Realizing the Power of the Progressive Movement by Ending Our False Dilemma

Progressives have long fretted about the most effective way to make long lasting change. Do we put our efforts into the candidate who best represents a progressive agenda, as many progressives did with Obama in 2008, or more recently, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? Or should we push from the outside, agitating the power structures in our society for a more progressive future?

This dilemma has faced the progressive movement for some time. Many worry that to hold up a political figure to get the job done would mean having to embrace an “electable” candidate from the Democratic Party – a party that still has ties to Wall Street. Critics will point out that hoping for a Green Party candidate is like hoping for Ted Cruz to officiate a same-sex marriage – as in, it will never happen. Furthermore, those critics fret over the possibility of another 2000 election and a split vote. Despite this, there is a strong argument that having a leader will give the movement direction, and as long as they are not seen as an infallible savior, but as a figure who can seize the microphone and articulate the gospel of populist change, then nothing is to be feared. Contrarians say it is not enough. We need an outside plan.

Recently, the outside strategy has scored some wonderful success. Occupy Wall Street catalyzed the conversation our nation faces about inequality, giving us the language of the 99% and the 1%. There can be no doubt we are in a populist moment. The Fight for $15 campaign has scored impressive victories, including a win in Los Angeles and the state of New York, the very state where Occupy and the Fight for $15 started.

Today we can see, perhaps more clearly than ever, that a hybrid option stands before us. We can fight a rigged game on both fronts. The modern progressive movement has had its setbacks. The 2010 and 2014 elections were not ideal by any means, and yet, from the ashes of 2014 stands a remarkable win. The win at the ballot box. Despite an impressive Republican win for candidates, the ideas of the GOP were dealt a blow. Paid leave won in Massachusetts, but even more telling were the minimum wage victories in traditional red states. Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota all voted for a hike in their wages. Nationwide polls show that hiking the minimum wage, paid sick days and paid family leave are popular. Here is an opportunity.

Bernie Sanders should generate continuing enthusiasm for his campaign while applying pressure on Hillary Clinton to embrace progressive politics. He should do what conservatives did in 2004: Use a popular issue to ignite the passions of the base that will appeal to independent voters. In 2004, it was attacking marriage equality; today, we can use this tactic against conservatives and propel working-class voters to the booth. The 2016 voting group will be more progressive than the 2014 electorate, as they usually are in presidential elections. This means living wages and paid leave are likely to be victories, but why stop there? We must be bold. Bernie Sanders should activate the progressive base to full power. He should push for an Economic Bill of Rights.

What does this mean? It means securing the New Deal promise that FDR proposed we do in his 1944 address. It means guaranteeing every American a job with a living wage that pays for food, clothing and shelter. It means affordable health care and access to education. It means a secure retirement and leisure time with loved ones. It means pushing for campaign finance reform to fight corruption and the role of money in politics, as Tallahassee, Florida, did in 2014. It means pushing for state banks to compete with Wall Street, like the die-hard Republican state of North Dakota already does. It means giving tax breaks to corporations that allow the workers a voice by directly electing half the board of directors, also known as codetermination. It means having each state set up a public option, or at the very least, expand Medicaid. It means making higher education tuition free. It means paying for all of this by cutting loopholes, raising taxes on the wealthy, incarcerating less people and using the savings to better our society.

So why not do this? The progressive movement should look at implementing this new economic agenda that will guarantee Americans a more fair and humane economy. Grassroots organizers should look at how each initiative could be paid for by progressive means in each state. Polling firms can figure out just how far we can realistically push. Let’s make 2016 the year where the progressive movement roared. If we fail to win in DC, at the very least, we may have up to 24 states where, through the power of the ballot box, progressive values are not just ideas … they are concrete law.