State infrastructure—especially grassroots organizing—is the weakest link of the progressive movement. That is reflected in the loss of nearly 1,000 legislative seats since 2010. Republicans now have a trifecta (control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature) in 24 states and control both houses of the legislature in another seven. This impacts every issue at every level of government.
Voter suppression laws passed in 17 states affect more than 110 million people and account for 194 of the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the presidency. Ari Berman notes that Donald Trump won Wisconsin by just 27,000 votes, but 300,000 registered voters lacked strict forms of ID to vote, according to a federal court. The state’s voter-ID law depressed turnout, particularly among black voters. Turnout was at its lowest level in Wisconsin in 20 years and down 10 percent in Milwaukee, where 70 percent of the state’s black residents live. At least 17 states have restrictive laws on abortion. Twenty-eight states have antiunion “right to work” laws. People who work in “right to work” states make on average $5,971 (12.2 percent) less annually than workers in states without those laws, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We see this same pattern with restrictive immigration laws, criminal justice, death penalty, gun, environmental, and other legislation.
To turn this around, we need to invest in grassroots networks around the country—both a 50-state strategy and a focus on building in key states where we can have an impact on redistricting in 2020. It means organizing where we have support—in the blue strongholds in swing states, cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia and Phoenix. And it means organizing where we do not have majority support—in Lorain, Ohio and Dubuque, Iowa. It means having a racially and culturally appropriate connection with communities.
Our mission is to increase progressive muscle at the state and local levels, especially in swing states. This involves organizing as well as movement building, using on-the-ground as well as online/social media techniques. It includes communications, research, policy, digital, and above all, building a human connection.
To do this we need to hire, train, and supervise organizers whose job it will be to find those who will vote for progressives. We need to be organizing both those we need to mobilize and those we need to persuade. We need to fund candidates for down-ballot races, to build our farm team and impact local politics. The Koch Brothers are doing this for every position from sheriff to school board. We need the political funding, not only restricted non-partisan money, to do the same—the amount of money is important, but so is the kind of funding to do advocacy and politics.
There is so much good work that can be built upon. There are local groups whose names may not be known outside of their area, and state groups, networks, and coalitions along with well-known national organizations. The question is, are we supporting the building of locally based state power?
The work includes a wide variety of approaches: house parties and meetings; deep canvassing with in-depth conversations, finding emotional connections with people; neighbor-to-neighbor conversations; support for community building and social time or service together; town halls and tactics we have not yet explored deeply or tested.
The principles taught at the Midwest Academy organizer training center, which has trained thousands of leaders since its founding in 1973, can guide this organizing:
- Win victories that improve people’s lives, based on our values. We start with values and connect for concrete victories that people care about, finding common interests. Based on love for our neighbors we believe no one should be without health care or excluded from care because of a pre-existing condition. Because we care about our environment, we work for air we can breathe and streams that are not polluted.
- Give people a sense of their own power. Equip people with the tools and the confidence to raise their voice, tell their story, stand up, make their demands, and involve themselves and others like them in the fight for those victories. Town halls with people showing their righteous indignation helped stop the healthcare repeal, or at least slow it down. Deep canvassing and conversations helped to win over a majority of this country to support the right to marriage equality.
- Change the relations of power. Identify structure-changing reforms that give people power over the institutions that impact them. We do this with unions and with peoples’ organizations. Victories in this realm put people in control of future decision-making—community control, voting rights, and immigration reform are examples where power shifts.
We have been here before. We ended segregation. We ended a war. We have won majority support for a pathway to citizenship. We have support for women’s right to reproductive choice. We made these gains and learned then what we must remember now: Don’t Agonize, Organize!