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How Progressives Can Effect Change with Obama as President

Originally written for the Progressive Democrats of Hawaii blog on July 25, 2011

It has been suggested that the previous post should have been geared more along the lines of this topic. After thinking about, it, I decided that instead of rewriting it, I should simply write a follow-up post. For starters, I think it is important to say, again, and with no equivocation, that Obama isn’t progressive, even though there are those who believe he is, “in his heart of hearts.” Using this notion as a starting point for action is, in my opinion, a mistake and progressives will serve their causes much better if they first abandon it.

I’ll be referring to PDH for my examples, but the concepts will obviously apply to other organizations, as well as individuals.

Building Relationships

It is my experience that the progressive movement has long been disorganized and fractured along various lines. If we are to have any hope of forcing, or empowering (whichever you’d prefer to call it) Obama to be more supportive of progressive ideals and policy initiatives, we’re going to have to come together as a more cohesive movement.

While the leaders of PDH understand the need to do this, I have to admit that we haven’t been very successful. Some of our members are also members of other groups, but as an organization we haven’t done as we as we could at strengthening our relationships to labor, environmental groups, and other “specialized” groups. Doing so will not only advance the larger progressive cause, by cross-pollenating energy and ideas, but it will also lend greater numbers to causes and issues that might have difficulty attracting large numbers on their own. In this way, we draw everyone into a tighter knit movement.

With respect to labor, I understand there are some unions that we might not think of as “progressive,” but that’s not to say we should dismiss them out of hand. In this seemingly anti-labor, anti-union era, we need to do what we can to align ourselves with the broader labor movement. There are both explicit and implicit benefits in doing so. Historically, unions were the core of the “left” and in many ways they still are, at least when it comes to issues of workers’ rights and the broader cause of economic justice. As a group, PDH has had moderate success at building relationships with some of the more progressive unions, like Local 5 and HGEA, and maybe slightly better relationships are being built by individual members, but on both fronts we can and must do better. What’s more, as I said, we need to look at the pros and cons of building relationships with some of the other private-sector and trade unions whose records on social justice and environmental issues may leave something to be desired. They may nonetheless be allies on other issues and it would behoove progressives to take a hard look at on what issues we might partner with them.

The religious right and broader conservative movement have done a much better job of organizing and coalescing a movement. Granted, the architects of the conservative movement have been working slowly and steadily for 30 years, or more, but given the success they’re now experiencing on any number of fronts can potentially show us how to be more effective.


This is where the conservative movement has really made major gains and where Democrats and progressives have largely failed to gain much traction with either the major news media, or the public at large. Progressive must do better at developing and deploying strategic messaging.

For starters, we cannot hope to win the messaging battle if we are forever reacting to conservatives. We must develop a strategy that is somewhat independent of current events and begin looking ahead; we must be more proactive and less reactive. For example, with respect to the economy and government, we can begin by pushing the budget proposal from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, rather than reacting to the Ryan proposal, or even the apparent weaknesses of the President in proposing a progressive budget of his own. Another example would be to begin saying, publicly and otherwise, that the rich should pay higher taxes, not just because they can, not just because they can afford to, but because they, more than the middle and working classes, have benefited tremendously from historically low tax rates, not to mention a deregulated market.

As a broad coherent movement, finding the right message might also prove to be our biggest obstacle as there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how to taylor that message. This is where the progressive movement may have to sacrifice the “perfect” for the sake of the “good.” Take, for example, the issue of Oahu’s proposed rail project. There are progressives who support the rail because “we need something,” and others who oppose it for any number of reasons. On this issue, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus among progressives on how to proceed, or what our collective message should be. Honestly, I’m still learning many of the nuances of politicking and for my part, would know where to begin on this particular issue, as well as many others. What’s more important, I think, is that progressives with various opinions start to talk candidly and with an open mind on any number of issues if there is to be any hope of developing a messaging strategy.

Without an intelligent and compelling messaging strategy, I fear the progressive movement will continue to be reactionary and largely sidelined in the national conversation dominated by moderate and conservative pundits and talking heads.

Attracting New, Younger Activists

Put another way, we need to energize people in such a way that they will be compelled to engage, to participate and, in turn, attract others. In this area, maybe more than anywhere else, PDH has largely failed, as have I personally. We’ve had some limited successes in attracting new people, but we very quickly lose them.

Often when I talk to people, young and old, who have an opinion on a particular topic, they will, in the next breath lament the broken, money-driven, corporate-controlled political system. They feel powerless to fight the overwhelming power stacked against the average person and often give up before they’ve even begun to try. I completely understand these feelings often have them myself. There’s no doubt I, PDH, and progressives generally, have experienced more failures than successes and that near constant defeating blows can be demoralizing.

What I remind myself and try to tell others, is that they’re right; the system is stacked against us. But without a concerted and organized effort that includes long-term planning and dedication, nothing will change. In my experience, while those I’m talking to agree with me on this point, they nonetheless shrug their shoulders and go on about their day, seeming to not give it a second thought.

Putting it All Together

None of these strategies operate in a vacuum, obviously. They overlap and intermingle with the others, making it difficult, in my experience, to know where to start. I’ve learned a lot since getting involved with PDH, but I still have more to learn, particularly about how to become a more effective community organizer. For its part, PDH needs to work at holding more events that appeal to a broader cross-section of progressives (and Democrats). As an organization, we’ve had some successes in defining what it is to be progressive, building relationships with progressive legislators, individuals, and other progressive organizations, but we need to do much better.

I’m not suggesting here that these are the only three strategies we need to employ and there are almost certainly others that can be included in this list. Rather, these are the areas that I’ve tried most to focus on and so are the ones that came immediately to mind as I sat down to write this follow-up. It is my hope that this will serve as a catalyst for discussion, as well as clarifying where we are and what more we need to do to be more successful going forward.

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