How Should We Prioritize Our Issue Campaigns?

by: David Sirota

Wed Jul 11, 2007 at 11:00


This is the first post about progressive strategies I will write in what will be my regular series entitled "Stratergy" here at OpenLeft. Thanks to Matt, Chris and Mike for the opportunity! - D

One of the most important question progressives face is which issues to make central to our own individual activism, our organizational targeting and our larger movement? This is a question we grapple with at the Progressive States Network - a pan-issue progressive group that supports our too-often forgotten state legislators fighting the key fights far away from Washington, D.C. There are many critical and equally pressing challenges facing this country, from persistent poverty, to an inadequate health care system, to environmental degradation. So how do we prioritize what we focus on, holding all things like timing and significance equal? The answer is by taking stock of just how broad a coalition can be built.

The broader the coalition, the more political value there is in prioritizing the issue campaign, both because that increases the chance of short-term success and helps build longer-lasting infrastructure for all campaigns ahead (additionally, though it's not a perfectly direct relationship, it's a good rule of thumb that the larger a coalition that can be organized around an issue, the more people the issue affects).

The best recent example of this at the state level has been the fight against the right's so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). When this was brought up in 2006 in Montana, the "Not in Montana" campaign against it brought together organized labor, the Chamber of Commerce, AARP, conservation groups and a wide array of other organizations who all had an interest in defeating this centerpiece of Movement Conservatism. A similar coalition came together in Colorado to temporarily suspend TABOR here as well.

Now, with the emergence of The Secret Trade Deal of 2007 and the immigration bill (which is really a distorted proxy battle over globalization), we have a huge new coalition building opportunity at the federal level - if the Progressive Movement can break out of its single-issue silos.

David Sirota :: How Should We Prioritize Our Issue Campaigns?
As I have reported in my ongoing coverage of The Secret Trade Deal of 2007, this deal was a backroom pact cut by a handful of senior Democrats and top Bush administration officials over the 2006 election mandate where candidates who ran and won on fair trade platforms delivered the congressional majority to Democrats. The dealmakers publicly claim this agreement is aimed at improving labor and environmental provisions in a package of proposed trade pacts with Colombia, Peru, Panama and South Korea, but what it really is is an effort to sugarcoat a raft of new NAFTA-style agreements so that they can be rammed down the American public's throat.

Since this deal was announced about two months ago, we have seen an incredibly powerful coalition of labor, agricultural, human rights, religious, anti-poverty, consumer protection, conservation, domestic small business and progressive pan-issue groups at the state level come together to oppose it. Each part of the coalition has an interest in opposing the NAFTA trade model:

- Labor wants better rights for workers

- Family farmers want subsidies reformed so that they aren't targeted exclusively to corporate agribusinesses that are driving smaller producers out of business

- Human rights groups want sanctions against countries like Colombia whose government executes union organizers

- Consumer protection groups want a trade model that has serious safeguards against the kinds of problems we've seen with Chinese imports

- Anti-poverty groups want pharmaceutical patent rules that help impoverished people get medicines they need

- Conservation groups want better protections for the environment

- Domestic, mid-sized business groups want a trade policy that doesn't encourage outsourcing and off-shoring

- Progressive pan-issue groups at the state level want progressive legislatures to have a larger say on issues that usurp state power in the name of corporate profits.

This is a similar coalition that came together to oppose NAFTA and China PNTR, only now this coalition is much better empowered by the Internet - a tool that is one of the best at to shining a light on the backroom deals that K Street lobbyists rely on to get their way in Washington, D.C. And the coalition has had some pretty big success. Just last week, the same Democrats who were trumpeting this deal decided to delay it in the face of the coalition's opposition, and in the face of opposition from congressional rank-and-file Democrats who are emboldened by the coalition's power and cohesion.

It's been the same at the state level. Thanks to local organizing efforts by Public Citizen and the Progressive States Network (on whose board I serve), we have seen groups come together to pass state resolutions demanding Congress reject President Bush's request to reauthorize so-called "fast track" authority - the authority that lets him eliminate labor, human rights and environmental provisions from trade pacts.

These resolutions have made a real impact, but not without a fight. As just one example, after the Montana State Senate overwhelmingly passed its anti-fast-track resolution, the agribusiness-owned Farm Bureau penned a statewide op-ed attacking the resolution, invoking the old "trade is great for small farmers" lie to make its case. The Progressive States Network quickly joined with a local agriculture group to publish an op-ed of our own debunking the propaganda, and soon the progressive group They Work for Us aired a series of radio ads in Montana trumpeting the resolution. Soon, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) announced he was delaying fast track reauthorization from coming through his committee - a big move, considering Baucus has long been one of the most ardent supporters of K Street's "free" trade agenda (Baucus, by the way, may already be starting to revert back to his regular form - just this morning, Reuters reports that he announced he is planning to use his chairmanship to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement over the objection of the coalition and his own Democratic colleagues).

Obviously, the fight to stop The Secret Trade Deal of 2007 and to more generally reform America's trade policies is far from over. Some Democrats are signaling their intention to push the trade deal forward, and the fight over the immigration bill promises to include a corporate-backed push to continue allowing Corporate America to abusing the H-1B program as a tool to drive down domestic wages (see the video clip above for how that plays into all of this).

But in just the last few months, this fight shows the potential power of the Progressive Movement when it prioritizes fights that build the largest coalitions across the most geographical regions (which, of course, the trade issue does - From New England and Midwest manufacturing centers devastated by NAFTA, to hard-hit Deep South textile towns hard-hit by China PNTR to the information sector economies of the West being slammed by job outsourcing, trade and globalization affects everyone).

As I said to begin, there are an infinite number of fights that are important, but because our resources are not infinite, we have to choose which fights to wage. Those selection decisions are therefore some of the most important choices we collectively make, both because if we select properly we can win in the short-term, and because by winning in the short-term, we develop long-term infrastructure to fight more fights in the future.

Trade is one issue that brings together a huge coalition, if we in the Progressive Movement are willing to face down the Wall Street/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and embrace the new populism that puts the middle-class first. The War in Iraq, health care, and Net Neutrality are three other huge fights that also build broad, diverse and geographically wide coalitions. If we can prioritize these kinds of issues, we will start to have a Movement ready to address all issues.

Cross-posted at Working Assets


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First priority (0.00 / 0)
The position of the public on these issues is already in line with progressives. The problem is with our elected representatives, including the newly mandated Democrats. That they continue to represent only the monied interests is the root of the problem. Campaign finance reform has to be the starting point to be able to address any of our issues.

good point (4.00 / 1)
our officials are too cozy with the special interests and that includes both dems and repugs.

[ Parent ]
"Made in America" label ballot initiatives (0.00 / 0)
"Made in America" mandatory labeling initiatives in every state would help bring progressives to the polls in 2008.

Яepublikans are good at using Anti-Gay, Anti-Flag Burning (no one burns the flag), and Anti-Choice ballot initiatives to mobilize their base and woo swing voters to their candidates.

I propose a simple initiative on every ballot possible that requires all products to be labeled with their percentage of Made in America content. Products that have 100% made in America content would be required to display a "Made in America" logo on the label. And, no, you can't call the Marianas slave shops American.

The fight over this would illustrate who is really for American workers and who is not.

I would love to know where my food comes from.


Not sold (0.00 / 0)
Eh - I'm not sure it's worth my time working in these pan issue groups given how low they always prioritize LGBT issues - particularly transgender issues.

We just had this discussion in my city & people from the pan-progressive org were appalled I harbored these reservations. Then one of the leaders looked at their endorsement committee questions & not a single one was about these issues.

We get more done when our efforts are undilluted.


What about reforms that make it easier for the party to win (4.00 / 1)
in the future as a foundation?  IMO, this means things like Public Financing and Employee Free Choice.  On the one hand, corporate dollars wouldn't stand in the way of broadly popular progressive ideas, and on the other, union membership (and a whole host of new Democratic voters) can expand considerably.  The best part is that here, we don't have to choose between what's good for the party and what's good for the country, as Republicans so often do.  We get to do both.

(Also, why was the chamber of commerce opposed to TABOR in Montana?  I thought they liked tax cuts.)


internet (0.00 / 0)
I'm curious how the internet has improved/changed the ability of coalitions on the left to function effectively.

That is a really good metric (0.00 / 0)
And I like the way it can snowball in the future. The more coalitions you build now, the more you can potentially do in the future. Having the coalition in place is always key.

as a side note, I think that is why, as Matt has discussed, the impeachment activists haven't succeeded much. Instead of taking coalition building as the primary criteria for deciding which campaigns to pursue, instead it is always full-bore, single issue stuff. That has long been a chronic failure of left-wing groups, and it is really great to see multi-issue orgs taking a new approach that focuses on coalitions first.

Yes but (0.00 / 0)
Prioritizing an issue which broadens the coalition is indeed vital. However, remember that bringing in more groups to a coalition can mean bringing in more opponents.  It is important to think defensively....not just offensively when forming a coalition.....So for an example...The new No War, No Warming coalition now is debating whether to include an anti-nuke plank. This effort is a coalition of the environmental and peace movements. I am anti-nuke but believe the increase in the size of the coalition will be modest. And the inclusion of the plank might add many more opponents....or just increase the ambivalent folks.

I appreciate David taking the lead in this work, and hope this will lead to more understanding and better use of strategy. 
Given the enormous challenges we face and a political and corporate structures which emphasize short term strategies, I hope we'll also push the envelope to discuss the need for grand strategies that can be helpful in attaining long term goals of eliminating poverty and war, reversing global warming, enforcing human rights world-wide, etc. I don't think we have the luxury not to delve into these areas.


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