If History Is A Guide, A Progressive Democratic Party May Be Closer Than You Think

By Matt Kerbel and Chris Bowers
This is the last of five diaries looking at the 2016 election from the perspective of our new book Next Generation Netroots: Realignment and the Rise of the Internet Left

Cross-posted at Daily Kos

In our new book Next Generation Netroots, we tell the story of a relatively small group of philosophically-aligned citizens operating on the margins of political debate who unite for the purpose of challenging the political mainstream. They want to move American politics in their direction, but they have no organization and few resources, and their ideas are so at odds with prevailing beliefs that it’s easy for establishment figures to disregard them. Seeking to be heard, they establish a new media platform and begin making noise. They press hard against the leadership of the party that should in theory be sympathetic to their ideas but find that elected officials are set in their way of doing things and their early attempts to shake up the party fall short.

Still, they persevere. Their media presence allows them to build an intellectual infrastructure, which serves as a precursor to making a serious bid for political power. It allows them to build at the grassroots. Upstart movement leaders start organizing and learning from their mistakes. They figure out how to identify supporters and mobilize them. They learn how to raise money through small contributions. And they start to get noticed. No longer dismissed as gadflies, their early organizational success makes them a potential threat to the power structure. Party elites who originally ignored the movement and then ridiculed it are forced to engage it, while the movement draws the scorn of the mainstream media, which movement leaders contend is trying to crush the upstarts before they grow large enough to become threatening.

And then they find their galvanizing leader: a presidential candidate viewed as extreme and even unhinged by the media and party elites but who appears to the movement as a voice of truth and clarity, saying things no other candidate will say while articulating the movement’s animating principles to the broader electorate. Party leaders try to stop him at all costs as the movement goes to war with them, and for a moment it looks like the movement is going to succeed beyond its wildest dreams—before their candidate crashes in spectacular fashion.

The candidate’s collapse is widely applauded by the mainstream press and party leaders and seen as signaling the end of the movement. But they’re wrong. At the next election, the party nominates someone outside the movement, dividing loyalists between those who find him satisfactory and those who feel he would not do enough to challenge the status quo. But as elites continue to warn about extremists who would take the party down the path to ruin, the movement regroups and expands, taking advantage of a new medium to multiply in size and grow in strength. They are still not large enough to dislodge the party power structure, but they are building coalitions as they grow and starting to sense that genuine change is within their grasp.

This could be a brief history of the netroots. But it isn’t. It’s the story of the origins and development of the conservative movement from the 1950s through the 1970s. Like progressives, movement conservatives were initially a small band of outliers who felt Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party had abandoned conservatism to political expedience, ratifying the New Deal and offering up a light brand of Democratic liberalism. So they began to organize. The National Review served as their vehicle for entering the debate and signaling to like-minded conservatives that they were not alone in the wilderness. They organized and mobilized and by 1964 they were strong enough to win control of the party’s presidential nominating apparatus. To movement conservatives, Barry Goldwater was a truth-teller. To establishment Republicans he was an extremist who threatened to lead the party to an historic defeat, and when his campaign crashed in the general election, those same Republicans felt the movement had crashed along with him.

But we know what happened next. Despite divisions among movement conservatives over whether to support or oppose Richard Nixon’s mainstream candidacy in 1968, they continued to build infrastructure, eventually taking advantage of the revolution in direct mail to target small donors much like movement progressives turned to social media decades later. They were still not large enough to wage a successful challenge to party elites, but they were getting there.  During the Watergate years, when conventional wisdom suggested the Republican Party would be dead for a long time, they made their move, assembling a coalition with non-movement conservatives which would result in the election of one of their own in 1980. The last piece of the electoral puzzle was bringing white evangelical voters into the fold to form a coalition of business conservatives, social conservatives and foreign policy conservatives which would hold together for the next three decades and define the parameters of politics and policy.

Past performance, as they say, is no guarantee of future returns. But the story of the conservative movement and its many nontrivial similarities to the arc of the progressive movement holds promise for those who wish to see progressives replace New Democrats at the helm of the Democratic Party.  Each is the story of persistent organizing, building infrastructure, fighting, losing, winning sometimes, learning from failure, growing and being patient. It took two and a half decades to go from establishing The National Review to electing a president and reshaping the party. Movement conservatives succeeded when the Republican Party was weak and they were strong enough and diversified enough to challenge its leaders. They succeeded when they had built a winning coalition, after they had moved their ideas from the fringes to the gates of the mainstream.

The barometer for many movement progressives in 2016 would be what the Sanders campaign did and did not accomplish. It succeeded in moving the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in a progressive direction on a host of fundamental policy issues which she agreed to enshrine in the platform. Hillary saw the excitement generated by Bernie’s message and needs his voters behind her in the fall, so her movement in a progressive direction is a sign that the progressive movement is more than knocking on the doors of respectability. In state after state, primary exit polls confirmed that more Democratic voters self-identify as liberal or strongly liberal than four years ago—in many cases by sizable numbers. The base of the party is moving in a decidedly progressive direction. As we mentioned in Friday’s diary, Sanders’ loss can be understood in terms of his failure to build a coalition with voters of color. Like movement conservatives of four decades ago, figuring out how to put a majority coalition in place may be the final piece of the electoral puzzle.

As with movement conservatives, gaining control of a political party is meaningful only if that party can compete in and win elections up and down the ballot and change the direction of public policy if handed power. The netroots have the infrastructure to push a progressive agenda and the clout to win policy battles. They lack an electoral coalition broad enough to drive Democratic Party politics. But they are getting closer. What happens next will depend in large part on how the movement reacts to the fall campaign and its aftermath and on the lessons elites in both parties learn from this political cycle. The progressive movement remains a work in progress, but these are unstable times and unstable times are filled with opportunity. We will soon find out if the progressive movement is strong enough to come into its own.

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Purchase Chris Bowers and Matt Kerbel’s book Next Generation Netroots and take advantage of an exclusive 33% discount available only to readers of Daily Kos and Wolves and Sheep. Purchase directly from Routledge Publishers and type the promo code NGN16 at checkout.