“OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me!” The sentiment behind this challenge from Franklin Roosevelt to a group of reformers has never been more relevant than today — namely that real political change extends far past voting.
It’s always easiest for a Madison progressive to get politically distracted come election season, and 2008 is no exception. With each day that passes, we are bombarded by an ever-louder cacophony of messages from the media, advocacy groups and the College Democrats about the importance of Nov. 4 and the necessity of getting politically “involved” on that day. But Nov. 4 will come and pass, and whoever wins our nation’s highest office will be restrained from doing anything remotely left-leaning by the monumental forces of entrenched corporate and special interests.
And what about all of that pre-election “grassroots” fervor? It will completely evaporate as it always does, a consequence of an organizing mentality that exclusively focuses getting out the vote over real progressive power building. And so we will be left here in Madison, far from D.C., wondering why the flurry of political activity that springs forth every two to four years always fails to make any meaningful difference in people’s day-to-day lives.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The solution is issue-based movement building. Such organizing takes into account that while there are some elected officials who may — at the outset — be more amenable to progressive concerns, only strong organizing that puts pressure on those officials will lead to meaningful change. Such organizing also recognizes that change comes easiest and most directly not at the federal or state levels, but at the local one.
With these thoughts in mind, the natural place for the Madison leftist to turn is Progressive Dane. One of the most successful third parties in the country, Progressive Dane operates with the dual goals of electing progressives to local office and organizing citizens around local issues. Former Dane County Board Supervisor and Progressive Dane member Ashok Kumar recently commented to me that even at the local level “a liberal majority doesn’t mean anything unless people at the ground level are pushing for reforms.” He then went on to describe how many of PD’s most meaningful legislative victories — whether it be ending Section Eight housing discrimination, mandating a living wage for Dane County or establishing the $5 million dollar Dane County Conservation Fund — have come only through the grassroots citizen advocacy PD is so good at generating.
Another good case study on the efficacy of PD’s power-building model is the Dane County Equal Benefits Ordinance, which requires companies who do business with the County to provide domestic partnership benefits to all couples they employ regardless of sexual orientation. In a county that defeated the Gay Marriage Amendment by a two-to-one margin, one wouldn’t expect significant opposition to this benefits proposal. And yet, Kumar related how it took over two years to build up the necessary coalition support before the legislation could even be introduced (a final vote is scheduled for this Thursday). The holdup? Supposed liberals who didn’t get on board until they were forced to.
But, of course, for every victory PD has had, there are an endless number of issues left to work on. Proposed city and county legislation in environmental areas, such as a compact fluorescent light bulb mandate and a plastic bag ban, sit in the background awaiting citizen pressure. Local immigration concerns remain unresolved, with the democratic sheriff of Dane County still enforcing a policy of turning over the names of arrested undocumented workers to the ICE, regardless of the nature of the alleged offense. And Madison, for all its progressive sentiments, still lacks adequate housing and outreach programs to help its homeless population.
So, for those of you willing to think beyond the hype of the upcoming election, I invite you to check out the new group on campus called Student Progressive Dane (kickoff this Wednesday, TITU). This organization seeks to connect student idealism and passion with Progressive Dane’s organizing model and in turn make a real impact on local politics. I know it may not be able to compete with the seductive appeal of the College Democrats, who in their first column of the year promised a fun semester of candidate worship and internship connections, but I do promise that the student chapter of Progressive Dane will give you the outlet to build a real, issue-based grassroots movement in Dane County. And such a movement, if it ever grows large enough, will be the force that really makes that change in Washington.
Adam Porton ([email protected]) is a member of Progressive Dane.