As Progressive Maryland and other allied groups increasingly focus on the November election – on contact, turnout and movement building – lessons that emerged from this year’s events begin to shape themselves into a narrative of victory and advance. In a recent interview, which appeared in two parts Laurel Wales tries to pull together the threads of street heat and the work of governance, which often seem estranged. Here are excerpts. Wales is People’s Action Deputy Director of Movement Politics.
As Progressive Maryland and other allied groups increasingly focus on the November election – on contact, turnout and movement building – lessons that emerged from this year’s events begin to shape themselves into a narrative of victory and advance. In a recent interview, which appeared in two parts Laurel Wales tries to pull together the threads of street heat and the work of governance, which often seem estranged. Here are excerpts from her discussions on the Progressive Breakfast blog. Wales is People’s Action Deputy Director of Movement Politics.
First, what are movement politics and how do they differ from a traditional approach?
Laurel Wales: Movement politics are about centering on people who have been impacted by decisions that get made at City Hall, in statehouses, or the halls of Congress, and making sure they’re stepping up to lead: organizing locally in their community around different campaigns, all the way up to running for elected office.
For me, movement politics are really about bringing back our democracy in a way that feels meaningful, powerful, and accessible to everybody, not just the people who have the bandwidth to pay attention or the money to give. When we elect people, they’re supposed to serve everybody in the community, and that hasn’t been happening for a long time.
What is the relationship between electoral politics and structural change?
LW: Electoral politics is the way that we push for and get the votes we need to pass legislation that changes structures. Whether that’s a bill relating to healthcare or housing or mass liberation, elected officials are the ones who can carry it forward and make sure policies get implemented.
Connections aren’t just confined to the electoral politics space, because you need the whole movement. When an elected official steps in the halls of power, they’re entering a world where everything has been said and done in a certain way for a long time. We need the movement to be there to agitate and hold them accountable, but also be there to support our folks when they’re going through hard times.
Yes, we need folks in office who will stand up for the hard things because they know they’re the right things, but we also need the folks in the street providing that heat, telling their stories and creating community connection. There’s no other way to move elected officials.
To me, this shows that when folks see the impact of bad elected officials, who don’t stand up for the people, the backlash is hard. Places where the Democratic Party infrastructure is maybe not as strong are the very places where true progressive candidates like Paulette Jordan or Ben Jealous or David Garcia get traction and win. Moving forward, this calls into question the role of the party as a gatekeeper.
So how do we change the narrative?
LW: By doing. This year, if we fall into the trap of just going to the same moderate, middle-of-the-road voters, and only try to get them to vote our way but lose in the end, it’s fodder for the defeatists.
Across the country for primaries, voter turnout has been skyrocketing. In parts of Detroit they ran out of ballots, in Minnesota they had the highest primary turnout they’ve had in a decade or so. When I was working with our member organization in Nevada, the Clark County turnout was also really high. You can’t expect to take down the status quo in a year, but it’s clear the people are paying attention, they’re involved, they’re engaging, and more people are showing up in the middle of summer to go and vote for progressive candidates when they’ve maybe never done that before in their life.
What’s really exciting is that in places where our organizations are trying something new, we’re really digging in to engaging folks who haven’t shown up before, our candidates are winning. If we continue to do the work of reaching out to low-income communities, communities of color — folks who have been traditionally left out of politics — and keep holding onto that in the general, we can prove the narrative wrong.
In terms of the general election, they’re gonna face really uphill battles, no question. If even two, three or five cornerstone candidates win, it proves the point that what people want in this moment now is not milquetoast candidates, not the status quo, but candidates who are different and dare to push the boundaries of what is possible.
What candidates in November are you really excited about?
LW: There are so many, all across the country! I am really excited about our work supporting candidates for governor, like Paulette Jordan in Idaho, Ben Jealous in Maryland, and David Garcia in Arizona. These are candidates that we fully endorse and support, and have known for a long time.
I also want to shout out some of our primary candidates who put up great fights in tough races, like Brandy Brooks, who ran for Montgomery County Council in Maryland. It was her first time running for office, in a 34-way race for a district that represents over a million people . She didn’t make it to the top, but she received over 26,000 votes — Brandy actually had more people show up and support her than Ocasio-Cortez did in her New York congressional race. It wasn’t enough for her to win, but I’m excited to see what she does in the future.
What do you hope the headlines say on November 7th?
LW: This one is hard for me — what I really want it to be is “Community Organizing Spurs New Movement and Takes Over Halls of Power.” I want it to be deeply connected to the people we are moving into action, the stories that folks have, the way they’ve felt their own power in this election, maybe for the first time.
I don’t want it to be just “Progressive Wave Wins:” I want it to have a deeper story behind it.
And I don’t want the headline to credit Trump for what’s happening at the grassroots. While he’s in the forefront of people’s minds right now, a lot of this work started way before him. I think about the movements that came out of Ferguson. I think about the candidates we ran in 2015 who wanted to step up for their communities, and show they knew a better way in politics because they live the day to day life of a struggling person in this country.
These candidates are really fighting for what’s possible, what this country could be about. I don’t want the headline to suggest backlash against Trump is why we won, because there’s so much more depth to it than that.
Take us to January. How is People’s Action going to make sure candidates you’ve helped elect are co-governing with the people?
LW: We’re starting a pilot project of building state coalition tables for movement-backed elected officials in places Illinois, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and hoping to expand that across our network and the country. These tables will get our elected officials together before their sessions start, and make sure folks have an understanding of what they’re walking in to and how to be most successful
We’ll also have an orientation about what neoliberal policy looks like, how to prevent and fight back against it, and understand the pressures they’re going to face as soon as they step in. We’ve been building with a couple different groups over the course of this year to get ready for that.
In December, we’re going to host our first conference for elected officials. It will be a webinar, and have newly elected folks from all across the country to get them connected to one another across levels of government. We’ll get in to the nuts and bolts of what to be ready for, and start to build platforms and policies for when they walk into their office for the first time.
Then, throughout the beginning of their first terms in 2019, we’ll look to create spaces for ongoing connections in the community between elected officials and our base. A lot of the time, organizers think of elected officials as our “targets” – now we have to start seeing them as part of our base.
We’re also exploring ways to build broader infrastructure and collaboration both in and outside of People’s Action. I do want to recognize that it is not and cannot be just about our group — there has been a huge wave of movement organizations finding ways to work together, paying more attention to elections and popping up to build this infrastructure.
This is something the right has done well for a really long time, and we on the left just haven’t done it. The walls we have to smash down are walls of corporate money, patriarchy, and racism — those walls are huge, and one organization can’t do it alone!
These interviews were conducted by Leigh Friedman of the Campaign for America’s Future, the research and analysis arm of People’s Action. They appeared September 12 and18.