The path to progressive wins in 2018 and beyond starts with new and infrequent voters
American progressives are passionate people. We dream big, we protest powerfully, and we take our victories and defeats personally. We also believe that the progressive vision for America is obviously superior and therefore, inevitable.
But the pain and ugliness of our present politics serves as a stark reminder that America is a journey with many possible destinations. A progressive outcome is not a given. We may have come to that realization slowly, but it has sunk in deeply. To succeed, we are expanding our movement to also become a savvy electoral force whose strategies will reshape American politics.
On the left, we’ve always shown America how to dream. Now, we’re going to show her how to do.
We have a sophisticated model for success for the 2018 elections and beyond that mobilizes an unlikely — but powerful — group of champions: New, infrequent and drop-off voters.
If mobilized, these voters would fundamentally transform the American political landscape. In a midterm election, as many as 60% of the electorate does not vote. Many of these voters are immigrants, Black Americans, Latinos and young people whose values and preferences are much more progressive than the electorate as a whole.
Our formula to reach them where they live their complete lives makes us radically different and more innovative than other voter operations.
We are recruiting new leaders and volunteers to shape the program from the bottom up. We are reaching them consistently and year round. We are communicating with them through trusted messengers in their own communities. We’ve designed a voter program that is peer-to-peer in every way.
The moment is here for these new voters to shape a progressive vision of the world. We live in a time when children are cruelly separated from their parents. When devastating storms level coastlines and trap the most vulnerable who can’t afford to flee. When violence against people of color by police has reached such heights a young man is shot dead in his own home.
We’ve found ourselves in such moments before and each time we’ve responded to meet the stakes.
From the civil rights movement’s Freedom Summer 1964 voter registration drives to today’s community-based electoral power building work of groups such as California Calls, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, and the Working Families Party — there is a long tradition of grassroots organizations building principled and scaled alternatives to establishment political operations. CCCAction and our local partner organizations are proud to be a strong part of carrying on this tradition and taking it to next level.
This year has particular resonance for progressives, of course, because it was 50 years ago that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
The Center for Community Change was founded in 1968 as a living memorial to RFK, grounded in the ideals of community organizing and economic and racial justice that these two heroes pioneered.
At 50, those ideals are both further from and closer to fruition than ever. Further, because Donald Trump is pursuing a grotesque, racist vision built on his distortion of popular unrest. Closer, because for the first time in 50 years, all the forces necessary for progressive political success are beginning to align: The surge for justice in America is undeniably growing; demography is changing the electoral landscape, potentially in our favor; and progressives are building a model for political victory that has been 20 years in the making.
What animates all of this, of course, is our purpose. We are and have always been about creating and sustaining genuine economic equity while building a model of multi-racial democracy and inclusion never before seen.
We’re not kidding. These goals are neither naïve hopes nor abstract theories. They are grounded in the visionary strategies conceived by Dr. King and Senator Kennedy (and many others), and represent the potential that America yearns for but has been timid about pursuing. We want an America whose policies, laws, and mores are judged by how many rather than how few can achieve their highest aspirations. Progressives don’t want yet another “conversation.” Guaranteeing jobs and income, creating true equality for immigrants, bolstering union organizing rights, providing universal health care, advancing racial justice and other transformational goals are what we seek.
None of these goals are attainable without significant political power. But at our founding, CCC’s mission was decidedly not electoral. Community organizing is both an elusive art and a complex science, and mastering both was challenge enough. Our brilliant founders thought — and they were right — that if we could organically connect people through shared values, we could improve lives block-by-block in our restless cities. For 50 years, people have learned the tools of democracy and made change in tens of thousands of neighborhoods.
In 2018, our map is of the entire nation. And yet, the ethos is the same as it was 50 years ago. We have built on the techniques of community organizing and are defining issues on a national scale, broadening our network of activists, engaging donors at an entirely new level, and creating a political operation that will drive the agenda and shape progressive politics for generations to come.
For a long while, community progressives disdained politics. Impure, many of us thought. Grabby and grubby at the same time. We stuck to our neighborhoods and city councils because we thought that money and power had so distorted democracy on the national level that participating was both futile and distasteful.
We were right. And wrong. Slowly at first, and then more rapidly over the past 20 years, community activism has stepped onto the national stage and now has built a dynamic, sophisticated political machine that will shift the status quo in 2018 and construct a new stage in the years that follow.
Our model turns the accepted idea of politics on its head: The establishment’s standard operating procedure treats people as sterile Voting Units and figures out, often with great scientific “precision,” how to secure their votes on Election Day. This cynical Don Draper-style of politics replaced civic minded engagement with the same transactional approach used to sell soap. Is it any wonder voters developed a distaste for politics and even democracy itself?
Our model treats people as people, connects with them on values that transcend elections, and re-defines the concept of participation that aligns with the rapid shifts in our culture, technology, and demography. We cannot restore faith in democracy without respecting its values and its participants.
To start with — yes, of course voting rates are too low. But the real challenge is the level of involvement in our democracy. A thriving society would mean people were engaged in all sorts of public activities and voting was simply one of them, a natural outgrowth of regular democratic participation.
That’s the landscape the disruptors are tackling. And here’s the secret: It already exists. Modern society both offers and requires participation in an almost dizzying array of public activities. Neighborhood list serves, radio shows, online polls, American Idol, cooking clubs, real time advertising choices, support groups, Twitter networks, on and on and on … America is not bowling alone anymore.
In a democracy, all of these actions are potentially inherently political, because they bring people together in environments where we learn about each other and offer an opportunity to make meaning of the world. They involve decisions, and new information, and choices, and attitudes, which are all aspects of political participation. In fact, America is developing into a nation of permanent civil connection, a society where our presence in the public square, and vice versa, is nearly continuous.
Except when it comes to voting. That, we believe, is not because Americans lack political opinions, or a desire for progress, but because they feel no link between their continuous public engagement and the democratic institutions that are supposed to reflect and represent their experiences. We believe there are millions of people in America who rarely vote now, but would become regulars at the polls, if the political system responded to their lives, not just their transactional, algorithm-generated profile.
The political scientists have a name for these folks — low propensity (or unlikely) voters. And most mainstream political professionals have an approach for these people: Ignore them. They don’t vote. They never will. They don’t matter.
We believe they will become progressive voters in increasing numbers. But they are disgruntled. Skeptical. Disillusioned, drop off voters. So with every door-knock, text-message, Facebook ad and phone call, we show this group that the change they want in their own lives can be brought about by political participation. When we engage and motivate them and they become regular voters — they not only increase their own level of participation, they significantly change the make-up of the entire electorate, and therefore the outcomes of who can be elected.
It starts with respect. Respect for their lives, families, and communities. We are nurturing progressive coalitions one soccer game, one neighborhood meeting, one WhatsApp network at a time by being a part of these communities on a constant and permanent basis, not only on Election Day.
We have built our entire political apparatus around this premise. It starts with who leads it.
The people who direct our community-political work have two immediate distinctions: They are already leaders, and they live in the neighborhoods. The value of both cannot be overstated.
We are reimagining the entire idea of political organizing. Our model is built on trust, replacing the transactional model that has governed our politics for two generations. We start with existing leaders and they — not national political operatives — then build the next layer of volunteers, recruiting from their book clubs, unions, immigrant associations, and Facebook friends to create a seamless operation that is an indistinguishable part of the communities it is “organizing.”
With trust, progressives are building electoral programs that replace transactional politics with affinity politics.
And remember, trust has long been a hallmark of American politics. But for generations it has been a sort of top-down trust, fealty to generally four institutions: Corporations, political parties, ethnic groups, and churches. As any young Irish Catholic woman from a Democratic family can tell you, for example, none of those three “identities” are going to determine her vote in 2018. (Pollsters will tell you that too and it drives them crazy.)
And as 20th century institutional authority fades, two cultural developments are further changing the dynamic of electoral organizing: technology and demography. The power of social media and the influence of racial diversity are making America more agile, less predictable, and more diverse in both attitudes and means of consumption and expression. Technology doesn’t take sides, and demography isn’t destiny, but we like our chances with both.
For community progressives, the 2018 political landscape is a near-perfect storm of Trump-inspired fury, youth empowerment, and increasing racial diversity. What elevates the storm to political perfection is the application of technology to organizing and our ability to make each serve the other.
We have combined social media and organizing techniques to create what we call political social networks. It’s critical to remember how much social media has changed since it became a political force in 2008. No longer simply a platform for expression, social media is a constant, interwoven facet of everyday life for two generations of voters. The blurring of boundaries between life and social media life enables us to organize seamlessly, engaging people in a flowing network where Twitter, church basements, tablet videos, and yes, door knocking all intersect effortlessly and build cohesive power.
We are initiating another evolution in grassroots electoral strategy: Eliminating the distinction between “persuasion” and “turn out.” The difference between the two, hardened into routine political lexicon, is both artificial and degrading. Artificial because persuasion happens until the moment voters cast their ballot, and degrading because no voter is a mindless widget existing simply to be turned out. The fact that turn out is considered a “strategy” for communities of color speaks volumes about the assumptive and racially-tinged nature of traditional politics. Shedding this stale distinction, our political program connects to potential voters organically: as partners who we help realize their potential to lead.
Sadly, community progressives hold one other advantage: Donald Trump. In addition to rage, one of the political consequences of Donald Trump’s reign of terror is chaos. Never before in American history has a president so completely disrupted the political environment, claiming up is down, yesterday didn’t happen, and nothing matters except him.
Well, just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does political chaos. And no facet of our political system is as well prepared to absorb chaos and turn it into focused electoral energy than community organizing. One-time rants and click-and-forget activism are inevitable in a time of foment, but our values, our steady work, and our inclusive network provide a lasting home and a springboard for real progress.
We are well positioned to maximize this sprawling landscape, but only because we began engineering a new path 22 years ago. Shocked by the embrace of welfare “reform” by President Clinton and the Democratic establishment, we began exploring ways of entering the political world more forcefully. We realized that all of the gains made since 1968 were in danger, and that we had to adjust to new conditions. In particular, the 1996 attacks on immigrant status propelled community organizers to build an immigrant’s rights movement and push for reform at the federal level.
Modern progressive political organizing was born out of this moment. Our political development has intersected with movements across the country to build both a platform and a ladder to where we are today. The energy and conviction of movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Marriage Equality, and #MeToo have elevated progressive American values and voices. What’s needed now is a modern, sophisticated political model that can capture this ever-growing vitality and produce meaningful, sustainable wins at the ballot box.
Data and technology are expanding the definition of community while enhancing our ability to make peer-to-peer connections. The ability to use targeted messaging, adapted in real time enhances the fundamental strength of traditional community organizing: building power over time through long-term relationships.
Before the 2016 election, the Center for Community Change Action created the Immigrant Voters Win PAC to apply our model at its most vigorous level yet. Despite the troubling national results, our program dramatically increased turnout in our targeted universe of “low-propensity voters.”
We centered our efforts in the critical electoral states of Nevada, Colorado, and Florida, engaging more than 700,000 low-propensity Latino and pro-immigrant voters. The results were dramatic: Our internal data showed that in Nevada, our voters’ turnout was 15.2 percentage points above what the 2016 “turnout model” predicted. In Florida, it was 11.6 points above the prediction. Our programs in all three states contributed to critical victories up and down the ballot — from helping elect Catherine Cortez-Masto in Nevada as the first Latina Senator to winning passage of a minimum wage ballot initiative in Colorado.
It is a matter of simple math: This model can engage and mobilize low-propensity voters to turn out at mid and high-propensity levels. That is the Holy Grail of politics. By investing resources in traditionally ignored voters, and doing so in a permanent, year-round, community-driven fashion, we can fundamentally change the composition of the electorate and the outcomes of elections.
Is America ready? Is it possible?
We think so. And evidence over the past 18 months suggests in notably diverse ways that progressive values are trumping political silos, and invention is replacing orthodoxy.
The debate about whether income inequality matters is over. It does.
While national leaders dithered, ordinary citizens in every corner in America took matters into their own hands. Their collective efforts to significantly increase the minimum wage, for example, have been propulsive. Vaulting over the timid $10.10 an hour, they started demanding $15 an hour. Similar energy and aspiration have been brought to emerging battles over gun control, access to childcare, reinvestment in poor communities and communities of color, and better jobs. Notably, these fights are being joined in some of America’s reddest states.
These developments represent a major shift in political culture. They share two vital characteristics: Each is a function of large-scale collective action by the people directly affected, and each involves demands that very recently seemed impossible to reach. These are trends that long-term growth and victory are built on.
On the electoral front, this year we’ve seen progressive candidates, especially women and people of color, run — and win — in record numbers. We’ve seen Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City win key primary races thanks to black and brown voters hungering for change. We saw similar energy in Virginia in 2017. One critical success achieved by local groups like CASA in Action was generating unprecedented turnout in precincts where Latino and pro-immigrant voters represent at least 20% of the population. It was a huge turnout surge compared to 2013 and played a major role in electing Democrats Ralph Northam Governor, Justin Fairfax Lieutenant Governor, Mark Herring Attorney General, and flipping six seats in the House of Delegates, four of which are now held by women of color. The policy outcome from this unprecedented electoral outcome? Expansion of Medicaid coverage to 400,000 of the state’s low-income residents with Republican support.
Now the November elections are nearing, and political activists are gearing up. Not CCC/CCCA. We’ve been in the field since the day after Donald Trump was elected.
We joined with SEIU, Planned Parenthood Votes, and the Color of Change PAC to create “Win Justice” — a collaborative voter engagement project for the mid-term elections. This combined political program is building on our 2016 work but expanding it dramatically. We have already engaged almost half of the 2.5 million voters we expect to reach, nearly four times the number in 2016. We built fully integrated plans in three states — Florida, Michigan, and Nevada — with laser precision on low-propensity voters of color, women, young people, and union supporters.
Win Justice uses a highly focused matrix of 150,000 community leaders and sustained activists to power this project. This is a genuinely transformational approach. It is the product of many years of community involvement that reflect all the cultural, demographic, technological, and values shifts that are reshaping American politics.
There is a final factor at play. For two generations, the dominant model of Democratic politics has been governed by three motivations: to please, to protect, and to raise corporate funds.
The motivation to please meant catering to everyone who might be a supporter. It was the start of the transactional relationship. Nothing was left untested, everything and everyone was acknowledged and touched. But that desire led to timidity — right-middle viewpoints were deemed credible in order to protect power, reducing progressive values to episodic slogans. Even when a progressive agenda won, it quickly became something to study, not something to do. And that’s where corporate money sealed the deal. The billions of corporate dollars that have flowed to the centrist model felt safe making the trip — they knew their investment would stand hard against far-right conservatism, but not work too hard to disrupt the inequities of capitalism that were their first order of protection.
To a political strategist, this makes sense. The establishment approach had a few successes and lots of near-misses. But society drives politics in a democracy, not the other way around. And in American society today, that model is simply running out of oxygen.
Since World War II, five major paradigms have dominated our political landscape: National political parties, television, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution built on dramatic economic change and racial resentment, and family dynasties (Kennedy, Bush, Clinton). As their influence ebbs, community is becoming the ascending paradigm, the paradigm of the 21st century, and it will play an increasingly powerful role in national political life. Inclusive and organized communities, where everyone belongs and everyone has the freedom to thrive, is rooted in power from below. And we know from more than 400 years of American history, that this kind of power wins true justice.
On this 50th anniversary of the martyrdoms of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, we are reminded that they died — along with so many others fighting for democracy and inclusion in this grand American experiment — so that we might live to fight another day. Our task in this moment is to carry the torch of their freedom dreams.
Dorian Warren is the president of the Center for Community Change Action.