Dems are worried about a Sanders or Elizabeth Warren candidacy—and also about Sanders and Warren supporters not falling into line behind a more “sensible” candidate.
It’s totally unhelpful to try to browbeat people into voting—even if you can locate the nonvoters you want to browbeat. That energy would be better spent getting behind a nominee who can attract more votes.
These conversations are silly for a couple of reasons. One is that they never include actual nonvoters. In my experience, it’s a bunch of people who are already planning to vote for the Democratic nominee telling each other that everybody had better vote for the Democratic nominee. Worse, they are getting it backwards. It’s totally unhelpful to try to browbeat people into voting—even if you can locate the nonvoters you want to browbeat. That energy would be better spent getting behind a nominee who can attract more votes.
There is a big divide in the Democratic Party over whether we need a transformational figure to run against Trump, or just someone sane and normal (and one who will protect the interests of the wealthy and avoid frightening Wall Street).
The truth is, we don’t know whether the candidate with the most progressive policy ideas will win. What we do know is that there are different paths to victory. Right now the path we are on is the path to destruction with a malignant narcissist who is stoking bigotry and white rage. That’s one path to victory, as we learned in 2016. Another path is the Obama way—inspirational progressive rhetoric plus a lot of Wall Street support.
The Sanders/Warren wing of the Democratic Party wants to try something different, and dangerous—embracing the enmity of corporate America and Wall Street. That makes people who are comfortable in the existing economic system nervous.
Whoever emerges from the Democratic primaries over the next few months will have to reach disparate constituencies, bring people together, shave off a few Republicans who don’t like Trump, and inspire the young people and people of color whom they need to turn out. That’s a lot to pull off.
In the lead-up to the Democratic convention in Wisconsin, the swing state that could make all the difference in the next presidential race is overrun with political consultants and organizers focusing their money and attention on the state, and carrying around different playbooks for beating Trump.
Some have a deeper understanding of the political landscape than others.
Justin Myers, who runs the “permanent progressive field program” of For Our Future, a labor-funded grassroots group that is knocking on doors in seven swing states, says the key to victory is connecting with voters, and getting a bead on the issues they care about.
For Our Future is putting eight field offices and hundreds of staff into every area of Wisconsin to ask voters what matters to them.
And, Myers takes pains to note, they are staying year-round and building relationships with longstanding grassroots groups here. They are not just parachuting in for a single election.
“If you look at a lot of the paid messaging [a.k.a. political advertising],” says Myers, “it’s about national issues, for the most part, right? You’ll see an ad about Social Security this year. We’re going to see an ad about some national issue. But at the end of the day, there is a large subset of voters that don’t consume media, specifically political media, in the way that we do. So you’re missing them when you’re talking about those issues.”
“If you want to enlarge the electorate, which is what we want to do,” Myers says, “we want to connect on hyperlocal issues.”
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Sounds like a more constructive activity than browbeating nonvoters.
Another person who gets it is Ben Wikler, the dynamic new chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
“The thing I’m frustrated by every day is the idea that you can’t fight for both white working-class voters and voters of color,” he told me in an interview for the Wisconsin Examiner. “Guess what? There are people of all races in the working class. And all of them want schools and jobs and safe communities and air they can breathe. And none of them like the effects of Trump’s actual policies—even if some of them think they might like Trump as a guy.”
As for the national debate about whether Democrats need to drive their base to turn out or persuade Trump voters to vote for the Democrat, Wikler said, “in Wisconsin we have to do both.”
“This is the thing,” he added, “we have to fight for every square inch of the state in 2020. We know that Trump is going to fight for every part of Wisconsin, but we also know that if we had cut down Trump’s margins in rural Wisconsin, if we had found a few more Trump-leery voters in the suburbs, if we had pushed through the ceiling a little bit more with turnout in Dane County, or if we’d come closer to Obama-level turnout in Milwaukee, we would have won in 2016.”
In January, Our Wisconsin Revolution, the grassroots group that grew out of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, named its first executive director, Mike McCabe. McCabe is a longtime fixture of progressive politics in the state. He ran the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign for fifteen years and founded Blue Jean Nation, a political movement for people who do not feel at home in either of the major political parties.
After making an unsuccessful run for governor in the 2018 Democratic primary, McCabe served briefly as executive director of We Are Many United Against Hate, a group that has brought together white, working-class people who have been recruited by hate groups with members of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities who have been the targets of scapegoating by white nationalists. All of these experiences serve to inform McCabe’s approach to his current job.
Unlike most of the national groups (Priorities USA, American Bridge) that are dumping money into Wisconsin and other swing states to try to affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential race, Our Wisconsin Revolution is focused on a long-term transformation and reviving a dormant Midwestern, populist tradition.
All the intense focus on the next election cycle, McCabe told me, is “one reason we’re in the mess we’re in. People are told what they should vote against, but not what we should be for.”
Our Wisconsin Revolution, which is made up of Sanders supporters as well as people who support other candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary, McCabe said, will seek to identify and support “transformational leaders” to run for office at the local and state level.
“Our government is not decisively acting on any of the serious problems we face,” he said.
He went on to paraphrase the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, saying “the kind of politics needed to address a lot of our problems does not exist.” To curb economic inequality and the effects of automation and globalization, McCabe said, “We need to revolutionize Wisconsin and eventually America.”
To that end, he wants to build up Our Wisconsin Revolution’s local chapters around the state, recruit and support candidates for local and statewide office, and restore the kind of political consciousness that drove the reforms of the Progressive Era. This effort to empower people from the bottom up, instead of trying to get them to support the person at the top, is the kind of work that might frustrate people who are focused on the outcome of the election in 2020.
But whether a Democrat beats Trump or not, we are going to need a movement of people who recognize their common interests, and can get together and fight for them. It’s the only way we will save what’s left of our planet, our civil society, and ourselves.