Editor’s Note: We are pleased today to welcome our friend Shasti Conrad to the Cascadia Advocate to share her thoughts on charting a path forward in the wake of the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominating season. Shasti is the first woman of color to serve as the Chair of the Martin Luther King Junior County Democrats. She has worked for three Nobel Laureates and for President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders over the last four presidential campaign cycles. Most recently, she was the National Director of Surrogates for the Bernie 2020 campaign.
In the aftermath of Bernie Sanders suspending his second presidential campaign, the crush of autopsy reports has been overwhelming. What went wrong? What does it mean for the progressive movement? Where do we go from here?
I’ve been surprised and at times deeply disappointed by many of the twists and turns this time around. I did not expect to be where we are now, and I don’t think any candidate or serious pundit predicted the road we traveled to get here.
I cannot say with absolute certainty where we are headed.
Still, as someone whose first political job was with Vice President Biden, followed by a West Wing role in the Obama White House and two presidential campaigns with Bernie Sanders, when I think about the future, I bring all these experiences to bear.
Throughout the current cycle, poll after poll has shown broad and often overwhelming support for the policies and ideas Bernie championed: A Green New Deal. Cancelling student debt. Healthcare as a right for all. Once written off as pipe dreams, these are ideals nearly all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls embraced in part, if not entirely, and that Democrats in local and state primaries across the country, in red states and blue, hold central to their campaigns.
The party has moved to the left, and so many justifiably credit Senator Sanders and millions of organizers across the country for the change.
This year should have been the year the Democratic Party nominated a bold progressive leader to be the next President of the United States.
But here we are. In the middle of a pandemic, trying to get young people, women, and people of color to rally around Vice President Joe Biden.
If anything, the pandemic is showing us how progressive policies are needed in times of crises and hardship. Wouldn’t you feel better knowing that your healthcare wasn’t tied to employment and that we had a solid safety net in place to get us through these times? As a millennial, what a difference life would be without student debt hanging overhead and blocking any chance of building a nest egg to prepare for uncertain periods like this. After recent stimulus checks, Universal Basic Income does not seem quite so outlandish an idea anymore, does it?
And somehow “they” found a way to send that money pretty quickly, especially once the Narcissist-in-Chief could put his name on those checks.
Millions of Americans – a majority in most cases – agree with us that progressive policies make sense. NPI’s own research has demonstrated this.
More Americans today embrace progressive policies as the best path to a more perfect union. Still, the result of our campaign and of progressive campaigns of the past suggest otherwise. I believe that on the question of why progressives have not had greater electoral success is not a question of policy, but on how we organize and grow. It is the internal dynamics of how we all move together that we have to work through before we can win the highest office in the land.
I have also seen how the Democratic establishment often views progressives as the kids who will eventually learn that the world simply does not work the way they hoped it would. There is a sense of wanting to tamp down the hopefulness and idealism that is at the core of policies that aim to create a better world for the most marginalized. At one time, those of us working for Obama were considered the upstart progressives who were too young to ‘get it’ and would never win.
But now those kids have grown up and are in a position to be the leaders shaping the agenda. We can hold on to the hope and idealism President Barack Obama instilled in us, or we can react to setbacks by withdrawing from activism.
We must do what we can to stay central to the discussion and push the agenda.
I believe that the roadmap ahead for progressives must be tiered and viewed in terms of pragmatic action and philosophical long-term solutions.
Tier 1: Immediate actions for 2020 campaign cycle
First, progressive activists need to work collaboratively together to ensure that we get enough delegates to ensure as progressive a platform as possible, both nationally and within every state’s Democratic Party.
Second, we need to rally around Elizabeth Warren for Vice President. We need a progressive vice president and Warren is best positioned to be that person. This will require supporters of other candidates to put their personal allegiances aside, rally around the progressive platform, and make it clear that we will not simply go along with a neoliberal agenda that leaves out the most marginalized.
I know that many progressive voters would prefer a different result. If you got trolled on Twitter by someone from a different campaign, I understand. It was painful to work as positively as possible for a candidate and be reduced to a problematic label. But we need to set those feelings aside and rally for the progressive who has the best shot at working within the system to unrig it.
Warren fought her way through resistance during the Obama administration and she is our best shot at getting someone who will stand up for the progressive platform within a Biden Administration. Biden has committed to a female running mate and the other probable choices are unlikely to fully support progressive policies. We will not get all that we want, but we will have a better chance at getting some.
Third, we must move past the divides of the past and think of ourselves as the forty million-plus Americans who have recognized that the current system does not work for the disadvantaged. Not me, us. And it is a big us.
I genuinely believe that we are the majority, but our ability to work together and play the game so that we win has left a lot to be desired.
People who are comfortable can and do treat politics as a game, and we must fight some of this on their terms in order to make progress.
Lastly, do not take your ball and go home. Every time we give into despair about the battles we’ve lost and walk away, we lose ground. This work has never been easy. Ask anyone who has ever had to fight for their rights. Many people who started the work to end slavery, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement didn’t live long enough to reap the benefits from victory, but still they fought. This work is long and arduous. But we have to stay engaged to create change.
Tier 2: Longer Term Adjustments Needed
Reframe to win
As 2020 wore on, I realized that many Democratic voters and party leaders did not want a political revolution or swift, bold change. They wanted a return to normalcy, of life before Trump. A life where they generally trusted their government and, perhaps, did not have to pay attention. They could rest in the comfort of their single-family homes and jobs that covered them just enough to not be in poverty.
The Bernie Sanders campaign followed a model of many other revolutionary leaders by trying to create class solidarity amongst the 99%.
If we could all see how the billionaires were so deeply corrupt, and this corruption affected everyone else’s lives, perhaps we could truly fight to make the government more representative of the rest of America and level the field against private interests. Unfortunately, human psychology does not work like that.
We are aspirational by nature, and we want to believe that we belong with the class that is right ahead of ours… the myth of upward mobility. If you have a house with two bedrooms and one car, you likely think you are just around the corner from your friend who has a house with three bedrooms and two cars.
You are sure he’s very nice, but can’t possibly be better than you, and if you just get your lucky break then you too can have what they have.
Van Jones said at one point that people in the Democratic establishment (and many Democratic voters) want to get back to “normal,” while progressives look at that “normal” – the way things have been – as a key part of the problem.
Additionally, we should rethink the language we use in describing our movement. For many Americans, the word revolution evokes fear and destruction.
Revolutions are rarely peaceful, and power is almost never given easily to those demanding it. In fact, when you are accustomed to privilege, even equality can feel like oppression. I recently finished watching the series, “The Americans,” which follows KGB spies in America during the 1980s.
As a 1980s baby, I did not have the same cultural touchpoints as folks who lived through the Cold War and who remember the stories of Russia’s breadlines.
The brouhaha over Bernie’s statement about Cuba seemed strange to me, because I am not connected to those stories of revolution in Cuba.
But for other generations, and communities like Cuban-Americans in Florida, revolutions are not beautiful, fun ideas. They are terrifying battles over ideology that leave a lot of destruction behind. I understand better, now, how the generations before mine would balk at a revolution.
I think the better term to lead with is transformation.
I believe that we can transform this country into one that is about mutual support, collaboration, and innovation. One where we look out for one another.
One that is free from capitalistic greed and abuse.
We often look for heroes, therefore since the industrial era, we have looked at businessmen (and I do mean men) as the keys to society “working.”
Carnegie, Rockefeller, Gates: we are so blessed to have them. They are smarter than us, they work harder than us, they deserve their money.
Then they throw some of their earnings they make from our labor to good causes, and we lift them up as the epitome of American Greatness.
Listening to commentators on CNN and MSNBC periodically bemoaning why there would be any need to hate billionaires is all you really need to know about our addiction to wanting to keep them on their pedestals.
In a post-COVID-19 era, we have an opportunity to uplift those who choose to help others, such as frontline workers. In our narratives, we can call them heroes, but we must also make sure that our policies reflect the value we place in them.
Growing up, I was taught the creed: “The first go last, the last go first.” It does not matter what you have, if there are people who have less than you, it is your job to fight for them. We do this work to use our privilege to help the most marginalized. Until that sentiment is more commonly felt by middle income families, making them see their futures tied in with the poor, we’ll never be able to have the level of solidarity needed to wrest control from the wealthy and powerful.
Uplift and amplify women of color leaders
For the last four years, I have had to fight to be seen within the Bernie Sanders movement as a woman of color. Externally, I found myself whitewashed by big media; internally, I was not always valued or listened to.
The loud white men of the movement calling for purity tests and sending snake emojis to Elizabeth Warren made it hard for consensus building. An inability to compromise and work with people on the political spectrum may give you the moral high ground, but it does not leave much room for the sustainable changes that are needed to build a long-term movement for institutional changes.
On the Bernie campaign, many of our strongest surrogates were women of color: State Senator Nina Turner and United States Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal, to name a few.
They were able to energize the base and credibly speak to the importance of the intersectionality of the progressive movement.
Women of color have had to learn how to find the right messaging to get done what needs to get done. They have had to open doors that have long been closed. Platforming and centering women of color needs to happen for the progressive movement to grow into the places it needs to succeed.
Having observed how remarkable leaders operate in rooms of power, I sincerely believe that in America, one’s race and gender inform how you learn to handle yourself. If you have always been in the majority group, you’re not challenged as often to have to moderate yourself to make others feel comfortable.
You are allowed to be fully who you are.
You are often or completely allowed to state your thoughts and opinions without challenge. You do not have to learn that you have to compromise to be heard.
As a woman of color, I have to evaluate the social and power dynamics in every major room I walk into. Even though I have learned to stay true to myself, I have had to develop the skills to listen, to compromise and to communicate effectively to a diverse audience that may not come from my background.
For decades, the endless work of adjustment has been exhausting and has still too often kept me on the sidelines.
Now, as the culture shifts, paradigms are starting to change. The skills to listen, adapt messaging to the specific moment and to work collaboratively across diverse perspectives has changed from a defensive skill into a major asset.
Being able to build a diverse coalition and work alongside people whose values are similar, but whose tactics might not be the same, will be essential for progressives to build legislative majorities and defend those legislative majorities.
We are not always comfortable with moving from being the underdog to being the leader of the pack, but we will have to learn how to include those who we may not completely agree with, in order to grow the movement. I believe particularly that women of color understand how to navigate a longshot status to being at the table, and they deserve more opportunities to do so. As Shirley Chisolm said, “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair!”
Celebrate incremental victories, keep fighting for transformative change
Progressive and Democratic activists get too spun around the axle regarding presidential politics. Every four years, as if we were going all in on the Olympics, we put in everything we’ve got to win the big seat. Then, exhausted, many of us lose faith, and wait to fall in love all over again in another four years.
Meanwhile, the Republicans keep plowing through for the downballot races.
As a result, they now control the majority of state legislatures, and they use their majority there and in the Senate to pack as many friendly judges as they can into both the federal and state court systems. So many of us get caught off guard every time we hear these statistics, but it has been true for decades.
We need to have all hands on deck to work to defeat not just Donald Trump, but the Republican ideology and chaos that helped to elect Donald Trump.
We need to win back the Senate and we need to reclaim state legislatures.
Note the difference between how Republican versus Democratic members of Congress, Republican versus Democratic governors, and Republican versus Democratic state legislatures regard the lives of those on the frontline of the present pandemic and look at who they financially support.
There is no clearer example of why we must fight for these seats of power.
We need to be building up progressive leaders for the next generation, helping them to get elected to state legislatures, city council seats, into state and Federal judgeships and as county prosecutors. “Not me, us” has to outlive any one leader.
I believe that there is a home for the forty million people who voted for progressive candidates this cycle and for the majority of Americans who want healthcare to be available to everyone as a human right, federal gun safety legislation, a Green New Deal, and a government that is built of, by and for the people. We just have to build it together, celebrate the victories, learn from the defeats to rise above and win next time, and keep fighting for truly transformational systemic change!