I’m proud to work for Boxer for Senate, though this is written in my personal capacity.
The August recess has hardly provided a respite from the tooth-and-nail battles over health care reform in the country, with raucous town hall meetings, behind-the-scenes arm twisting, jockeying for media position, and grassroots mobilizing. Amid all of this is an increasing focus on the potential electoral ramifications in 2010. However, the potential problems for 2010 are structural and go beyond the health care debate; it’s the unifying force of being in opposition colliding with the inherent divisiveness of specificity. It’s a relatively new challenge, but it doesn’t have to spell trouble next November if we consciously face it now.
Let’s not forget how motivated the activist left was in 2004, 2006 and 2008 to defeat Bush and reclaim Congress. That same level of motivation is now shifting to the right. Obama and a strong Democratic Congress now serve as the same sort of rallying point that inspired so many of us to innovate and organize against Bush policies in the last decade.
It’s stating the obvious that a common enemy is an exceptional unifying force. That political perspective played a key role in keeping the netroots of the left generally unified through recent election cycles. But it’s unifying not just because of a shared purpose; the prerogative of legislative initiative is much easier to oppose than it is to bear, and attempts at inclusive governance are much easier to attack than to carry off. In the broader context as activists, our additional challenge is finding the right balance of accountability and organizing energy so that both pursuits continue to flourish.
So what are the concerns? The right has used every opportunity to mobilize and organize its base with red-meat rhetoric. This serves a dual purpose: It grabs headlines and excites the base, keeping a legislatively weak party relevant in the national political discourse and it forces an intraparty debate over the course of the GOP, which reinforces engagement across the party’s ideological spectrum. Electorally, this can already be seen in debate over Senate primaries such as those in Florida (Crist vs. Rubio) and California (Fiorina vs. Devore [a race in which I work for the incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer]). The substance of these debates and others like them across the country will ultimately go a long way to deciding the ideological and strategic course of the Republican Party. But in the meantime they provide an entrance for engagement to a party that just last year was struggling with concerns of an unmotivated base. The party rank-and-file now have something in which to invest themselves: charting a new course for the party and finding opportunities for themselves in that restructuring.
Meanwhile, heated debates among Democrats over legislative content and broader strategic initiative- the vast majority of which has been tremendously good work- has the potential of fragmenting electoral initiative next year if legislative results don’t ultimately satisfy the activist base. Blue Dog Democrats are likely first in line for electoral losses and also the least likely to be strongly supported by the activist base if they’re seen as scuttling meaningful reform on health care, climate change, or any number of other key issues. That campaign energy won’t swing to safe districts, because there’s no need. With few exceptions, it won’t swing to pickup opportunities because after sweeping success in 2006 and 2008, there simply aren’t many targets remaining.
At the same time, renewed Democratic strength has compelled institutional candidates into races across the country who don’t have ties to the new wave of activists from the last few years. These candidates face an additional barrier to the extent that they’re seen as part of a party establishment that has resisted change in recent years. Ignored or left to its own devices, this combination has the potential to create a perfect storm for depressed turnout. But the ramifications would stretch well beyond the House of Representatives.
Depressed turnout of this sort would impact races up and down the ticket. Governor, Senate and other statewide races would be hurt by a lack of activist mobilization at the congressional district level. Similarly, state legislature candidates who rely on piggybacking on upticket organizing would lose opportunities for resource sharing and increased visibility. In short, the possibility of activist inertia brought on by electoral malaise could go a long way to stunting momentum on a number of fronts.
This lack of enthusiasm is understandable, but it also (hopefully) reinforces a broader point: movement building is about a movement first, and elections to that end. If a particular candidate doesn’t square ideologically or tactically with you, it’s not a reason to stay home. It’s a reason to seek out other candidates on the ballot who might otherwise be at risk in such an electoral environment. It’s a reason to double down on organizing and building local infrastructure that isn’t explicitly electoral. Not only does it go to help races both above and below on the ticket, but it’s the way that candidates progressively get better and the party progressively gets stronger.
Candidates are in the business of elections; building infrastructure is a secondary- though vital- component. For activists working both online and off towards lasting systemic reforms, campaigns are secondary- though vital- components. The symbiotic relationship was much more straightforward and easier to manage from the opposition. In the majority, it’s vital that the push and pull between the two doesn’t undermine the broader effort; that staying home is never allowed to become a viable option. Indeed, that the only response to frustrations from DC is to work even harder, organize broader and deeper, and continue building movement and electoral capacity.
Depressing activism and turnout is exactly the goal of the divisive rhetoric from the right. Falling into that trap is easy, but coming back over the top with a renewed vigor for action that keeps the activist base engaged in meaningful work will do far more to ensure future success.