If I could do anything to strengthen progressive politics for generations to come, it would be to invest in robust, dynamic, and evergreen candidate recruitment and support pipelines. Many of the finest people I know are strong Democrats. They are passionate about progressive causes, volunteering money and time, posting on Facebook, organizing their friends around issues local and global. They host casual debate-watching parties, maybe attend a fundraiser or two, buy socially conscious products, and work to make their communities safer, fairer, healthier places to live.
But they don’t run for office.
Some do, but they are the exception. For every woman I know running for office, I know at least 30 who say “oh, I could never do that,” then run their lives and homes and businesses like they were born to lead. The same is true of the men I know running for office, though the numbers are probably a little less skewed. For every great man seeking elected office, I’m sure I could point to five or ten taking a back seat. I see it all the time with my interns, particularly women and people of color—they see themselves as background players when I know they are superstars in the making.
I know so many truly great team players—I want to develop them into team leaders. How? By harnessing the best of what we already have. You see, I think that Democrats and progressives have an innate desire to help people, but they don’t always associate that desire with a desire to lead. Too many of the best people are turned off by the top-down, ego-driven, mud-slinging involved in running for office and seeking power. “Politician” has become a dirty word, synonymous with power-seeking and greed.
But public office should be about public service, not power. And there are plenty of good people (in both parties) who seek leadership out of a desire to help improve the lives of their fellow Americans. They are already out there— leading local non-profits, serving as social workers, teaching our kids, and more. So many Millennials are public-service oriented; those are the future leaders I want to target and to encourage, to rehabilitate the image of elected public service so that it attracts the best, brightest, and most selfless.
Selfless devotion is nothing new to people who have already served their country by serving in our nation’s military. And it’s among military veterans that some of the finest potential candidates for political leadership reside. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is already hard at work recruiting veterans, talking to more than 250 potential candidates in 64 districts. That’s exactly the kind of outreach we need, but we also need much more.
We need to connect the grassroots to the grasstops. Since Donald Trump’s election, brilliant, creative activists have come out of the woodwork to resist in ways the establishment never could have guessed or organized. Tens of thousands of new progressive candidates have declared themselves in response to the most regressive and frightening regime in recent American history. Resistance builds strength and we would be fools not to jump on the opportunity that this calamity has afforded. But let’s take that message of resistance and turn it into a force for positive change through electoral success by reconnecting to the grassroots.
Too often, in response to innovative organizing work, a traditional establishment will come in and try to co-opt the momentum for its own purposes. The Democratic Party—a national, bureaucratic, and legacied organization—must be careful to elevate, strengthen, and share, without strong-arming. Millennials and those catalyzed by Trump’s “policies” are the future of progressive politics. The candidate-recruitment and support pipeline I’d build would have the intrinsic benefit of connecting those at the top of the decision-making tree with those closest to the ground who know best what is going on in their own communities.
If we’d had this pipeline in advance of the 2016 election, I can only begin to imagine how different the world would look today.
In order to make maximum use of our new candidates and new commitment, we need to devote time and energy to training them in the practical realities of politics. Idealism is great but we need candidates who can get stuff done. We need political professionals who will show them how to turn ideas into policy, marketers to show them how to turn policies into stories, and fundraisers to teach them how to turn altruism into an ability to ask for support.