Yesterday, Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected the effort to revoke basic worker rights, delivering a stunning rebuke to conservative Gov. John Kasich. That spark was lit in Madison, Wisconsin last winter when workers took over the state capitol and launched unprecedented recall elections that sobered right-wing Governor Scott Walker and the Republican state legislature. The Occupy Wall Street movement turned the spark into a conflagration, transforming the political horizon.
Now, a range of progressive groups, led by Progressive Majority, are calling on citizen activists to Run for America, announcing a plan to recruit 2,012 progressive candidates in 2012 to run for public office at every level—from school board to state legislatures to Congress.
Two years ago, the Tea Party turned protest into political power, fielding right-wing challengers to office holders of both parties. Public dismay with the failed economy enabled Republicans to capture the House of Representatives, and state houses and legislatures across the country. They captured 675 state legislative seats, the largest sweep since 1938. Shock-doctrine conservatives then used the crisis to cut taxes on corporations while savaging public services. They moved to roll back worker rights to weaken unions, their most organized opposition. Realizing they represented a minority position, they passed a range of laws seeking to constrict voting rights, requiring photo IDs, limiting early voting, etc. Then they went after women's rights, environmental protections and the poor while doing most of what the business lobby asked of them.
Now from Madison to Wall Street and across the country, the new populist uprising is challenging the failed conservative ideas and corporate interests that have dominated our politics to devastating effect. The question now is whether that uprising will generate progressive challengers to conservative office holders in both parties. That will take not just inspiration but organization as well.
To supply that, Progressive Majority has joined with Moveon.org, US Action, the Center for Community Change, Rebuild the Dream, the New Organizing Institute and other partners in the emerging American Dream Movement to set the goal of recruiting and supporting 2,012 candidates in 2012.
Progressive Majority, led by Gloria Totten, marks its tenth anniversary this year. (Full disclosure: I helped found PM and serve as its board chair.) It is the only national progressive organization dedicated to electing progressive champions at the state and local levels. Prior to 2010, it helped elect more than 400 progressives, serving to flip six state legislative chambers, and 40 local governments. PM has 500 candidates in its "farm team," preparing to run in 2012 and beyond. It provides citizen candidates with the support they need to run serious campaigns.
And now it has launched an unprecedented effort to enlist thousands of progressives to enter the electoral lists and run for office. With characteristic clarity, PM President Gloria Totten summarizes the effort:
"Here's our plan for taking on the right. Defeat them. Get them out of office at every single level—the school board, city council, the mayor, state legislatures, U.S. Congress. Get them out. These are dangerous times which require ambitious measures."
This isn't a partisan effort. Progressives are well aware that corporate interests and conservative ideas compromise many Democrats as well as Republicans. When Illinois Senator Dick Durbin described Wall Street's hold over the Congress—"They own the place"—he wasn't referring just to their purchase of Republicans.
As Totten puts it, "Putting hundreds of people in office isn't enough. If we keep electing the same old kind of Democrat, we are not going to get the kind of change that we need." So Progressive Majority will recruit progressive champions —citizen activists who are prepared to make the personal sacrifice to run for office, and help turn this country around.
To achieve this, Run for America has to overcome widespread cynicism about electoral politics. We just witnessed entrenched interests dilute, delay and defeat needed reforms in Washington, even with a Democratic president, a mandate for change, and Democratic majorities in both Houses. Then Republicans, fueled by Tea Party protests, took the majority in the House, and immediately pursued the agenda of their big money contributors—voting to cut taxes on the rich, roll back financial and environmental protections, dismantle Medicare and Medicaid, and slash vital investment in everything from education to public health.
As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it, urging activists to run at the Take Back the American Dream Conference in Washington, conservatives count on "demoralization and cynicism. Their number one weapon is to discredit government, discredit the capacity of us working together through the institutions of government given to us by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers....because if people really believe nothing can change, and they can have no part in changing it, then that is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Needless to say, any progressive candidate faces a hard road. Opponents will be well funded. Money has to be countered with mobilization. Discouraged voters have to be inspired to trust again. It isn't easy.
But it is utterly essential. Over the next years, at every level of government, this country will face brutal choices. The conservative era that began with Reagan has resulted in unprecedented inequality, a declining middle class, a weakened labor movement, good jobs shipped abroad, and poverty spreading. Then Wall Street excesses blew up the economy, dramatically increasing the national debt, and devastating public budgets at every level. We now are faced with the bill for the mess, even as we have to build a new foundation for the economy.
Conservatives are utterly clear about their priorities. They want to continue the course we are on. They want the most vulnerable to pay the bill for Wall Street's mess, even as they champion more top end and corporate tax cuts.
To counter this will take more than protest. We need progressives in office willing to challenge this agenda, and to forge vital reforms. We've seen the Congressional Progressive Caucus lead the demand for jobs. We've seen Senator Bernie Sanders challenge the big banks. We've witnessed how effective advocates like Sen. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren can actually make things happen. Now we need to elect not a handful of progressive champions, but a critical mass, able to take on the powerful interests opposed to change. What Progressive Majority and its partners offer is vital support for those willing to step up.
As voters in Ohio have shown, politics is not a spectator sport. Democracy depends on citizens exercising the power of the vote to counter the power of money. With Run for America, Progressive Majority is looking for a few good men and women to take the field. If you will Run for America, go here.