Friday, February 21, 2014

What Democrats need to do to maintain the "coalition of the ascendant"

We've seen how it worked. In both 2008 and 2012, President Obama put together a "coalition of the ascendant" that recognized the changing face of America and beat the historical odds to win two national elections. That coalition was made up of people of color, millenials and college educated white people (mostly women).

But while pundits are warning Republicans that if they don't reach out to Latinos their Party is doomed in the future, most of the advice they are giving Democrats tends to ignore the very coalition that brought this success to Democrats. The narrative that we hear most often is all about a progressive populism that focuses primarily on income inequality.

And so I'd like to counter that narrative by suggesting that there are some things Democrats need to do in order to maintain the momentum started by President Obama and build on the success of the coalition of the ascendant.

First and foremost, they need to go "all in" on the 2014 mid-term election. Groups like Priorities USA that decide to sit this one out and wait for 2016 risk incurring the ire of those of us who know that what has halted progress in this country is NOT the lack of presidential leadership, but Republican obstructionism. That is a direct result of the 2010 mid-term election when too many Democrats decided to sit things out - giving the teapublicans the opportunity to win both Congressional majorities and governorships/state legislatures. The real base of the Democratic Party knows that winning presidential elections is not enough. And we'll be watching to see who puts it all on the line to do what needs to be done in 2014.

In terms of issues, supporting a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers as a necessary component of immigration reform is a must. The current status quo is not sustainable. End of story.

A HUGE issue for this coalition are the Republican attacks on voting rights. These affect nearly all components of this group - including people of color primarily, but also students and low income Americans. Protecting the franchise (and actually expanding it as AG Eric Holder has called for with the abolition of disenfranchisement of felons) will be a critical component of maintaining the coalition.

Anyone who really watched what Mayor Bill DeBlasio did in New York City to win his overwhelming victory there is aware that he did not simply champion the cause of income inequality. He also promised to do away with the odious Stop and Frisk policy of his predecessor. That garnered him huge support in the African American and Latino communities - as well as many of the millenials who were often subject to that policy.

Watching the reaction to the murders of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, we can draw parallels to the need to end policies like Stand Your Ground and the school-to-prison pipeline that affects so many young people of color. Much like the attacks on voting rights, these are issues that often fall off the radar screen of too many white middle class Democrats.  But they are literally life and death issues to many of the people who make up the coalition of the ascendant.

Of course continuing the work of President Obama on LGBT equality, women's rights, education and healthcare reform will be crucial as well as addressing the issues of income inequality and climate change. The point here is that there is no single issue that unites this coalition. All the voices must be heard.

Back in 1981 Bernice Johnson Reagon (who is perhaps best known for founding the group Sweet Honey in the Rock) gave a speech on coalition politics that is a must-read for every Democrat/progressive/liberal. I'll simply give you a little taste - but seriously, go read (and study) the whole thing.
We’ve pretty much come to the end of a time when you can have a space that is “yours only”—just for the people you want to be there...To a large extent it’s because we have just finished with that kind of isolating. There is no hiding place. There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. It’s over. Give it up...

Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there. They’re not looking for a coalition; they’re looking for a home! They’re looking for a bottle with some milk in it and a nipple, which does not happen in a coalition. You don’t get a lot of food in a coalition. You don’t get fed a lot in a coalition. In a coalition you have to give, and it is different from your home...

It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world. And that we are here to stay and that anything that is here is ours to take and to use in our image. And watch that “ours’ make it as big as you can...The “our” must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive. You must be sure you understand that you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions. Cause I ain’t gonna let you live unless you let me live. Now there’s danger in that, but there’s also the possibility that we can both live—if you can stand it...

There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the 60’s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.
In other words, maintaining this coalition is not about some Kumbaya moment designed to make you feel better. Its hard - even dangerous - work. And its not about getting our egos fed, its about giving rather than receiving.

But it is also exactly what Rev. William Barber is referring to when he talks about "fusion politics." And its what David Simon meant when he talked about "The Death of Normal."
America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions. The America in which it was otherwise is dying, thank god, and those who relied on entitlement and division to command power will either be obliged to accept the changes, or retreat to the gated communities from which they wish to wax nostalgic and brood on political irrelevance...

We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.
Any political party - including Democrats - that wants to survive had better start listening to people like Bernice Johnson Reagon, Rev. William Barber and David Simon on continuing the work President Obama has begun to build the coalition of the ascendant.

23 comments:

  1. Do you think nationally focused SuperPacs are all that helpful with individual Congressional races? It's been my experience that PACs just gum up the works by going off message and promoting their own agenda. I doubt a SuperPac would have changed the outcome of 2010. Too may swing voters were royally pissed about the bank bail outs and the economy in general. Plus SuperPacs do exactly nothing to maintain coalitions. That's an on-the-ground function and requires leadership and constant nurturing.

    I haven't seen any evidence that swing voters are pissed about anything this year. I don't even think they'd respond to angry messaging. I think comparing 2014 to 2010 is a mistake. Looking at this election as a national one isn't helpful either. Each race has to be viewed individually. Those coalition voters must be wooed on a race-by-race basis. SuperPacs aren't in a good position to do that.

    I sincerely doubt that anyone has a finger on the pulse of the American electorate yet this cycle. The pundit class has no data with which to make their sweeping predictions. If the coalitions don't hold together, as they so often do not in the absence of dynamic leadership, then I'm not going to point the finger at a SuperPac.

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    1. Perhaps I shouldn't have used Priorities USA as an example on that one point. This is really directed at the Democratic Party and potential nominees. And in no way am I comparing 2010 and 2014. My point was that most of us are committed to NOT repeating that one.

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    2. I'm weary of people finger-wagging at the Democratic Party. We weren't the ones who stayed home in 2010. I worked my rear end off that year doing GOTV. The only people I listen to about getting people to vote are the people who are actually trying to get people to vote. As far as coalitions are concerned, the only people I see trying to hold together the coalition is the Democratic Party.

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    3. As I said in the article, this was written to counter the narrative that the way forward for Democrats is to simply run on a populist message about income inequality. What I've outlined here is an alternative that I haven't heard articulated.

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    4. Why do you think the populist message about income inequality won't work?

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    5. No, it's running only on this populist message that may be a problem.

      There are other issues out there. I'm just as concerned about voter's rights, women's reproductive rights as I am about income inequality. It is the most important issue to me, but to ignore the other ones would be foolish. But, then again, this would depend on which part of the country your talking about.

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    6. Let me clarify...I do consider income inequality to be the most important issue, but I've got a very close eye on the other two I mentioned above.

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    7. Tien Le - I think income inequality is important (and I included it in the list of things we need to address). But my point is that we can't forget the other issues I mentioned.

      For example, for most Latinos, immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship is more important than addressing income inequality. And for many African Americans, ending policies like Stand Your Ground and protecting voting rights would be more important. As white people who aren't as affected by those kinds of things - we need to hear that.

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    8. Here's the thing, voters only have the patience for one issue. I'm not saying these issues aren't important, they are very important. Show me a recent successful Congressional campaign that had a central theme of civil rights. Then look for successful Congressional campaigns that have jobs as a central theme. Income inequality is about jobs.
      Ending Stand Your Ground has to take place at the State level, not at the Congressional level. Congressional Dems are already trying to tackle voting laws at the National level, but when you start trying to campaign at the national level by saying you'll change state laws...that's a recipe for disaster. If people want to address SYG and voting rights, then get active trying to elect better STATE reps and Governors. States rights are death to Congressional races. Income inequality affects pretty much everyone from every walk of life, so it is an excellent catch-all for a lot of the problems we're having in this country: poverty, loss of benefits, health care, early education, child care, etc.
      One of the consistent problems Dems have had in the past is our messaging is all over the map—everybody tries to attach their pet issue onto the messaging—and then we lose. Having this one core issue that excites the base (and it does, btw), and resonates with swing voters is the best thing that could happen to a mid-term cycle. Plus it forces the Republicans to openly run *against* higher wages! h/t Spandan at The People’s View.
      We can’t tackle issues by sitting on the sidelines. We have to win first. Winning messages like income inequality will help us be in power to change things.

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    9. I know of instances where Dems have been able to make signal inroads in heavily conservative parts of the country by focusing on economic issues while their GOP opponents choose to deal with wedge issues instead.

      And it's been shown that Americans do tend to lean more to the left on these issues. It's one of the reasons why the conservatives began the "culture war." They wanted to distract from that. They even began dressing economic issues in racist, coded language (thanks to Lee Atwater) to distract even more.

      So, I definitely see your point, Tien Le.

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    10. Tien Le - I think your message will help us win with white middle class people. The idea of telling people of color that "we'll get to your issues later" has a lot of historical precedence. Folks generally know that it doesn't work to buy that one.

      If you think what I'm suggesting won't work - take a look at what Moral Mondays is doing. They are mobilizing the coalition of the ascendant. And please notice my point #1...its all about state and local elections in 2014.

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    11. I'm saying that if the issues are State issues, you work on them at the State level, not at the National level. Moral Mondays are great because they're addressing State issues. They are the product of a State government that has run amok. They are exactly how to go about this. That is some real coalition building. It takes strong leadership to build and maintain a coalition, not a bunch of slogans on mailers and TV ads. I think you're confusing coalition building that targets specific issues with how to win a Congressional race. Electoral politics do not equal tackling issues. Telling Democrats we need to focus on your key issues instead of winning doesn't make sense to me.
      I'm NOT telling you how to win with White Middle-Class voters. I'm telling you how to win with SWING voters. They are not the same demographic. Swing voters are the holy grail of elections. They were the ones who determined the outcome in 2010, not minorities. Remember, we're talking about a mid-term election here. Whole other ball of wax.

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    12. A HUGE part of Moral Mondays is voter mobilization. The question then becomes - what motivates people to vote? If those "swing" voters are white, then the message of economic populism is likely to work. But the whole idea of the coalition of the ascendant has been bringing in people who haven't typically voted - at least not regularly. Obama's campaigns brought them into the presidential election and now groups like OFA, Battleground Texas, Moral Mondays and others are working to get them out for the midterms. That's where the coalition-building is happening.

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    13. Activating voters does require leadership and purpose. Getting people to vote in mid-terms is a huge challenge that will be greatly helped by the groups you mention (although OFA isn't a field structure anymore). Swing voters are people who don't decide how to vote based on partisan lines. They are represented by every race and class and age group in this country. The Tea Party swung them their way in 2010. If organizations like Battleground Texas and Moral Mondays can get them to swing toward their agenda, more's the better. Wagging fingers at the Democrats doesn't help that process. The Dems have hit on a winning message, and they will work with anyone who wants to help get these swing (and lazy) voters activated.

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    14. I'm sorry you think that this post was about "wagging fingers at Democrats."

      This country is at a crossroads when it comes to the "third reconstruction" Rev. Barber talks about. Its important to me that we have a party that has its eyes set on taking the right course. I'll continue to speak my mind about that.

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    15. I really do think we are making a mistake here if we assume that "income inequality" is uniquely a "white middle-class" problem. It should be noted that racism has been used by the Right to attack the social safety net for decades. So, even here, nonwhite voters have "skin" in the game. Especially when the GOP continues to use racial animosity in 2014 to attack the social safety net. I still say that economic inequality is a key issue because, in America, it's always been tarred in racism. The only difference nowadays, is that more people are seeing the connection. Part of the reasons why the first and second reconstructions didn't work was because this connection was not addressed.

      I still think economic inequality is a key message, but given that this is the mid-terms we're talking about here, that message may not work in all areas of the country.

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  2. I like to put it this way: Ron Wyden just became chair of the Finance Committee. He's the most liberal chair of that committee in decades.

    And he would lose that position if the Democrats don't keep the majority in the Senate this November.

    So even if you don't like the particular democrat on your particular ballot, just remember that you aren't voting for just one person but a coalition and that coalition contains people you would like to have in power. So work to get your crap elected because that crap will help the good guys get into positions of power.

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    1. Exactly. As I've pointed out, and others have as well, for all the complaining about the "Blue Dogs" in Congress, they were - and will be - the difference between Speaker Pelosi or Leader Pelosi. There's also a big difference between Committee Chair and Ranking Member. As another blogger put it, "what do 200 pure liberals in the House? Absolutely nothing."

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    2. I don't like the Blue Dogs either, but we need them right now. And at least they can be reasoned with. The GOP can't.

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  3. Mo'nin, Nancy and everybody

    Interesting and good debate. Think I see your point, Tien Le. From my vantage, as 2010 is being mentioned, and, as I recall it, there was a LOT of noise from folks like Ed Shultz and others being "disappointed" with the President and, then, they were gonna SHOW him. They were gonna "teach him a lesson". And, I sincerely believe that you worked your butt off to get people out to vote back in '10, but a LOT of people stayed home and, though PBO pretty much begged people not to give the keys back to the people who drove the car into the ditch, they gave them back. They have been hell bent to drive the car into the ditch again, and he has been fighting them very hard so that that won't happen. As we know.
    HOW, then, does one mobilize the Obama coalition to substantively vote in a mid-term (and it's important to keep in mind the components of this coalition)? To me, instead of an either/or approach, messages that would connect with minority voters is just of the utmost importance. Indeed...minorities didn't overtly decide '10 because they didn't vote in large numbers. But, to me, that means that covertly they did. And, that, considering what's at stake, is a HUGE problem. WHAT do you say to them that will get them to behave more like they do in national elections - where NO Democrat wins without them? If Dems are gonna hold onto the Senate and put a significant dent - or better - in the House, a message re: income inequality, from my vantage, isn't going to be enough. Might be for white swing voters, but white swing voters aren't enough. A significant amount of black and brown people are going to be needed. Is what you're describing in need of focused attack on the State level? Indeed. Are we seeing the return on Jim Crow at the State level (i.e. Kansas, Arizona, Florida and a host of other states that are implementing this crap). Yes.
    But, there's a certain party that fueling every last one of these measures and that has to be understood nationally.
    If we really want to see PBO enact more progressive legislation, we have to give him a Congress (and a Speaker) that will work with him. And, to do that, black and brown folk GOTS to vote and they won't unless they believe they are being addressed.
    And, with respect to the reality that you tire of "finger wagging" at the Dems, Dems (because it is GOING to be at the top of the list), in my view, need to stop bein' punks about the ACA.

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    1. It should be remembered that the mid-terms, by their very nature, will be more driven at the state level. And I can tell you right now, that focusing on civil rights isn't going work in Kansas (a state you mentioned), but focusing on economic inequality will. Especially since people of color only make up 10-13% of the state's population. However, focusing on civil rights in Florida and Arizona may be more effective since these two states have well-publicized incidents and the percentage of nonwhites in both these states are higher.

      You have to be flexible in this regard, especially with the mid-terms. I actually think both Tien Le and Nancy are correct. It's just that Tien Le's approach may be more effective in one area whereas Nancy's in another. .

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  4. Politics is local...PBO began his career as community organizer empowering folks to address the concerns of their community....voter registration and voting play a strong role in this process....you have to start local and build up....city state local....we have to show our communities that there is a direct correlation between those pieces and show our folks how it impacts on their life...

    there is no one plan...we have to use multiple plans to achieve our goals...

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  5. There is only one way to get people to vote: ask them to. Doesn't matter what demographic it is, if you put together a field operation to support a candidate, and knock on a whole bunch more doors than the other side does, then you stand a chance of winning. It's not rocket science.

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