If you don't show up to play, you forfeit
by Tom Sullivan
Progressive politics is not a zero-sum game where if your issue gets attention, mine gets kicked to the curb. In the face of an extremist state legislature, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, built the Forward Together movement on inclusion and cooperation that got progressive groups out of their silos to work together. Against efforts to divide them, that model held together a diverse coalition of activists that succeeded in turning out Gov. Pat McCrory in a sweep year for Republicans. Yesterday at The Nation Barber proposed that this tested model could work under a Trump administration:
In the spring of 2013, when the voter-suppression bill was still making its way through the legislature, Moral Mondays emerged as the direct action of concerned citizens against the unconstitutional takeover of our state. Over a thousand North Carolinians were arrested in the largest state government–focused civil-disobedience campaign in US history (arrests that would later be thrown out by a state superior court judge). We took our stand in public, and we exposed the vulnerability of divide-and-conquer tactics to cross-racial, cross-class fusion coalition building.And so "workers stood with preachers and LGBTQ activists stood with the business community" in opposing McCrory, the legislature, and HB2. Barber concludes, "This moral, fusion organizing convinced a majority of North Carolinians to make McCrory the first governor in our state’s history to lose a reelection bid." Perhaps what's in order for progressives now is a little less focus on what went wrong in 2016 and more on the bright spots (Dan Heath) where things went right.
We fought back hard, organized all over the state, hosted more than 200 Moral Monday events, went to court to prove race-based voter suppression, and defeated one of the worst voter-suppression bills in the country since Jim Crow. We proved that we do not have to concede the battle in the South.
Barber's model has applicability to more than just the South. And we need it to. Because to borrow from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, it's not the economy, it's the math. As I argued earlier:
... if Democrats expect to be a national party, they are going to need to make inroads again in the red states, whatever urbanites feel about fellow citizens in the vast stretches of red on the map that supported Trump. Those states cannot be wished away or written off. This is not sympathy for the devil, real or imagined. It's math.To be sure, a lot of friends on the left are still processing November's painful losses. But in a lot of places we are more comfortable ignoring there are congressional seats and state House and Senate seats, and they matter. Martin Longman writes at Political Animal, the problem going forward is not that Democrats don't have widespread support, it's how that support is spread:
The challenge is not just to sustain and hopefully grow their plurality base of voters, but to change the demographic nature of their supporters. This is why you’ll hear people like me say that the Democrats absolutely cannot ignore that they lost 75%-80% of the white vote in county after county in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest. This is the kind of racial voting we’ve seen in the South for years, and if it becomes the norm in the North it will make it impossible for the Democrats to win control of state legislatures in that region, make it nearly impossible to win back the U.S. House of Representatives, and give the Republicans a narrow opening to win the Electoral College with a minority of the popular vote, again.Longman argues, as I do, that building progressive strength in heartland states is "not about selling anyone out." (Rev. Barber's Forward Together model does not.) There are a lot of people in red states who do not share progressive values, but abandoning wholesale those who do is not the way to win back the House, the Senate, and state legislatures.* As DNC chair, Howard Dean got that. When Obama and the national Democratic leadership abandoned the 50-state plan, they abandoned their own voters with it. And here we are.
A lot of people do not like the sound of that. But I don’t care how it sounds. It isn’t a value statement or an assessment of worth. It’s just a diagnosis of a problem. How you solve it, if it can be solved, is what ought to be controversial. The fact that it needs to be solved should not.
Some years back, I worked a winning congressional race in one of our majority-Democrat districts that consistently votes Republican in federal races. (Yes, lots of conservadems.) We won, in part, by shaving the margins in Republican strongholds. Years later, I am still high-fiving our organizer in the most Republican large county in the district. She lost there, but by only 3,000 votes. That. Was. Huge. And not in a Donald Trump way.
We've got to do that again, and in many more places. Because if we don't show up to play, we forfeit.
* In North Carolina, for example, 2,128,255 people (45%) voted for former ACLU attorney, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Deborah Ross who was supported by Democracy for America and EMILY's List.