-term success in a diverse 21st-century America.

Zeitz goes on to share highlights of Lewis’s heroic story and eloquent messaging, which still resonates with blazing moral authority. He explains how the Civil Rights Movement continued to  transform the Democratic Party as a force for racial justice.

In 1977, a nationwide survey of Black mayors, city council members and state representatives found that 20 percent had been involved with community action programs in the prior decade, while many others worked or volunteered with a broader range of Great Society initiatives. Lewis’ trajectory—from civil rights leader to community organizer to the Atlanta City Council and then to Congress—was in many ways typical of this journey. In effect, the civil rights movement ported its radicalism into the Democratic Party and used politics as a base to build more permanent political power for Black Americans on school boards, in statehouses and city halls and in Congress…The civil rights movement impressed on Lewis and many of his compatriots the idea that politics is the most powerful vehicle of change. Once he adopted that belief, he never looked back.

None of this is to say that electoral politics is the only worthy career for left activists. On the contrary, most genuine radicals – those who sincerely seek fundamental social and economic reform, as opposed to venting pent-up political anger – can find unlimited opportunities to engage in transformational social change and community service projects outside the political arena.

Yet, Americans and the Democratic Party should be grateful that Civil Rights Movement veterans like John Lewis and Andrew Young understood that there can be no lasting social change without energetic political engagement. Thus many of the Movement’s veterans became candidates, campaign workers, staff members, voting rights and voter registration activsts, citizen lobbyists, petitioners, and always – voters.

Zeitz notes, “Today, as a rising generation of activists take to the streets—literally pursuing a “scorched earth policy” in some cases, by toppling the statues of Confederate heroes—Lewis and his generation offer a road map.” Of course Lewis was not into vigilante destruction of public property. Like other well-trained nonviolent activists, he understood that the most efective way to change such public monuments was through the legislative process – the city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and other legislative decision-makers, so the public could be educated and backlash avoided.

Zeitz concludes, “Before he was widely cherished as the elder statesman of a popular movement, Lewis helped effect change in a nation resistant to upending its long-standing racial order, and then brought his radical brand of politics into the political system itself.” May his example inspire generations of young activists to do likewise.

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