From the Cities a Progressive Movement Will Rise

By Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata

First appeared in Huffington Post December 23, 2014

Progressives have been getting their asses kicked by conservatives, and it’s not pretty. The next few election cycles are going to matter a great deal, and if we don’t pull ourselves together we are only going to face more losses at the polls.

I do not know what is going to happen in the Presidential election in 2016, but I do know this: If we progressives don’t get back to the basics, to the nuts and bolts of arguing our side effectively and passing reform-minded legislation and winning elections, we will essentially be conceding the nation’s future to groups like the Tea Party.

It’s time we recognize that the right-wing free marketers have captured the nation’s zeitgeist. The plurality of people now say they favor so-called conservative values, i.e. freedom from government, over progressive values, i.e. freedom from want. Complain all you want about the downsides of this philosophy (there are many), and tell me that the Tea Party has been deviously funded and usurped by corporate America and the Koch Brothers (I agree), but the Tea Party movement’s message of freedom from big government resonated with the public, and they seized on that in enviable ways. The Tea Party went from disrupting Democratic town hall meetings over Obamacare to organizing a thorough takeover of government through the Republican Party. They won seats and they pressured center-right officials in the GOP to embrace the fringe. True, the wealthiest one-percent is funding the Tea Party movement in an overt effort to dismantle the public sector, but the Tea Party has also worked hard at organizing the vote. They did not abandon electoral politics for street demonstrations.

While Obama won the 2012 Presidential election, the Tea Party won more seats in Congress, and, aided by unfair gerrymandering, pressed their advantage in 2014. Tea Party organizers have outspent and out-organized progressives. In the 2012 congressional races, they targeted nine million voters who were undecided about Obama’s economic record. And they won.

How do we respond to all this? One thing that’s certain is that we can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results. The only real way is by engaging in hard grassroots work: We need to rebuild the foundations of Progressivism with clearly defined goals that connect to regular people. We need to get back to the tradition of passing local progressive legislation. We can do this by strengthening the ties between our community based organizations outside of government with our allied elected officials inside government. This is the path of revitalizing our nation’s democracy through our cities, where labor and community-based organizations are working with local politicians to make dramatic improvements in people’s daily lives.

Local Progress, the nation’s largest collection of progressive elected representatives from cities and counties, is taking the lead. Launched just over two years ago, Local Progress has already been featured in The Nation, which delightfully called us “Pothole Progressives.” We have grown from fewer than fifty members to over three hundred members from forty states, one-third of whom attended its third annual meeting earlier this month in New York City, which featured an introductory speech by Mayor Bill de Blasio (“We all reference each other,” de Blasio noted, “We all build on each other’s work. Every time we succeed, it builds momentum for other cities.”). We attended wonky but inspirational lectures about the economy, social justice, livable cities, and effective government; we talked, and we learned.

Housing, sustainability, police-training and procedure reform – there is a lot going on at the local level. We are conditioned in this era to expect big change now, but that hasn’t worked for us, so why not try to build our successes more deliberately, so that our impact is something stronger than a media sound bite?

Local Progress operates as a national municipal policy network that helps city council members and mayors exchange information on how to pass legislation to improve the lives of their residents. Just as importantly, it is weaving into this network labor groups and activist organizations to turn out their members to support these efforts. Local Progress members have scored victories already, passing paid sick days, minimum wage and living wage legislation in over two dozen cities since its formation.

With over fifty percent of the population living in our biggest thirty-five metropolitan areas, it is critical to organize urban areas and pass legislation that demonstrates to the nation that progressive solutions strengthen our democracy. Moreover, we can’t sit around for the Presidential election in 2016 and hope for a strong progressive turnout; every year there are important council laws, elections and ballot issues that present that opportunity. We must demonstrate to the average citizen that change is possible now, in order to build momentum toward victories in future elections. Otherwise, we will only see further gains by those intent on dismantling a government by and for the people. It’s a downward slide that we can’t afford to have.


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