The Left Reboots for Total War

Conservatives can be forgiven for believing the political winds are at their back. Obama is flirting with historically low approval ratings as much of the public simply tunes him out. Democrat-backed policies have failed to lift the economy and public anxiety about the limits of government activism grows. Conservative challengers will do well enough this primary season to argue that the "tea party" is alive and well. Behind the scenes, though, the left is retooling and the conservative movement seems unequal to the challenge. 

The upcoming edition of The Nation, the long-time house-organ of the institutional left, features a "symposium" with insights from leading organizers on ways to rebuild a progressive, populist political movement. The cornerstone of this effort is an astute, yet arguable, observation about the modern political landscape. 

The sad irony of American politics is that the right is far weaker than it appears and the left far stronger than it asserts. 

There is some truth in this, but not for the reasons the author, Peter Borosage, probably imagines. The American right is far weaker than it ought to be, given Americans' views on most issues. According to exit polls, a majority of voters in an election in which Barack Obama won a second term also believed that government was "doing too much." Just about one-in-four voters who voted in 2012 described themselves as "liberal." 

America is a center-right country. Yet, the left has been able to project its political power far more effectively than conservatives. It understands far better how to organize people and to frame issues in a way that more immediately touches on their lives. 

Before its collapse from internal corruption, the leftist group ACORN had perfected the community organizing model of building political power. Its internal manual on building an organization advised activists to begin with long-simmering local needs, rather than tackle national issues. New chapters would organize for a stop sign at a dangerous intersection or speed bumps in a residential neighborhood, for example. Only after individuals had been identified, recruited and organized would the organization more on to larger, more political, issues. 

The writers participating in the "symposium" at The Nation are resurrecting this model. The left is organizing at the state and local level, focusing on issues like local minimum wages, paid leave and new workplace regulations. It is pushing cities and states to ensure workers have a minimum number of hours, not just minimum wages. Businesses would be required to give existing workers more hours before they were "allowed" to hire more part-time workers. 

The left is also pushing for a "bad business fee," which would penalize companies that don't pay high enough wages or benefits. Of course, funds raised by such "fees" would be spent by the left. 

In other words, while the national political climate seems to favor conservatives and Republicans, the left is rebooting at the state and local level. It is also planning an almost entrepreneurial approach to organizing that is, sadly, foreign to much of the conservative movement. 

David Rolf, a local SEIU president, writes:

The labor movement should stop investing the bulk of its funds in an infrastructure that has failed us and take a cue from an unlikely place: Silicon Valley. 

Rolf argues that technological innovation offers new opportunities for the left to strengthen its organizing. He argues that the left should adapt to the lessens of Silicon Valley, where investors seed hundreds of start-ups, hoping to find just one that will provide robust returns. The left, Rolf argues, should also experiment with new ways of organizing. 

By striking out into complexity instead of retreating back to what is familiar, progressives can seize this moment of crisis and win enormous victories for workers. However, labor and its progressive allies must be willing to experiment with new models outside traditional collective bargaining, even outside the traditional idea of a union.

Very few conservative organizations understand this. Even new "tea party"-inspired organizations use the same old establishment playbook of using direct fundraising appeals to finance yet another wave of TV advertising. Few resources are deployed to direct canvassing or organizing. 

David Brat, who shocked the political world by defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was, ironically, probably helped by being ignored by national conservative organizations. With so few resources, he had no choice but to devote his budget to basic door-to-door canvassing. His campaign, perhaps inadvertently, stumbled on the secret power of the left. 

In early April, 2009, I attended one of the first tea party rallies. A couple thousand people showed up at the event held in a city with a population of about 50,000. Both an organizer and a local Republican official told me separately, "we don't know who these people are, we've never seen them before." 

Conservatives still don't. There was no registration drive. There was no attempt to get contact info and recruit these self-selected activists. The rallies have long-since faded, the people who attended them are still out there. The conservative movement largely still doesn't know who they are.

The modern-day progressive movement was born out of complaints from Republicans about the party's coziness with big business and big banks. Nursed by Republican politicians like Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin and Teddy Roosevelt, the movement tapped into deep anxiety among the working and middle classes. These genuine concerns were hijacked by labor unions and others to build the progressive left.   

The modern tea party arose from many of these same concerns; government-led bank bailouts, crony capitalist government spending, corporatism and an all too close relationship with the political parties and big business. Yet again, though, the left is positioned to reap the political rewards. 


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