A Report By
A Theory of Political Transition
Lead Authors: Max Berger and Leah Hunt-Hendrix
Contributors: Sean McElwee, Tory Gavito, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, Jennifer Pae, and Kamau Chege
Art Director: Elise Pyo
Lead Designer + Developer: Kimi Lung
Designers: Billie Kanfer and Emily Moody
Including interviews with: Alexandra Rojas, Becky Bond, Leah Greenberg, Maurice Mitchell, Andrea Mercado, David Segal, Anat Shenker-Osorio, Sabeel Rahman, Ganesh Sitaraman, Crystal Zermeno, Tomas Robles, Ginny Goldman, Saikat Chakrabati, Rashad Robinson, and other anonymous interviewees.
The 2020 election, and the task of 2021 and beyond, is about far more than defeating Republicans and returning to the pre-Trump era. Today’s social conditions and surging political movements — from the impacts of COVID-19, and the climate crisis, to the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People’s Campaign — show that the United States is in need of deep structural change. In this report, we provide historical context and a long-term vision for how political investments can be made, not only to win upcoming elections but also to transform our future.
Trump has been devastating for our country and planet, but he is not the only problem. For too long, both parties have been complicit in promoting neoliberal economic policies. Both have done too little on advancing racial justice and true gender equality. In the next administration, we need to be prepared to move forward, not backwards.
To win structural reforms, it is not enough to elect Democrats. We must build strong institutions and movements that can not only defeat Republicans, but can also transform the Democratic Party itself. At several pivotal moments in the 20th century, the Democratic Party has been a critical force for social progress, but it has at times also been an obstacle, requiring outside forces to push it toward a more transformative, egalitarian position.
Despite the popularity of progressive ideas, progressives have only just begun to win competitive primaries. We can elect progressives, but progressive candidates need more support from donors and organizations. Internal contests within the Democratic Party, epitomized by the 2020 presidential primary, have led to the ongoing dominance of the establishment and a retreat to the status quo. We must examine why and how progressive ideas have struggled in the electoral arena, and also look to the bright spots of where things are working to determine the best path forward.
Political parties have always been pushed by outside institutions. But the Right has done this far more successfully than the Left. This has led the Republican Party to move further to the Right, while the Democratic Party has just started responding to its base. Progressive organizations and donors have been encouraged to fall in line behind Democrats while conservatives have built institutions that lead their party.
Democrats must understand that political parties are vehicles for ideas, not static entities. And while we must fight against the Republican agenda, progressives must also build institutions that can lead the Democratic Party as well.
To get there, we need progressive donors to:
- Support organizations that are waging the battle of ideas
- Elect more progressives through primaries
- Make sustained investments in leadership development
- Build infrastructure for co-governance at the state and national level
- Support efforts to align the progressive coalition
Beyond Trump: A Vision for a Progressive Era
2020 has been a year of more tumult than could have possibly been imagined. At the time of this publication, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country, incurring more fatalities than the Vietnam War and more job losses than at any point since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, movements for racial justice have taken over the streets, demanding justice for the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others who have been killed by police and the culture of white supremacy. As we move toward November, and the possibility of a new administration, we must remember that it will not be enough to go back to life before 2016. Today’s crises have much deeper roots.
For the past four decades, both major political parties have allowed corporations and billionaires to consolidate their power, leading to wage stagnation, the dismantling of worker rights, and growing wealth inequality, especially in communities of color. Both parties helped usher in an era of deregulation and privatization that led to a concentration of wealth unseen since just before the Great Depression. Now, even when the economy grows, the vast majority of the benefits go to the top 1% and the biggest corporations. Trump could only win the presidency because our democracy was already failing.
Since the financial crisis of 2007–2008, people across the political spectrum are increasingly looking for significant changes because they feel the system is not working for them. For a generation, real wages have been stagnant while the cost of living has skyrocketed, leading to a surge in personal debt — and despair. For the first time in modern history, mortality rates of Americans have gone up for three consecutive years. People’s pain is all too real, and it’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Democrats need more than a plan to defeat Trump: They must also have a plan to organize an inclusive, progressive majority to take on entrenched corporate and private powers and remake our democracy.
Our thesis is that, in order to achieve an America where everyone thrives, we must transform the Democratic Party into a party that fights for universal economic and social rights. Organizations and donors need to be ready to support a new generation of leaders — in elections and between elections — who are pushing the Democratic Party to fight for a progressive agenda, as it did during the New Deal and Great Society.
The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party
In our two-party system, the Democratic Party is an essential vehicle for progressive change; it’s often an obstacle as well. Fortunately, the Democratic Party is not an unchanging, monolithic structure. Political parties are shaped by constant internal conflict between, and amongst, the elected officials, affiliated organizations, donors, and media figures who make up their respective coalitions.
The Democratic Party is a diverse coalition of many interests and groups, each with their own (sometimes conflicting) priorities — climate change, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, economic justice, racial justice, and so on. It’s also a coalition of constituencies — each of which is very diverse — including African Americans, Latinx communities, Asian Americans, college educated women, union households, and many more.
However, none of these interest groups or constituencies has enough power to shift the direction of the party on its own, which is why they often join together to form “parties within the party,” also known as wings or factions of the party. Factions build power and push the party toward their shared agenda.
In our two-party system, factions have been the main engines of political change by contesting the meaning of “Democrat” and “Republican” over time. While politics in America is often characterized as the conflict between parties, the major historical shifts in American politics since the Civil War — from the New Deal to the civil rights movement — often originate from contests within the major parties.
Today, the main conflict within the Democratic Party is between a wing that is “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” on the one hand, and a wing that emphasizes the role of government in redistributing wealth, on the other. We will call the first category “neoliberal” and the latter “progressive.” Neoliberalism is a political ideology that believes markets can be used to solve any social problem, so the role of government is to set up markets and defend their functioning. While most neoliberal Democrats believe in some government intervention in markets, they oppose universal social programs (like Medicare for All) and tax increases on the wealthy and big business, prefer means-tested social programs and limited regulations, and defend the privatization of public goods like education and health care.
“Progressives,” on the other hand, believe in universal social programs to provide all Americans with health care, education, housing, income, and retirement. Progressives oppose the concentration of wealth and power through aggressive government regulations, strong labor unions and worker power, and taxation of the wealthy and big business. In many other countries, in particular places like Sweden, Norway, Germany, and Denmark, what we refer to as “progressive” is called social democracy. It’s the most successful system in history in terms of providing material and subjective well-being. In the 2020 Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are leading spokespeople in the progressive wing of the party.
There is a long history of American progressivism. The progressive movement of the early 20th century sought to break the alliance between business and politics. The Progressive Party’s platform included campaign finance reform, women’s suffrage, social insurance, and an eight-hour workday. Martin Luther King, Jr. also articulated a progressive vision, holding that everyone is worthy of dignity, no matter where they come from, the color of their skin, who they love, or how much money they have. Like many other civil rights leaders of his era, he called for universal social programs to combat racial, economic, and political inequality.
The two wings within the Democratic Party identify different goals and strategies, and represent different interests. Today, the neoliberal tendency sees Trump and the Far Right as the main problem in the United States, and holds that things were largely fine before the 2016 election. They tend to align with the party’s corporate donors and established leadership. Meanwhile, the progressive wing sees rising inequality over the past 40 years as the main challenge and points to the continued deportations and mass incarceration, even under Obama’s presidency, as problems with the current leadership of the Democratic Party. This wing wants deeper structural transformation, including government playing a more active role — a countervailing force, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it — to restrain big corporations. They are fighting to win power for the poor and working class, who make up the majority of Democratic voters, but whose lives have not improved in decades. They tend to be aligned with young people, especially young women and people of color.
If America were a parliamentary system, it’s likely these two wings of the Democratic Party would exist as separate parties. This paper is written from the perspective of progressives, who would like to see the progressive perspective prevail.
The task of turning the Democratic Party into a progressive party is distinct from the task of winning a Democratic majority — but both are, of course, essential. If the Democratic Party were progressive, but didn’t have a majority, it would have no power. If the Democratic Party continues to be governed by neoliberals, but achieves a lasting majority, it would not be just.
The Progressive Policy Agenda
The Progressive Movement is made up of many perspectives. But the principles that define that agenda are clear. These include:
- Expanding democracy and making the levers of political power more accessible
- Expanding public goods so that all residents can meet their basic needs
- Reducing the concentration of corporate power and increasing worker power
- Freedom, equality, and respect across lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, and religion
In the past decade, these principles have come into focus as an increasingly accepted platform of policy goals.
Universal Economic Rights
- Universal health care
- Eliminate student debt and make public colleges free
- Public Childcare + Pre-K for All
- Housing for all
- A living wage
- Reducing carbon emissions
- A just transition to a green economy
- Local and public control of energy
- Ending mass incarceration and the disproportionate targeting of communities of color
- Ending mass deportation and creating a roadmap to citizenship
- Ending the drug war which has targeted Black and Brown communities and legalizing cannabis
- Closing the racial wealth gap
- Equal pay
- Equal access to reproductive health, contraception, and abortion
- Paid family leave
- Eliminating the pink tax (a tax on women’s products)
Increased Taxes on the Wealthy
- Wealth tax
- Financial transaction taxes
- Increased corporate taxes and closing of loopholes
Democratizing the Economy
- Co-determination (worker representation on boards)
- Breaking up corporate monopolies
- Limiting the ratio of CEO-worker pay
- Rights for workers to organize
- Sectoral bargaining
- Universal access to Vote by Mail
- Free and fair elections → publicly funded elections and no corporate money
- Statehood for DC and Guam
- Reforming or abolishing the Electoral College and Senate filibuster
Winning on this platform would materially improve the lives of all Americans, strengthen American democracy, and weaken right-wing movements driven by fear, anger, and hatred. In the time of COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter, more than ever, we can see why so many of these policies would be life-saving. And while we haven’t accomplished these yet, it should be clear that they are the crucial agenda for 2021.
The Popularity of a Progressive Agenda
The base of the Democratic Party is firmly behind all of these issues, and many command super-majority support in the public at large — even in marginal and competitive districts (see the Future of the Party report for much more detail).
In a 2020 survey, Data for Progress polled seven progressive policies that are gaining attention from the Democratic base: Medicare for All, Green New Deal, a homes guarantee, free college, ending patents on high-cost drugs, paid family leave, 100% clean energy, and stopping Wall Street looting. On every issue, they found strong support for the policy in question. As the chart below shows, most of these policies have net positive support (meaning the percent in support minus the percent opposed), and in a few cases, support is more than 60 percent.
In some cases, these policies have bipartisan support. The chart below shows net support for each of five policies with bipartisan support. These data suggest that far from moving to the center, Democrats could win over Republicans and independents with policies that use government intervention to improve people’s lives.
The media narrative suggests that progressive policies are unpopular, particularly in swing districts. However, there is little evidence for this narrative. As part of their live-polling project, the New York Times Upshot/Siena polling included several policy items. On five of six questions covering five major issues (guns, health care, taxes, race, and immigration), a majority of swing-district voters favor the progressive position. The only exception is the Trump tax cuts, where swing-district voters very narrowly favor the conservative position. Swing voters also oppose the border wall and support a ban on assault weapons. Far from being favorable toward Trump’s white-supremacist rhetoric, voters overwhelmingly reject the idea that immigrants commit more crimes.
Moreover, swing district independents favor the progressive position on all six questions. Once again, the closest issue is the Trump tax cut, where independents are barely split in their support.
Despite the popular appeal of our ideas, our politics does not reflect the will of the progressive majority. In the next section, we will explore why.
Why the Progressive Wing of the Party Doesn’t Govern
In 2018, progressive Democrats had a wave election at the local level, however, those gains have yet to produce consolidation of policy-making power at the federal level. Despite the fact that the majority of Americans support the progressive policies such as those listed above, there are a number of obstacles that have made it challenging for a progressive majority to govern and achieve its agenda. In short, the Democratic Party is still controlled by the neoliberal wing, even though its voters increasingly demand a progressive agenda. While daunting, each of these challenges can be directly addressed if our organizations, donors, and elected officials can align around a strategy of building the progressive wing of the Democratic Party together.
The Progressive Movement is Underrepresented in the Democratic Party
The progressive movement is much more popular than it is politically powerful. Take the fact that a majority of adults supported the Black Lives Matter protests, despite how hard it has been to win police reform at the policy level. While the majority of Democratic voters already support the progressive agenda represented above, the majority of Democratic politicians do not (at this moment).
Part of the problem is that Democratic Party elected officials are not representative of Democratic voters — either along the lines of class, race, gender, or ideology. Only 41% of Democratic members of the House in 2018 were women. Until 2016, the majority of the Democratic Party in Congress was composed of White Men. And to this day, 22 states have never elected an African American to Congress and the Democratic Party hasn’t elected a Native American to the Senate since 1925, just a year after Native Americans were granted citizenship. All of which exemplify in varying degrees how the costs of running for office mean that doing so is generally only available to wealthy individuals or people with access to wealth.
Furthermore, as is commonly understood, monied interests have overrun our political institutions. The relationships between candidates, lobbyists, and donors have led to a context where the wealthy have outsized voice and power. While this is not new, it is a detriment to a real democracy, and it has been worsened by Supreme Court decisions such as Buckley v. Valeo, which designated money as speech, and Citizens United, which gave corporations the right to make unlimited political contributions.
As a result, progressives cannot rely on the existing leadership of the party as a source of their power, but instead must understand their mission is to achieve a majority within the party and help it become a voice for the working class and poor, the marginalized and dispossessed. A focus on electing more women and people of color, however, is not enough. As Dorian Warren of Community Change has said, “We are not fighting for a multiracial oligarchy.” It is crucial that we emphasize both who is leading, and the goals toward which they are working.
The Progressive Majority Has Been Suppressed
The Republican Party has used voter suppression to directly undermine the progressive base’s ability to vote. For example, in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams ran a powerful campaign for governor in 2018, we saw rampant disenfranchisement. Abrams’ opponent, Brian Kemp, was both her challenger and the Secretary of State of Georgia, with control over the state’s electoral process — already a conflict of interest. As in many other states, polling places were closed or closed early; ballots never arrived or were thrown out for small errors; long lines made it impossible for people with jobs to miss work. A variety of subtle and not-so-subtle actions undermined the ability of people with progressive leanings to have their vote count. These voter suppression tactics have continued even today.
The context of COVID-19 will make 2020 an even greater challenge, as the Right is unwilling to pursue measures that enable safer voting, forcing people to choose between their right to vote and their health.
Lack of Accountability from Independent Institutions
The most powerful institutions in the Democratic Party coalition are not engaged in conflict around the ideological direction of the party. Instead, they often support the party, in exchange for progress on their unique issue. While this issue-based arrangement has proven successful in a handful of arenas, it has been a significant limiting factor in efforts to realign the Democratic Party toward a comprehensive progressive agenda.
Independent institutions — political organizations that operate within the party coalition, but outside the formal party structures — are important because they are the primary vehicles to push the party coalition in a particular direction. On the Right, examples include think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and grassroots networks like Americans for Prosperity. These institutions set the direction of the Republican Party. They are primarily Republicans who stray from their mandate, and organize the party around a comprehensive vision.
On the Democratic side, the biggest “independent institutions” are supportive of the party’s current direction or they have a transactional relationship with the party leadership, rather than seeking to transform the party. Examples include the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and parts of the labor movement. These organizations adopt the party’s agenda rather than push the party to be more progressive.
Progressives should seek to move these institutions in a positive direction, support existing organizations that are pushing on the party, and build new institutions that will take stronger stands to influence the party’s direction.
While this kind of accountability and pressure may seem confrontational, this work is crucial because elected officials are responding to an array of inputs. The Right, and corporate interests, spend far more on lobbying than the Left. The Chamber of Commerce alone spends $95M per year, with the National Association of Realtors and the pharmaceutical industry close behind. Progressives must be able to push with greater or equal might in the opposite direction.
When independent organizations push on Democrats, such actions should not be seen as in opposition to the party; rather, their aim is to make the party as effective as possible by making it more responsive to the needs of its voters. Intra-party conflict amongst wings of the party, in this sense — far from “infighting” — is a crucial component of democracy. We will discuss this topic more below.
The Role of Political Donors
There are a number of habits in political giving on the Democratic side that prevent the party from becoming more progressive. Essentially, Democratic donors see their role as ensuring that the Democratic Party wins in electoral contests, but without requirements of the party. They do not tend to see their role as holding the party accountable to a specific agenda.
Democratic donors tend to follow the directions of the party, which often guide them to focus on the Presidential contests. This often means concentrating money in a handful of swing states, rather than building up infrastructure in all 50 states. They tend to focus on candidates and party committees, rather than any independent infrastructure that might hold the party accountable after the election. It also means there is a boom and bust effect, where funding comes right before an election, and disappears for the subsequent two years.
Historically, labor unions have helped fund progressive movements, leaders, and organizations. However, given the ongoing, well-funded assault against unions and workers, organized labor has been put in a historically weak position.
How We Got Here: Asymmetric Polarization
Our politics have become fundamentally unbalanced by an asymmetry between the Left and the Right: The Right controls the GOP, but the Left does not control the Democratic Party. Big business controls the GOP, but working people do not control the Democratic Party. Political scientists refer to this problem as “asymmetric polarization.”
The Triumph of the Conservative Movement
The conservative movement didn’t just emerge; it was created.
In the 1950s, as liberalism was ascendant, conservative intellectuals saw the need to bring together groups worried about the direction of their party into a unified front. William Buckley, one of the leading intellectuals of the Right, said, “[A] conservative electorate has to be created out of that vast uncommitted middle — the great majority of the American people who, though today they vote for Democratic or [moderate] Republican candidates, are not ideologically wedded to their programs or, for that matter, to any program. The problem is to reach them and to organize them.” While he was at the helm, the National Review worked to fuse a political identity that aligned the various strands of conservatism.
The success of the conservative movement was the result of that alignment. It included neoconservatives, evangelicals, the business class, and grassroots activists motivated by white supremacy and the enforcement of traditional gender norms. Together, they forged a “conservative” identity that came to mean lower taxes, less government, control over women’s bodies, and more aggressive American foreign policy. Today, most voters know what it means to be “conservative,” and Republican politicians must cater to those who identify as conservatives, knowing they could lose their positions if they were to anger their base.
In the late 1960s, business elites were in full retreat. With the civil rights, antiwar, women’s rights, consumer rights, and union movements at high-water marks, reactionary forces realized they needed to organize a counteroffensive. In 1971, Louis Powell, a conservative activist who would become a Supreme Court judge, wrote a memo outlining a detailed plan for how business leaders could organize a counter-revolution.
“The American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat. Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
Powell’s assessment was that all of the institutions of American public life — from the media, to the university, to the courts, to politics — were bastions of liberalism. Powell’s suggestion was to create new conservative institutions that could either capture or replace the institutions of the liberal establishment. While some historians consider the recent attention to Powell’s letter apocryphal, there is no question that his thinking was shared by many other New Right activists.
The ensuing two decades saw conservative billionaires and affiliated activists prodigiously building independent institutions. The rise of a new conservative ecosystem included think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, independent media organizations like the Christian Broadcast Network, and membership groups like the Moral Majority to organize new constituencies. They took on specific issues like women’s rights through Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and STOP ERA, or labor rights through the National Right to Work Committee. Crucially, they also had leaders like Paul Weyrich who were consciously bringing these New Right forces together into a conservative wing of the Republican Party.
By 1980, this network had grown to the point that it was capable of taking over the Republican Party. The ascendent New Right powered the Reagan revolution and catalyzed the shift in the Republican Party away from the moderate postwar consensus toward the radical conservatism of Reagan, Gingrich, the Tea Party, and Trump. “Conservatism is the wine,” William Rusher, longtime publisher of National Review liked to say, “the GOP is the bottle.”
To achieve their goals, conservatives also consolidated around a narrative strategy, created by Republican operatives in the 1960s who used racist dog-whistles to divide the working class. This wasn’t an entirely new strategy: The use of race antagonisms to divide the working class has been employed throughout the history of the United States. But in the 1960s and 1970s, this narrative was the heart of the “Southern Strategy,” which enabled Republicans to take over political power in most of the Southern states. By the 1980s, Reagan and conservative Republicans had succeeded in peeling off evangelical and many non-college-educated whites by discrediting the idea of government support and regulation and becoming more extreme in terms of race, gender, and immigration.
The Collapse of the New Deal Coalition and the Rise of the Third Way
Following the defeats of the Reagan years, New Democrats and the Third Way sought to win back “Reagan Democrats” by encouraging the Democratic Party to be more business-friendly and weaken the party’s allegiances with traditional Democratic constituencies. Their electoral success caused the party to back away from the union-affiliated economic agenda of the New Deal, the civil-rights-movement-backed agenda of racial justice, and the feminist agenda of reproductive rights and the ERA.
Well into the 1990s the Democratic Party still carried with it vestiges of its Dixiecrat faction along with its anti-Black, conservative base among white voters in the South. Consider for instance that John Neely Kennedy — a protege of the notoriously racist Governor “Buddy” Roemmer and now Republican Senator of Louisiana — was at the 2004 Democratic Convention endorsing John Kerry. Between 1987 and 2007, according to research from Brown University scholar Micheal Tesler, less than half of White voters opposed to interracial marriage could differentiate between the racial views of the Democratic Party from the racial views of the Republican Party. And until the uprisings of Ferguson, MO and the injections of the #BlackLivesMatter movement into the national debate, the majority of White Democrats disagreed with the statement “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days”.
Prior to that point in the early 2010s, the Democratic Party was home to white voters with racist tendencies, and many elected officials and operatives resisted a racial-justice agenda in order to win white votes. In that era, racial and economic “moderates” dominated the Democratic Party, and the Left had little sway.
“The people in contemporary politics who are most committed to a revolutionary approach and deep structural change are on the Right. There isn’t parity on the Left; they use the GOP as a vehicle for an agenda, but there is nothing comparable on the Left.”
— Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party President
In 2004, after George W. Bush’s victory in the presidential election and a wave of Democratic losses around the country, Rob Stein created a famous PowerPoint presentation that showed wealthy right-wing donors were making huge investments in ideologically motivated infrastructure that was independent of the GOP. The conservative movement was winning, he argued, because they had spent years building think tanks, membership organizations, training infrastructure, candidate pipelines, accountability organizations, and media groups. The presentation showed a vast network of organizations that essentially functions as a conservative force within the Republican Party. The conservative movement was waging long-term, ideological warfare to ensure conservatives controlled the GOP.
As a result of 40 years of building a conservative wing of the party that was independent of the GOP, the conservative movement essentially runs the Republican Party. They succeeded in shifting the Republican Party to the right by winning ideologically motivated primaries, waging a constant battle in the media to persuade grassroots conservatives to value ideology over party, and disciplining Republican elected officials through pressure campaigns.
The Limitations of the Progressive Movement
The progressive movement has not been a counterweight to the conservative movement because our institutions have too often followed the Democratic Party, rather than leading it, and have limited capacity and power to challenge it.
This was on full display during the 2020 presidential primaries. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both put up strong fights and together had almost 50% of the electorate. And yet the establishment wing of the party was able to consolidate to defeat the Left. Complex issues of race, gender, and clashes between economic worldviews (a form of democratic capitalism vs. socialism) made it challenging for a progressive faction to align under one candidate enough to win in key primary states, including South Carolina. Unfortunately, this means that we are less prepared to deal with the crises that are demanding deeper structural change.
For the past several decades, Democratic donors have attempted to copy the Right by funding anchor organizations, often based in Washington, D.C. However, the vast majority of the infrastructure set up by wealthy liberal donors since 2004, after Stein’s presentation, exists to win a partisan conflict between Democrats and Republicans — not to engage in a long-term conflict between progressivism and neoliberalism (at least not on behalf of progressivism). Unlike the ideological infrastructure of the Right, the Center-Left infrastructure has not gone to scale to train, hold accountable, or replace members of the Democratic Party who veer from the progressive line.
The existing progressive institutions are also much less diverse than the rest of the party. The lack of investment in Black and Latino leadership, as well as a culture dominated by white leadership that is often timid on issues of racial justice in progressive institutions, has limited the impact of the progressive movement. Progressive groups like MoveOn are able to raise money from middle-class white people, but progressive groups led by people of color often have a difficult time raising money if they’re independent of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.
The lack of well-funded, representative, ideologically-rooted progressive infrastructure means the progressive movement follows and reacts to the Democratic Party by default, rather than working with or for the people. Meanwhile, the Republican Party works for the conservative movement.
The Path Forward
If we want to solve the crisis of American democracy, we must work to make the Democratic Party a vehicle for this progressive vision. To achieve this goal, progressives need to spend the next decade building institutions that can hold Democrats accountable to a progressive agenda.
Develop a Willingness to Challenge Democratic Leadership – as Donors, Organizations, and Progressive Electeds.
In DC, Democratic Party leadership has historically done a good job of keeping progressives in line without having to make policy or political concessions. While the number of progressives in state capitals and Congress is growing slowly but steadily, progressive caucuses rarely have the alignment or numbers to win policy fights with leadership.
Progressives need more legislative and political organizing capacity in DC and state legislatures to support the formation of stronger progressive caucuses. We need a stronger pipeline of staffers who are able to work in hill and legislative offices and who have a commitment to progressive values over careerism. And the progressive groups that work on legislation in Congress and state legislatures need more support to build power in opposition to party leadership when leadership is making the wrong compromises.
To reiterate a point we made before: there’s a justifiable concern about intra party conflict. But the fact is that leadership is being pulled hard by corporate and special interests, and therefore needs a progressive counterweight. This conflict is in the service of making the party actually better succeed at its own stated goals, helping it actually deliver the promises it has made to its base. In this sense, conflict should be understood as part of how good policy gets made. [There is a tradition in political theory that refers to agonistic politics, which comes from the Greek word for “struggle.” This struggle has a permanent place, and is the space of positive creativity.]
There is certainly a time when members of the Democratic Party should consolidate and strategize together, such as when a nominee has emerged from a presidential nomination process. But much of the political process is a process of ongoing debate and negotiation, and those representing the poor and working class should not sit on the sidelines while that debate takes place.
Wage a Battle of Ideas
Too often, progressive ideas are presented like a laundry list from different issue areas. To win for the long term, it’s crucial that progressive ideas be part of a coherent analysis of social transformation.
One core element that distinguishes political perspectives is an understanding of the relationship between government and the market. The fundamental argument of the Right is that government should be as limited as possible, focused primarily on national security, and the free market should be uninhibited. Neoliberals similarly see a primary role for the market, with a slightly larger role for government around social protections. Progressives believe that the government is the only force that can check the abuses of private power — setting labor standards, providing public goods like education, health care, and retirement, and breaking up monopolies when they become too large and powerful.
In the event of a pandemic like COVID-19, we can see the failure of the market to create sufficient supplies, like ventilators and masks. Government, not the market, can respond to crises and can coordinate the distribution of goods when profit is not the primary motive. Government can take initiative to address future crises, like climate change, which the market, in its responsiveness to short-term feedback, will not address on its own.
Conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation serve a crucial role in actively organizing the conservative wing of the GOP around policy fights. They’re not just putting out white papers into the void — they’re working closely with leaders in Congress and the grassroots to develop the ideas, win the media battles, and coordinate legislative and political strategy. Progressives have much less capacity to develop policy ideas, write legislation, organize politicians around our ideas, or successfully wage a media battle to define our ideas. We don’t have a shortage of ideas, but we do have a shortage of operatives waging battles to popularize and legitimize our ideas, and translating them into legislative wins.
The state of progressive media is similar to the think tanks: A shift is taking place, but many of the existing institutions have not yet caught up. There is unmet demand for independent progressive media outlets, spokespeople, and content. In addition to developing new channels that popularize and explain progressive ideas, we need more training and placing of progressive spokespeople on TV.
The New Right was successful in creating an entire media ecosystem — from the National Review to Newt Gingrich, from Fox News to the Christian Broadcasting Network — that supported the conservative wing of the party. The Left has nothing comparable.
Some of the best work being done on this front is the Race/Class Narrative (RCN) developed by Anat Shenker-Osorio, Ian Haney Lopez, and Heather McGee. This work creates a framework to talk about how the working class has been divided along racial lines, in a way that undermines their ability to organize for economic justice for all. White supremacy has become a tool of the wealthy to retain power and erode support for government programs. By coming together across lines of race, we can fight for a more just economy for all.
Elect More Progressives (Through Primaries)
If progressives want to transform the Democratic Party into a progressive party, we must be able to win competitive primaries. Winning primaries makes the Democratic Party more representative in terms of race and gender, and also shifts the party ideologically toward the progressive agenda. Thus, one way to move the party to the left and make it more reflective is to invest in primary elections with candidates who are values-aligned and reflective of the voters in reasonably safe democratic seats. With 10 more people in Congress as clear in their beliefs as Representatives Ocasio-Cortez or Pramila Jayapal, the center of gravity in the party would shift dramatically.
It is currently very difficult for progressives to unseat neoliberal incumbents — or even defeat them in competitive primaries for open seats. Winning elections requires a significant amount of money and resources. It also means engaging much earlier in election cycles, to support outsider candidates achieving viability. The most difficult incumbents to defeat, recent history has shown, are neoliberal people of color elected officials who have deep roots in a community but have taken actions that do not serve the interests of the community.
Groups that back primary candidates — especially working-class, people of color with a bold inclusive populist vision — are taking a huge risk. They are told they are wasting their money and should only be working to elect Democrats against Republicans. Thus, there is very little individual or institutional support for progressive candidates who come from working-class backgrounds, especially people of color, and who are looking to provide a new vision for the party.
Make Sustained Investments in Leadership Development — Particularly Amongst Black and Latino leaders
One of the most urgent needs within the progressive movement is developing more leaders who can win and wield political power. Leadership development of progressives is unfortunately broken. On the Right, institutions like the Leadership Institute provide ideologically rooted, politically valuable training to thousands of people every year. The Leadership Institute alone has revenue of over $15 million per year and a full-time staff of 83. They train staffers, campaigners, candidates, and organizational leaders in a shared ideology and up-to-date best practices. There is simply nothing comparable on the Left.
As a result, there is a dearth of candidates, campaign staff and office staff who are qualified and trained on progressive ideas. The lack of ideologically aligned candidate and staff training, and the absence of political education alongside skill-based training, means that Democratic leaders who come out of our trainings don’t see themselves as part of a shared project in the same way that conservatives do.
Many of the organizations that exist independently of the Democratic Party leadership have historically been white-led. There are few career opportunities for Black and Latino leaders who are interested in working outside the neoliberal wing of the party. It’s particularly important to invest more in Black and Latinx led organizations who are part of the progressive wing of the party.
Build the Infrastructure to Co-Govern
Membership-based organizations are an essential ingredient to winning elections for Democrats and co-governing the day after the election. State and local community-based organizations like Living United for Change in Arizona, the Texas Organizing Project, New Virginia Majority, New Florida Majority, and Pennsylvania Stands Up, are essential to growing the progressive wing of the party. They organize new individuals into the progressive movement, offer political education on issues and on the dynamics of power, they help turn people out before an election, and afterwards, they move legislation and advocate for their communities.
However, the leaders of these organizations report that their funding dips drastically in off-cycle years, between elections. This is when their work of turning ideas into law actually begins. These organizations are building capacities to work with legislators to move an agenda and hiring staff to coordinate with Capitol Hill, their city, or state leaders. But they need more capacity to develop programs that pressure elected Democrats, support primary campaigns for progressives, push progressive policy campaigns, and lift up narratives and messages that shift public opinion.
In addition, only some of these organizations have the capacity to recruit candidates or run elections and issue campaigns independently of the Democratic Party. These groups need to be supported to develop more electoral skills and capacity, and a new generation of local organizations needs support to win local and state races.
Align the Coalition
In addition to expanding the base, progressive organizations, elected officials, and leaders need to align on the need to build a progressive wing of the Democratic Party together. While a growing number of progressive organizational leaders and elected officials understand the need to build political power together, efforts to do so are at a very early stage.
Currently, many issue-based organizations feel accountable solely to their unique issue. There is little incentive to join together with other groups — particularly those that work on different issues — to build political power together. The funding structures for candidates, elected officials, and multi-issue groups similarly disincentivize collaboration and collective power-building. On the right, donors like the Koch Brothers fund entire integrated ecosystems, which minimizes competition amongst groups for funding. Like many other conservative donors, it is a given the groups they fund will work together and engage in the conflict within the Republican Party.
Organizations like Sunrise and United We Dream have had tremendous success at shifting the Democratic Party towards the movement’s demands by intervening in the fight within the party. Sunrise has successfully put a Green New Deal on the national agenda, and works with other organizations on shared goals. United We Dream went to battle with Democrats over strategies for immigration reform and won significant victories.
However, on many issues, there are no national organizations that align with the progressive wing of the party in the fight against the neoliberals. The gap could be filled by existing organizations moving in a new direction, or by new organizations set up for that purpose.
The more existing advocacy organizations understand themselves to be part of the progressive wing of the party, the more powerful they will be. However, that will take an increased openness to conflict with Democratic Party leadership by major funders and leaders of big NGOs.
The Role for Progressive Donors
To achieve the transformations we need, it will be crucial for a cohort of progressive donors to understand this history, this strategy, and be willing to join together in a vision for the future. This will require a break with some old habits.
To date, to be “a good political donor” has meant giving to the Democratic Party’s institutions, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the Democratic National Committee. We need a strong party, but we must make sure that party stands for something and is accountable to its base. To accomplish this, donors will need to be willing to fund organizations that support the progressive wing of the party, and willing to hold party leaders accountable.
This requires a shift in understanding conflict as inherent to politics, and a broader perspective on the dynamics to which elected leaders are responding. In the attempt to avoid conflict, donors and donor groups that are conciliatory will result in elected officials having to face far more pressure from the Right. It is no wonder, then, that the country moves in that direction. Progressives must have an independent force that can counter the power of corporations and right-wing opposition. And thus, donors must understand that organizations that pressure party leaders are a necessary part of the process.
The way forward requires bold ideas and a willingness to take risks. But most of all, it requires an understanding of power, and the relationship between an organized base, a vision, and political leadership.