What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Activists About Political Change

Wisdom from Erik Loomis on the structure of political change:

The best way I can explain this is to refer to the literature on the rise of conservatism. A really transformative moment in my political thinking came when reading Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors. In this book about the rise of conservatism in the defense industry suburbs, McGirr shows how conservatives, outraged that the country had moved so far to the left during the New Deal and had not really shifted back right under Eisenhower, started taking over their local political structures. They ran for school board, county commissioner, other local offices. They volunteered at county-level Republican Party HQs. They very quickly controlled the machinery of the Republican Party on the local level. Not too long after that, in 1964, they managed to push Goldwater on the presidential ticket. When he got crushed, the mainstream media crowed that this movement was dead. But the conservatives didn’t care. They kept on organizing. In 1966, their support helped Ronald Reagan become governor of California. And from there, they kept organizing until today, despite being totally crazy on so many issues, they are the Republican Party […]

I oversimplify, sure. But the trajectory of the conservative movement should be teaching us many lessons. Not that we should be crazy extremists. But that party structures are actually not that hard to take over if you really want to do it. Yet progressives seem to almost NEVER talk about localized politics. We complain about education reform but don’t organize to take over school boards. Conservatives outflank us in part because they seem to understand that the presidency is not all-powerful. Perhaps local offices like county clerk and elected judges are as or even more important than the presidency, at least from a long-term perspective. Too many progressives believe in Green Lantern presidencies. Elect Obama in ’08 and he can force through all the changes we want.

No. That’s not how it works.

I think Barack Obama was wrong when he said you can’t change Washington from the inside. He actually has accomplished quite a lot of his campaign goals, even though most of that happened back in the good old days when the Democrats had the House. What he should have said was that the President doesn’t have the power to do everything. Most economic policy decisions require Congress to sign off, and we see how well that worked with stuff like the American Jobs Act. A Congress that doesn’t want to do what the President wants to do about the economy basically has free reign to shut him down, and that’s what’s been happening since January 2011 with predictably terrible results.

If you’re a progressive activist, 2011 and 2012 have been some pretty ugly years, and it’s perfectly reasonable that all the disappointments might make you feel lazy and disengaged. It’s just important to recognize that that feeling is evil. Your enemies don’t get tired. As Erik points out, they are energized in victory and defeat. They keep working hard in good times and bad. They take over their local parties and move the ball forward in local or state politics when they don’t have Congress or the Presidency. That’s how political change happens. You don’t have to have a ton of people in your group. You don’t have to persuade a majority of the population that you’re right. If you form a small group of like-minded folks, you can take over a city council or a school board. The number of people involved in setting the agenda on local and state politics is small, and the parties are highly permeable. If you get involved, and you bring a bunch of friends and neighbors along with you to work for candidates, or run your own candidates, you can help shape the issue agenda of your local party organization. You will have the ear of Mayors, city council members, state legislators, US House members, Senators and all the rest if you put yourself and like-minded people at the fulcrum of the organizations that get them elected.


  1. It’s always entertaining when you make the assumption that when conservatives take action, it’s always a ‘small number’ that drive it.

    Keep telling yourself that, makes it much easier for all of us.

    And Barack Obama was right – Washington is a cesspool on both sides of the aisle. The only way to change it is for someone to get elected who isn’t beholden to it and doesn’t have to rely on it after he’s out of office.

  2. I’m not saying the number of conservatives is small – just that the actual organizing doesn’t require too many activists to be involved.

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