What American progressives need is not a new program, but a serious, sustained effort at base-building: systematic institution building, disciplined outreach, relationship building, leadership development — and some victories along the way that give people a sense of their own power so they want to keep fighting for more. Base-building requires us to reconstruct old participatory institutions and construct new ones. And that means developing strategies and then sticking with them long enough to give us the chance to succeed and our institutions a chance to develop. Too much of what passes for base-building really goes only from the top down: we take the rank-and-file’s passivity as a given; we don’t talk to people as much as we used to; and when we do, we often put fundraising first and organizing second. Canvassing and telephone banks have gone from being potentially powerful tools of civic engagement to the door and phone equivalent of direct mail — when these are the only form of contact between an organization and its members, members simply don’t feel connected. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that we generally need to conduct our organizing in person, where people live and work. Virtual communities and information highways can help — and we should talk to people who live there — but for people to love their neighbors they have to see and get to know them; for people to rebuild their communities or gain power in their work-lives they need to meet, talk face-to-face, and act together. This kind of base-building takes time and patience but there’s no alternative, and the sooner we realize this and get to work, the better.

Consider three examples:

State-based Progressive Electoral Coalitions. I agree with Richard Flacks that longstanding tendencies toward fragmentation on the left were exacerbated by the Reagan years. Except for some remarkable but short-term defensive cooperative efforts, attempts to build cooperative endeavors on the national level still feel like trying to herd a bunch of cats into the middle of a room. But I believe that forging the necessary unity will begin at the state and local levels where activists from across a range of constituencies — from labor to gays and lesbians — are already working together in electoral coalitions. Here in New England, the Northeast Action network of progressive electoral coalitions (LEAP in Connecticut and Commonwealth Coalition in Massachusetts, among others) have demonstrated that, when we work together, progressives can elect scores of leaders from our own ranks to legislative office and win on tax, budget, jobs, and health care issues. The key to this cooperation has been specific projects: rather than asking groups to sign on to 10-point programs, we seek cooperation on electoral campaigns which allows trust to be built over time in concert with real victories.

Sweeping Campaign Finance Reform. Ask Americans what the number one problem with politics is today, and most will tell you that money is driving the system and drowning out the voices of average citizens. This conviction cuts across ideological divides. Americans might accept that they can buy a luxury car, or a third home, but few believe anyone should be able to buy an election. The result is a new momentum to change state laws governing money in politics. For example, this past election day, 1,100 Mainers collected 65,000 signatures in just 14 hours to place the most sweeping campaign finance reform initiative in history on the 1996 ballot. The effort was led by progressives but created a broad base of volunteers of every political stripe who feel an extraordinary sense of urgency and ownership of the effort.

Community Unionism. In cities across the country, exciting new community-based union-organizing efforts are emerging. Neighborhoods, churches, ethnic and state of origin clubs, and civic organizations are no longer viewed by unions in instrumental terms; instead they are seen as integral parts of organizing efforts. While non-firm-based organizing — organizing based in labor markets, not simply within firms — is required by economic restructuring at the macro and firm levels, it compels unions to make a much broader case to workers and the communities they live in. Why? Because labor-market-based organizing strategies necessitate community support to enforce wage standards. Thus, community union efforts — from SEIU’s Justice for Janitors and Local 509’s pioneering effort to organize
privatized mental health workers in Massachusetts, to LAMAP’s groundbreaking multi-union organizing drive among manufacturing workers in the Alameda Corridor, to the cooperative effort in Baltimore between BUILD (an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation) and AFSCME to organize workers in the service sector — are compelling labor to make its case in terms of a broad vision of the community’s
general interest.

To recast a popular aphorism from the 1992 presidential campaign: “It’s the base, stupid.” If we don’t organize large numbers of people, we don’t have any power. Platforms matter, but except for those rare exceptions when organization gives way to social movement (good work if you can get it), they generally don’t organize people. Fundamental to rebuilding the base is a political strategy based on an understanding of how we got here, who is to blame for it, what it will take to win, and how that power can be built. Of course we need an agenda, and we need populist issues that have bite and reach. But we also need to get back to basics: to reach out to people systematically and consistently, and build ongoing organizations that don’t ask more of people than they can give, but ask enough to be meaningful.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review