The Arc of History does not bend toward justice by itself, it must be bent — and it cannot be bent alone. It must be bent with a clear vision of ways, means, and ends. What are our ends? They must be an enduring multiracial inclusive anti-racist social-democratic liberal democracy — a Just Society. This cannot be built overnight or idly. No single election cycle will consecrate this vision — the only consecration is successive success. We will not change our country in the two years of a House term or the four years of Presidential term. Power must be gained, and power must be held. The goal of transformative progressive politics must be to gain power through electoral means and hold that for a sustained period of time— at least three presidential cycles, with the majority of that time under a united government. To achieve sustained power, progressives must not just invest in talented individuals but also develop institutions. We require a message, a machine, a mandate.
Messaging is the altar on which all policy and campaigning lives or dies. The worst policy with the best messaging can be enacted into law to all our detriment; and the best policy with the worst messaging can stand forever unenacted and meaningless. Messaging needs to vary. The United States is a continent-spanning country of nearly 330 million people — the specific content of messaging should change depending on location, but the themes and overarching narrative, do not. Progressives, by and large, need to talk like moderates and walk like radicals. Using the language of American greatness and patriotism to further political and economic equality is a powerful recipe, but the secret ingredients are repetition and cohesiveness. We do not need to resort to the triangulation of the 1990s. Support popular things, frame unpopular things popularly, make arguments people respond to, and repeat them. Do not take unpopularity as a given forever, but don’t expect polls to reverse overnight. Keep it simple and to the point.
Clad the Democratic Party in the cloth of the New Deal, Reconstruction, and the Declaration; make the argument that we can do great things again and include every American. We can — we must — Renew the Deal. Justice, Liberty, and Democracy — aren’t just words, they are tenets, and they are guide-stones. The Cost of Living, the Cost of Family, the Cost of Education, the Cost of Corruption are costs that we all pay for, burdens that we all bear, and must overcome together. Likewise we must also re-envision the Four Freedoms — Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Self, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Most of all, we must remember that Better. Things. Are. Possible.
We are not condemned to wither. The United States is, by comparison to her rivals, a young nation. We are a young oak, strong — but still flexible. We can bend, we do not need to break. We can bloom, we can flourish. We can uphold the promise of our principles. A republic with liberty and justice for all. That is not an idle promise, it is as radical and revolutionary as it was when absolute monarch held the reigns of most states. It is also important to embrace the pragmatism of the New Deal — when something fails, and something will fail, do not dwell, act. There is no panacea, only spaghetti on the wall. Likewise, recognizing the failures of the New Deal and criticizing the racist reality of the New Deal coalition is vital; renewal cannot and should not be repetition. We can thrive because every American deserves to rise above poverty, rise above ignorance, rise above hate. Americans deserve the best, so let’s start to build the best. Above all else: Works. Progress. Democracy.
Works. Government that works and works from government. Concentrating on highlighting how we design our government to be as kludgy and unresponsive as possible and are shocked when government is kludgy and unresponsive. Make government simple, make it accessible, and make it visible. People need to see that their government is doing all around them and doing things to make their lives better. Government must not just work, it must also do work — the hard work of reinvesting in American communities. Government must reinvest in historically marginalized communities and wherever a spark is needed to rekindle prosperity. Government does not need to do all the work, but it can be a trail-blazer and bone-builder to channel the productive forces of the market. Government does not need to plan in place of markets, it needs to plan for markets. Government is vital for establishing the infrastructure, rule-book, and level playing field needed to reap the full benefits of the marketplace. This work is especially important in the fight against climate change and to rejuvenate declining regions. The government cannot bring back yesterday, but it can help build tomorrow.
Progress. Social progress and economic progress are critical to the continued functioning of a democratic republic. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and so the protection of every American’s civil rights is critical. Americans should be able to live their lives free from all domination — the mendacious boss, the corrupt union, the overbearing government, the controlling family. The government serves a vital purpose in furthering and protecting liberty. Liberals and progressives cannot shy away from civil rights and anti-racism. Progressives must also stress that race extends beyond just criminal justice. Likewise, civil rights can be and must be a winning argument. Within the language of civil rights, citizenship, respect, and empathy are critical tools. These rhetorical instruments can be deployed in a multitude of manners. They are a framework that can shift to fit any context. Those who are hungry are not free. People deserve respect and dignity; their political and social rights are critical, but so are their economic rights. Economic progress must be built on a foundation of social insurance, sectoral bargaining, and social corporatism. Full employment must be the target of any and every government. Progressives must rebuild America’s unions, but again, we cannot bring back the past; we can only build a future, which is why sectoral bargaining is critical. In less union-friendly locales, the language of social corporatism, “rising above the squabbling of employer versus employee” could be effective. Once re-empowered, unions can be a sustained asset for electoral organizing as they can provide messaging platforms and turnout machines for their members and communities. Social rights and economic rights are intrinsically linked, and they are incomplete and vulnerable without each other.
Democracy. Progressives must defend and build a genuinely majoritarian democracy. Democracy does not defend itself. Free, fair, and open elections are key, which requires the hard work of dismantling the still active instruments of Jim Crow that continue to plague us. It also requires Progressives to tackle the hard work of hauling election infrastructure into the 21st Century. We cannot tolerate any institutions that fail in their most basic competencies and accordingly threaten public trust in the democratic process — for example, the New York Board of Elections. Election tabulation should not be a nightmare that drags on for weeks, with lost ballots and perpetual legal argumentation over which ballots to count. Progressives should not give free ammunition to those that seek to overturn free and fair elections. No election system can withstand constant bad faith, baseless attacks — the sort that we have seen in the wake of the 2020 elections. Bad-faith actors, especially elected elites, must be confronted and marginalized until they recant, not because they lie or disagree, but because their attacks threaten the social trust that holds a democracy together. Progressives must not just think about the laws on the books but also consider working to replace aging, bloated, and oftentimes flawed state constitutions. We can modernize our election systems and structure of government, to properly defend our democracy. Likewise, democracy is also upholding the basic tenets of popular government — majority rule and political equality. Thus it is vital for our system of government to be free of both corruption and the appearance of corruption. Progressives should seek to limit the influence of lobbyists by investing in legislative staff and services and by ensuring that every dollar spent on electioneering can be tracked and traced. Constitutionally hard limits on money are difficult, and thus any attempts to limit spending are likely to just push the money hose into a sink — which is why it is vital that progressives redirect the money hose away from entirely unaccountable political action committees to more democratically accountable political parties.
This framework of “Works Progress Democracy” is important because it can provide structure with flexibility. It can keep progressives on theme and on message but allow them to mix and match concepts to develop their own regional brands — combining local concerns with national themes. It is vital that messaging remains concrete and local — fix the damn roads and fund our rural hospitals. We must keep messaging thematic, with a clear vision, and keep repeating; but we also must remain flexible to adapt to the continental reality of American politics. Not every brand works everywhere, and that is okay. In fact, “Works Progress Democracy” is not even the most vital part; the structure of a common thematic-rhetorical starting point that can be repeated and adapted is what matters.
Messaging alone will not win elections, for that, progressives need to build political machines that don’t just win one election; they win successive elections. Not the soulless corrupt machines of yesteryear — but a new generation of community focused institutional election-winning juggernauts. The basic principles of these new machines should be: build in house, build for the long term, build for your ground.
Parties need to build infrastructure inside of their own organizational structure, not dependent on outside groups or contractors. Parties need to build themselves up for the long run, not just winning a cycle but building an enduring majority across municipal, state, and federal ballots. Parties need to build for their communities, concentrate on concrete local problems, and speak the language that their neighbors will understand and appreciate.
Parties need to be built strong, and they need to be built to last. That is why it should be a progressive priority to alter national and state campaign finance legislation to allow for bright, soft money to become the primary finance stream for electioneering. Individual campaigns would, of course, need to take the back seat financially and organizationally; the era of OFA for Everyone must end. State party organizations should become the centerpiece of American electioneering. State parties must also be altered to handle this new responsibility: with formal legislative factions, new leadership structures, and new interest groups.
First and foremost, machine politics require machine turnout. The success of institutionalized turn out can be seen in Nevada since 2010 and Georgia in 2020. Likewise, the success of organizations like Let America Vote can help turn the tide of elections. Every state party needs to develop — both within their organization and between outside organizations — a disciplined apparatus that convinces, informs, and mobilizes voters.
Organizing should not end with the election cycle either; off-year organizing can provide a vital opportunity to build strength over time by turning parties from an exterior presence to a community element. This can allow state parties to develop trust with communities and develop a positive long-term image. Nor should off-year organizing be just electoral organizing. Concerts, parties, barbecues, and local newspapers are all possible instruments that can help strengthen parties. American’s deserve a party that grills. More importantly, investing locally can gather information on issues of concern that the party can take up and resolve. Also, such organizing could potentially help denationalize politics by creating strong regional brands that can allow progressives to compete anywhere. Further, parties can help to tackle America’s crisis social distrust by helping to build communities up and provide a platform for people to engage with eachother.
With a stronger state party, democratic accountability is key, and it must start with leadership. A new model is needed — where each party has an overall leader and an organizational director. The overall leader would be elected directly by the registered voters of that party and would be responsible for the overall strategy and good conduct of that party. They do not necessarily need to be Governor of that state or even a gubernatorial candidate-in-waiting. The organizational leader would be a more traditional state party chair, responsible for managing the party organization and day-to-day operations. This will allow state parties to have a single responsible leader for all operations while allowing them to do tasks other than running party organs.
Moreover, progressives must recognize that all politics is coalitional and bring clarity and responsibility to the factions within a political party by creating two primary internal groupings: legislative factions and internal interest groups.
Legislative factions, formalizing and extending congressional sub-caucuses, are especially important for progressives in stronghold states. Voters in these states deserve clarity on just what kind of Democrat they are electing. The factions would not choose their candidates, instead, candidates would choose their faction — however that faction might not accept their membership if that candidate is elected. These factions are less “parties within parties” and instead just outward-facing markers to provide more information to the electorate of both who they are voting for and what is the make-up of their government. Our parties are coalitions, we cannot shy away from that fact, instead, we must embrace it.
Likewise, in-house interest groups — for voting rights, environment protection, rural healthcare, civil rights, labor, etc. — can provide progressives with the assets needed to build an enduring electoral coalition. Every state party could have several Let America Vote style shops across multiple issues, each with a small permanent core, professional staff, and a larger nexus of volunteers and short-term workers. These shops would be likely to have their expenses paid partly by the state party and partly by their own fundraising. They could prove to be a vital asset for states where the Democratic Party has become a toxic brand — as the structural daylight between these in-house interest groups could provide a buffer between the voters and party baggage, and in the long run, help rehabilitate the party’s image. Not to mention, these organizations would provide the labor-power needed to turn out voters and win elections while also building long-term support for progressive policy goals.
Progressive politics needs machines because progressives need to win and win consistently. We cannot be dependent on stars to guide us — we must build light. State parties must be the centerpiece of these machines, as they are more suited to democratic accountability — however, this work cannot be done alone. That is why embracing a disciplined party-network of directly affiliated, if not formally subsidiary, organizing committees can provide progressives with multiple, interlinked mobilization points. Likewise, with empowered parties, new leadership, and an embrace of healthy and inclusive factionalism are vital. All politics is coalitional; that is why progressives must recognize and cherish our coalitions, to turn pluralism into our anchor of power — because this machine defeats fascism.
Progressives should not just seek power — they must seek a mandate. Such transformational inflection points do not come easily and do not come at once; they must be built with great toil and at great expense. The mandate that progressives must claim is simple: Democracy Through Density. To build a progressive America, we must build a denser America. We do not need to turn every American city into Coruscant. We must, however, rebuild and refill our midwestern cities and expand their southern and south-western siblings. St. Louis. Kansas City. Detroit. Pittsburgh. Philadelphia. Cincinnati. Nashville. Charlotte. Charleston. Atlanta. Austin. San Antonio. Houston. Every city deserves to shine. There is no second-class American city.
A denser America also provides an opportunity to increase Americans’ standard of living while integrating our society and combating climate change. An America no longer dependent on individual cars and that instead embraces a healthy mix of cycling, public transit, and personal transportation. An America where Americans can afford to live where they want, where neither renters nor buyers are disadvantaged. Revitalizing urban centers also provides fertile ground to redefine and expand urban-rural connectivity. Density is important and provides many important opportunities, but not everyone wants to live in a city — and that is okay. Rural Americans deserve dignity and respect. A re-urbanized American cannot be urban alone — but integrated and interlinked — it must be united.
Progressives must not just build the machines needed to win; we must build towards the electorate. We cannot settle for shifting windows when we can, over time, shift the universe.
A better future is possible. Better things are possible. A road to a more prosperous, progressive, and peaceful tomorrow is possible. We must recognize the reality that electoral victory will not just, we must build the structures necessary to achieve it. We must win elections with the electorate we have, and shape the electorate for years to come. We must act today to sow tonight to reap tomorrow. Strong parties can build a stronger democracy — and the strongest parties are those that embrace their pluralism, those that turn discord into a chorus of democracy, those that lift every voice and sing, those that bring from many — one. One pursuit, one purpose — peace under liberty.