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Moving American Politics to the Left


Yglesias correctly notes the real way to move American politics to the left:

If you want to move US public policy to the left, what you have to do is to identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them on Election Day with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. I think this works pretty reliable. To my mind, the evidence is pretty clear that even the election of fairly conservative pushes policy outcomes to the left as long as the guy they’re replacing was more conservative. And if your specific concern is that the Democratic Party isn’t as left-wing as you’d like it to be, then what you need to do is identify incumbent holders of political office and then defeat them in primaries with alternative candidates who are more left-wing. It’s noteworthy that even failed efforts to do this, such as Ned Lamont’s 2006 run against Joe Lieberman and Bill Halter’s 2010 run against Blanche Lincoln led to meaningful policy shifts simply by being credible. But left-wing critics of the Democrats often seem to me to be somewhat in denial about their poor record of success with these endeavors. “If we can’t beat a Senator in Connecticut, let’s take on an incumbent president who’s substantially more liberal than Lieberman” isn’t a logical program of action. The right lesson to learn from these Senate bids is that they’re worth trying again if circumstances are right, but that even they may be too ambitious. You walk before you run. Maybe you win state legislative and House races before you win Senate elections. Research indicates that previous experience in elective office is one of the main predictors of candidate success, so perhaps it’s only through a concentrated effort to increase progressive representation in state government that a pool of talented primary challenges can be generated.

Yes, yes, yes. Or at least mostly yes. I’d expand it slightly to say that we also need increased class consciousness in poor and middle-class Americans that opens space for radical politics, but that’s a more long-term problem that I can go into if anyone cares.

But he’s absolutely right in noting the hard drudgery work that it takes to move politics to the left. This is especially true of the left, which doesn’t have the access to the money of the Koch Brothers and other evil robber barons. The modern conservative movement started by activists taking over local school boards, land-use boards, county commissioner positions, and other local offices. They built their network up from there, moving into the statehouse and then working to get members of Congress and presidential candidates elected. The current Republican Party insanity may be astroturf-roots in some ways, but it’s also the culmination of a half-century of movement conservative organizing to take over local, state, and finally the national Republican Party, making politicians fear their wrath in primaries if they are thwarted.

Progressives’ response was to support Ralph Nader for president.

I’m being a little flippant there, but liberals’ focus on big national questions is a problem because those are the realms where it is most difficult to make change. Taking over county and state Democratic Parties would be a more useful endeavor than a third-party challenge like Nader in 2000. Or more useful than whatever liberal might try a 3rd party campaign against Obama in 2012.

I feel like this issue of organizing on the local level and building from the bottom of the political party up to the top is one of many ways that conservatives understand American politics better than liberals.

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