Four Rules for managing an Effective Progressive Coalition

UPDATE: There are more pieces in this series. “Goals of an Effective Progressive Coalition” appears here. “The importance of rebranding faithless progressives” appears here.
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One of the changes I’ve decided to make coming out of Netroots Nation is to start writing more generally from time to time — essays and opinion pieces in addition to news and commentary.

The first of these pieces is this one: Four rules for managing an Effective Progressive Coalition (in my opinion, of course). These rules actually apply to any coalition, but I have a specific goal in mind, so forgive me if I don’t make this overly general.

By the way, I’m using capitals in the Coalition itself because I really want a proper name here, not just a description. I also want it to exist — anytime before my death would be fine with me.

Managing an Effective Progressive Coalition

An effective progressive coalition must be all three — progressive, effective, and a coalition — or it won’t be worth most people’s time to support.

▪ If it’s not progressive, it’s not of interest.
▪ If it’s not a coalition, it has no strength.
▪ And if it’s not effective — if it can’t accomplish anything — it’s worse than a sham; it’s a failure.

In practice, it seems to me that all of these goals will be more likely accomplished if every member of the Coalition — at the leadership level at least — adheres strictly to just four rules. These are:

Four rules for managing an Effective Progressive Coalition

1. No constituency in the Coalition is asked to take a backward step to advance another’s cause. (I call this the Cruickshank Rule; see below.)

2. Members of the Coalition have each others’ back. No constituency under attack stands alone. (A corollary of the Cruickshank Rule.)

3. The Coalition serves the Coalition first, not the Democratic Party or any other group or goals.

4. The Coalition preferences political action to discussion. (The No Dithering Rule.)

Though there one or two tripwires, this really isn’t that complicated. You could probably have written these rules yourself, had you put your mind to it (and been forced to write).

Discussion

I’ll offer a short gloss on each rule here, then expand my thoughts in the weeks and months ahead. I’ll also respond (and perhaps adapt) to comments and suggestions.

Note through the following the difference between progressive constituencies and progressive groups. Working people, for example, are a constituency. A particular labor union is a group, an institution. Women are a constituency. An individual anti-abortion, or equal rights, or fair-labor organization is a group.

Sometimes groups represent constituencies, but not always. That said, onward.

■ Rule 1. No constituency is asked to take a backward step (the Cruickshank Rule).

Here’s Robert Cruickshank, of whom I’ve written before, on this principle. He articulates it this way here. In other places (for example on Sam Seder’s show) he uses language like mine. Cruickshank:

Conservatives simply understand how coalitions work, and progressives don’t. Conservative communication discipline is enabled only by the fact that everyone in the coalition knows they will get something for their participation. A right-winger will repeat the same talking points even on an issue he or she doesn’t care about or even agree with because he or she knows that their turn will come soon, when the rest of the movement will do the same thing for them.

And:

Progressives do not operate this way. We spend way too much time selling each other out, and way too little time having each other’s back.

Does this need discussion? This is true on its face, and speaks squarely to effectiveness. Until the practice of groups trading each other out is ended, we will have no force.

Let me say that differently. Your group can trade us out if it wishes, but it’s not in the core of the Coalition if it does. No seat at a center table, no decision-making power. You’re with us to the extent that you play nice; and no further. We will not be cut from within. 

There are two ways to violate this rule:

One is the naked way — an immigrant group takes a deal that sells out gays; a labor union takes a deal that sells out veterans; and so on. (No, I won’t offer real examples; I will not sell out my brothers and sisters that way.)

The second is more insidious: Some progressive constituencies are asked to wait their turn — forever.

This happened in the years after Obama was elected. He had made a set of campaign promises to various progressive constituencies — immigrants were promised the DREAM Act; gays, an end to DADT and DOMA; labor, the enactment of EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act); and so on. There were many of these promises, in exchange for which the national Democrats got much progressive support.

Then came 2009, when Democrats held the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress. As an example of much that happened, let’s consider just those three constituencies — gays, immigrants and the labor movement.

What did the national Democrats do? Led by Obama, but not solely by him, they told gays, immigrants and groups representing labor: “Get behind us on health care first; after that we’ll enact your items.”

Despite the whinging and complaining, Obama’s healthcare bill passed, as each progressive group in turn fell into line.

Then what happened? No DREAM Act. No end to DADT and DOMA (at first; see below). No EFCA (even now nothing is on the table). The national Democrats got their “hamburger today”; progressives were left waiting for the Tuesday at the end of the world. (For the positive changes that gays and immigrants did affect, look no further than Rule 3.)

There’s a side benefit to strictly applying the Cruickshank Rule (no backward steps). We use the Rachet Effect to our advantage for a change. At some point, we’re playing on their end of the field — for a change.

■ Rule 2. Members have each other’s back. This is almost a Cruickshank corollary, but it speaks to unity, to coalition itself. If we don’t stand together, we don’t stand together. We’re not a coalition, but just a bunch of well-meaning entities, getting some stuff done (maybe) and inadvertently (or worse) undoing each other’s accomplishments.

Not what most of us had in mind when we joined this parade.

■ Rule 3. The Coalition serves the Coalition first, not the Democratic Party or any other group or goals.

This is both obvious and difficult. Obvious because examples abound where national Democrats and the party as a whole — dominated as it is by Rubinites and NeoLiberals, Blue Dogs (however rebranded) and conservatives — too often betray progressive values and goals.

Following this rule speaks directly to effectiveness, and applies most directly to the core of this Coalition, to its leadership level. In essence, this rule means, the Coalition can work with Democrats (or any other group), but it can’t be led by them. And when it has to fight its enemies on a given issue, it has to recognize those enemies — all of them — and deal effectively with them, all of them.

Not dealing with your enemies is a recipe for disaster. Cruickshank says, in the same piece quoted above:

[T]oday’s Democratic Party has two wings to it. One wing is progressive, anti-corporate, and distrusts the free market. The other wing is neoliberal, pro-corporate, and trusts the free market. … The only reason these two antithetical groups share a political party is because the Republicans won’t have either one.

At the time I printed that quote, I added this:

With Democrats, every advance of the DLC-corporate agenda is automatically a loss for progressives; and every progressive victory on taxes, for example, is always a loss for neoliberals. That baby can’t be split.

Cruickshank says that Obama has his own coalition, which isn’t quite identical with the Democratic “coalition.” In the Obama coalition, progressives are considered always expendable by Team Where Else You Gonna Go? (They’re also hated and sneered at, I’d add, but why pile on?)

The Democrats can be great partners, and the Party has many great progressive members. When they work with us, the result can be powerful. But when the Party works against us, progressives must separate, go our own way, treat them as opposition if that’s how they want to act.

How did gays get their great gains? Not by playing nice. By taking on the Democrats and winning. By challenging Obama in a room where he couldn’t run away. Unapologetically. How did immigrant constituencies get the recent part-way DREAM gain? By exploiting Obama’s need for immigrant votes — in an tightening election year — when the word was spreading that Obama was tougher on deportations than Bush. (UPDATE: For more on this, go here.) Simple, right? Practical, right?

Yet this is one of the tripwires. It’s emotionally very difficult for progressives to separate from Dems. In the years I’ve been working this beat, I’ve seen it again and again. I saw it at Netroots Nation just this month [2012]. Some of us have supported Dems most of our lives. We’ve worked to elect them. In many cases they are our best professional friends. Even progressives who see what the Party has become, treat it like an ex-spouse we still care about. We don’t live together any more, but we don’t want ill to befall them. We still care.

Yet to be effective, progressives have to choose between progressive goals and Party goals every time the choices conflict. If a person or group can’t do that, they can help us out elsewhere, but they cannot lead. And if they really get in the way, they have to get bit. It’s that simple. When Dems try to mislead progressives, we don’t need “progressives” on the inside cheering them on.

There’s a second way that “progressives” can be unfaithful to progressive causes, a way that has nothing to do with the Democratic Party. We all have careers and personal goals. This is not in itself bad. But to use the progressive movement to preference one’s own career, one’s own goals at the expense of the movement itself — this also violates the rule. It’s the same in effect as using the movement to advance the Rubinite Dems. Not good; not allowable behavior at the core of the Coalition.

Again, if career — or list-building, or cocktail-contact-climbing, or whatever — comes first, great. People like that can work with us, but they cannot lead. I hope you can see why Rule 3 is necessary, at least at the leadership level. We can’t be led by divided loyalties; that way lies failure.

■ Rule 4. The Coalition preferences action over discussion (the No Dithering Rule).

I personally like this one, but also think it’s necessary. There’s something about us on the left — one of our great virtues — that makes us thoughtful. But like all god’s creatures, we have the defect of our virtues — we are sometimes very thoughtful, grad-student thoughtful, dissertation thoughtful.

If you believe as I do that we’re entering a period of simultaneous global deadlines — I’ll have another post on that, but my current count is eight — I think not preferencing action is an indulgence, perhaps a fatal one.

I like the FDR approach. Paraphrased:

Do something. If that doesn’t work, do something else.

A fine idea.

Bottom line

For once, the bottom line really is at the bottom. I tried to reduce these rules to only those needed. I think I succeeded. There are only four. If I imagine this wonderful Coalition not strictly following any of these rules, I see failure — something like the current landscape in fact. That’s not an outcome any of us wants:

Backward steps? Loser plan.
In-fighting? Loser plan.
Led by Dems or careerism? Loser plan.
Endlessly debating? Loser plan.

Pretty simple, right? A definite bottom line. Did I miss one? Let me know in the comments. And thanks as always for your thoughtful consideration.

[This post has been revised slightly since first published.]

GP

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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