We need more progressives.
The first and most obvious thing: 5-10% of the electorate isn't enough. The Democrats need us but they don't fear us.
Progressives have to work harder.
This is the nagging part. If a million progressives each donated $50 a year to progressive movement, that would be a respectable war chest. If five million progressives donated $100 a year that would be half a billion dollars. It's much the same with volunteer time. My general impression is that some progressives are discouraged and resigned, some are complacently waiting for the problem to fix itself, some hope for non-political politics and are unwilling to soil their hands or make enemies, some are obsessed with their own independence, and some are having too much fun to be able to budget much time or money toward politics.
Progressives have to commit and focus.
No one should ever give a dime to any national Democratic Party committee, and most state party committees should also be boycotted. We can't let our enemies in the Democratic Party channel our money any longer -- while it's true that they do have a grand national strategy, defeating us is part of the strategy. We should give to primary candidates, good candidates in the general elections, and progressive media. (One lesson of the Halter near-miss in Arkansas is that every dollar we spend on primaries helps twice. It helps first by getting the word out, sending a message to the Democrats, and possibly electing our candidate, but it also helps by taking money away from Rahm Emannuel. The Democrats could have used the $10,000,000 they threw away by going all in for Lincoln.)
Furthermore (and this part is more controversial), progressives should quit giving to apolitical, non-partisan single-issue groups. Most progressive issues can only be won either by a third party victory (unlikely) or by taking over the Democratic Party and winning elections with it -- you need a change of regime. There are a few issues which might be winnable within a world dominated by neoliberals / neocons, but in my opinion to accept that world is to give up. Single-issue groups are good for lobbying on smallish issues where support can be found in both parties. On the big environmental, military, civil liberties, and equality issues you need to be in charge.
The progressive slide to single issue groups had many causes. First, a few issues are actually nonpartisan and can be won without major political changes: this is centrist bipartisanship, and it works when you're aiming at small victories within a generally grim overall situation. Second, there are many issues upon which both parties are wrong and single issue advocacy is the only option: this is left non-partisanship. And third, many progressives who have an aversion to partisan politics, and to public commitment, and want to find a less messy, less embarrassing way of being active which makes fewer enemies: call this timid non-partisanship.In my opinion all of these strategies are futile except the first, but that one is essentially anti-progressive since it involves winning a few issues while surrendering all the others.
Progressives need a group identity superseding all their other political identities, especially but not only "Democrat", Only when the political effects of progressive group action become clearly perceivable will progressives get any respect, and to a degree this means that progressives hurt the party leadership before they can be players. "Don't worry about the progressives, they'll come along" said Rahm, and so far he's been right.
With a very few exceptions the commercial media are inane and effectively right-wing. As a result, ambient political opinion in the U.S. is either center-right or hard right. "Low-information voters" pick their opinions out of the air based on TV, radio, and the scuttlebutt they hear, whereas disengaged non-voters have few opinions and don't think that voting is worth it. These are the voters we'll have to reach in order to accomplish anything, but we really have no way of doing that at present. Our adversaries have reached these people: confusing the voters and discouraging them from voting is central to the Republican strategy. If they can't recruit a voter to the Republican side, they try to convince him to stay home. (Cynicism works for the Republicans; it's neither neutral nor "transgressive".)
The answers to this are first, person-to-person outreach (see below), and second, new media: print, TV, or radio (probably not-for-profit). A very large proportion of the electorate never hears a progressive message. I've been pushing the new media idea for five years and have received almost no response of any kind. No one seems to be interested -- why, I don't know. Laziness, lack of imagination, defeatism, and blindness to the need come to mind, but I also suspect that a snobbish disdain for the low-information voters and non-voters we need to reach is a major factor. (Liberals tended to sneer at Air America and delight in its problems, and when it failed, no one seemed to understand what a disaster that was).
Our message won't deliver itself. The internet is what has kept us alive, but it's far from enough, and I'm not sure that with the present media anything at all is possible. Maybe creating a new media is impossible. If so, maybe we're doomed.
The Democrats interest-group strategy
The Democratic Party defines itself as a coalition of minorities. For the last year or so I've been explaining how that came to be and describing the consequences. Historically it traces back to urban boss politics -- if Boss Tweed could play the Italians against the Irish against the Jews against the Poles, he wouldn't be completely dependent on any single group and could keep all of them on a string while he decided how to pass out the goodies. Likewise, if upstate New York was controlled by Republicans, the two parties could engineer a situation of rough equality where neither side got everything it wanted, allowing the leadership to cut back room deals and claim that no better was possilble. Likewise, both parties could use horror stories about the other party to scare voters into their own net.
After WWII this system was revised as the urban machines became less important and the federal government more important, but a lot of factors remained the same, and the Democratic Party intelligentsia (Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Bell, Galbraith, and Niebuhr) developed a double rationale for it. First, the pluralists claimed that The People" was impossible to define, and that there could be no such thing as majoritarian politics. because there was no majority but just a myriad of overlapping groups. The second anti-populist argument was probably more important, however. Based in the European experience, the pluralist liberals claimed that, because of original sin and mass stupidity, majoritarian politics is a bad thing which tends strongly toward racism, nativism, fascism, communism, and so on. Finally, the anti-majoritarians claimed that class was no longer important in American life, since everyone was more or less middle class, and that the real divisions were between styles of consumption -- highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, U, non-U, etc. (These same intellectuals yearned for elitist rule by U, highbrow intellectuals such as themselves, and thought that Kennedy would bring them that.)
This new philosophy rationalized the divide-and-conquer tactics of the party leadership and their determination to make majoritarian politics impossible, and since American society is supposedly classless, it also justified the Democrats' willingness to cut deals with big business. Beyond that it pointed the way to the kind of fragmented minority cultural politics that dominates America and the Democratic Party today, where the Democrats end up arbitrating feuds between Hispanics and blacks, transsexuals and lesbians, etc., and can't even think of majoritarianism, and where liberalism sometimes seems to an aspect of a superior lifestyle, like good food and nice shoes.
A New Demographic
Demographic analysis of the electorate has its uses and can't be neglected, but it locks in the anti-majoritarian interest-group strategy of the Democratic Party and allows the Democrats to ignore the common interest and repress majoritarianism. In particular, they ignore the interests of the ordinary 90% when they conflict with the interests of the top 10%, the top 1%, and the corporations. ("Ignore" might be too strong a word, but the Democratic target on this issue is minimal -- they only need to be perceptibly better than the Republicans.) And worse yet, the Democrats present mix of voting demographics has locked the Democrats into a permanent #2 "me too" status.
I do not see how the Democrats can win with the present demographic mix, and it's even less likely that they will become more progressive with this mix. My reading of the Democratic demographic is something like: racial minorities, Jews, single women, union labor, HS teachers, old New Dealers (almost extinct), and people in the arts, the universities, and the non-profits. (I'm sure I've missed a couple.) Campaigning consists of mobilizing these groups while trying to steal a few moderates from the increasingly-insane Republicans, at the cost of angering and disappointing the loyal Democrats. *
While what I really propose is majoritarian politics, but in practice it will be translated into finding new demographics to court. The usual nominees are moderates, centrists, independents, and Southerners, but these demographics pull the Democrats in an anti-progressive direction and, in fact, are proposed for that purpose. Angry, alienated Republicans (Pat Buchanan's following and the teabaggers) are also not an option even if they do end up rejecting the Republican Party. The demographics I have in mind, which overlap extensively, are the unemployed, infrequent voters, non-voters, and low information voters. (To these could be added everyone anywhere hurt by the long, deep recession).
However, at this point we butt up against several problems. One is that the teabaggers and racists are already out there recruiting. A second is that, as I have said, the media do not give these people any way to understand what's happening; we're starting from zero. A third is that most of these groups are hard to reach and hard to mobilize -- in the nature of things the outreach would have to be labor-intensive and to a considerable degree face-to- face, and we don't seem to have the horses.
We also butt up against my pet problem: Democratic elitism. The demographics I just named as potentially progressive are mostly boring, moderately-educated ordinary folk with unsophisticated tastes, and there are even some hillbillies and trailer trash. The domination of the Democratic Party (including its progressive faction, to be fair) by what I've called the"wonk demographic" -- a domination which is not numerical but institutional -- is a severe handicap even when strategizing an approach to low information voters, etc., much less when directly contacting them. (I am reminded here of what I saw during the 2008 election -- OFA parachuting in cheerful, freshly scrubbed college students who essentially were between jobs or taking a year off school.)
The first problem is that it causes people to misunderstand the American right wing, which is generally more prosperous and better-educated than the average American -- the better-educated tend toward either of the two extremes, whereas less educated and less engaged people tend toward cautiousness and moderation.)** But the second problem may be more important: the wonk's scorn for uneducated voters, a scorn which is nothing more than the aggressive affirmation of wonk identity at the expense of accurate perception, and which cuts off Democrats and progressives from the very voter groups which would make it possible for progressive Democrats to become the dominant party.
I actually don't have a conclusion. The economic downturn gives us an opportunity against both major parties. Rather than just fight for the same old voting demographics, we need to get the word out, reach new people, and change people's minds. We need to develop a group identity and a group strategy separate from that of the Democratic Party. We need to play a complicated inside-outside game with the Democrats, supporting them some of the time and opposing them some of the time. We have to gain their respect by showing some strength and beating them a few times in the primaries. Until we hurt them, they'll always despise us.
* I'll just throw this one out. I multiplied everything out and as far as I can tell, white heterosexual Christians make up about 50% of the electorate. Even if you slice four ways, white heterosexual middle class Christians make up more than 25% of the electorate. Minority rights and inclusiveness are good things, but minority-based strategies are intrinsically weak. If you use the OR instead of the AND on the four sl;ices, something like 99% of the population belongs to one of the groups defined as Republican -- everyone but poor nonwhite non-Christian sexual minorities. And minorities have strong incentives to identify with the majority when they are allowed to.
** As for Republican stupidity, while some of it is genuine stupidity, it can also be manipulative rhetoric by smart people who know that what they're saying is not true, obfuscation by smart people who do not want to reveal their true agenda, or the defiant perversity of a student deliberately giving wrong answers -- for the Democrats do represent the teacher class.
MORE GOOD STUFF
Jon Walker at Firedoglake has put up a series of posts about the North Dakota Nonpartisan League's Inside/outside strategy. The Nonpartisan League around 1915-1940 was The US's most successful left movement / party ever: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. I've had the NPL in mind in much of what I've written here.