Progressives Shape Up
For the New Millennium
by Jan Schakowsky
The Nation magazine, Feb. 7, 2000
I believe that progressives need to develop a "Winning,
Not Whining" strategy for the new millennium that systematically
works to empower us inside and outside legislative bodies. We
must be bigger and bolder to be capable of significantly shaping
the national agenda. We can do it.
Our first job is to inventory our strengths. It is clear from
the Democratic presidential debates that ours are the issues that
resonate with the majority of Americans. Americans prefer healthcare,
good education and a secure retirement to tax breaks for the wealthy,
vouchers and privatization. They made that clear when they rejected
the $792 billion Republican tax cut. Americans want lower-cost
prescription drugs and living wages; they support the earned-income
tax credit for working families and an expanded family and medical
leave. These progressive issues are widely supported, and that
support should embolden us.
We already have a vision of economic and social justice in
a global economy, one entirely in sync with the views of average
Americans. We have a broad network of progressive organizations,
academics and individuals like many subscribers to The Nation,
who share that vision. We have smart, committed elected officials.
In Congress, the Progressive Caucus includes fifty-three members-solid,
articulate leaders who can be counted on to carry the progressive
flag in every important debate.
As progressives with these strengths, what are we doing to
build our numbers and advance our position? Not nearly enough.
In the short time I've been in the House, I have noted with interest
and respect the way that the "Blue Dogs," a caucus of
thirty conservative Democrats, wield their influence. They are
cohesive, persistent and articulate in presenting carefully crafted
legislation, often as an alternative to the Democratic Caucus
position. I have seen them successfully reshape legislation to
their liking. They have a PAC that contributed to eleven candidates
in 1998. Admittedly, with only a five-seat GOP majority, any group
of Democrats that could side with the Republicans holds powerful
cards. But there are four aces in each deck, and we have some
The New Democratic Coalition is another important force in
the House. They are associated with the Democratic Leadership
Council-a high-profile organization that advocates for economic
growth, fiscal responsibility and smaller government- and with
the New Democratic Network PAC. NDN's goal is to raise $4 million
in the 2000 cycle to help incumbents and assist new candidates.
They are organized and organizing. They, too, wield influence
and are not afraid to flex their political muscle.
Despite these differences among Democrats, progressives should
take a moment to acknowledge how refreshing it is that the Democratic
presidential candidates are challenging each other to demonstrate
who is the stronger advocate for universal healthcare, public
education, campaign finance reform, gay and lesbian rights, and
reproductive choice. This discussion is a heck of a lot better
than the Republican squabble over who is holier than thou, will
overturn Roe v. Wade faster and will institute school vouchers
with more vigor. As an openly progressive member of Congress,
I think the Democratic debate is right where it should be. We
must build upon this debate.
With plenty of veteran organizers in our ranks, we should
tap into our network more systematically to recruit, train and
raise money for progressive candidates. We need to convince our
supporters that in these pre-campaign finance reform days, we
can't win anything, including campaign finance reform, if we don't
elect our own. In my campaign I raised a higher percentage of
money from women than any other candidate in the 1998 cycle. Many
were first-time givers who were empowered by participating in
my uphill victory. Money is important but so is the people power
that we have the potential to mobilize. It was the huge number
of volunteers that elected Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin to the House
and provided the winning edge in my campaign. These volunteers
came from progressive coalitions- labor, women, seniors, gays
and lesbians, human rights activists, people with disabilities,
people of color.
I see a great potential to increase the power of progressives
in Congress dramatically. Many of us are from relatively safe
Democratic districts, which frees us of the constant burden of
struggling for our own re-election. We could devote time and energy
to recruiting new candidates, building a farm team of local officials,
helping elect progressives in Democratic primaries, raising money
not needed for our own campaigns. We could make ourselves available
to organizing efforts of progressive groups and bring together
progressive leaders on major policy questions. We could have a
media strategy to project our perspective on issues.
Democrats have an excellent opportunity to win the seats needed
to regain the majority in the House and keep the White House.
If elections were won on issues alone, it would be a slam-dunk.
On the issues that the pollsters tell us are most important to
voters (and progressives), Democrats win and win big. Those include
Social Security and Medicare, quality public education, patients'
rights and access to affordable healthcare, higher wages and an
end to gun violence. On the "values" questions, Democrats
slip behind the Republicans, but even that is changing as we learn
to talk less about programs and more about creating opportunities,
strengthening families and developing strong children who turn
into productive adults.
There are many individuals and organizations already doing
exactly what needs to be done. I praise and thank them. The new
spirit and activism of the labor movement and its role in politics
is indispensable. I am thrilled by the newly created US Action,
a progressive coalition of state groups, regional organizations,
AFSCME, SEIU and the US Student Association. There are efforts
under way to create a progressive PAC, called The Progressive
Majority PAC, which may yield important results in the near future.
Many are already part of the struggle to make our nation a better
citizen of the world and more hospitable at home to all those
who have not shared in the economic prosperity.
Now it's time to take everything we're doing right and do
it even better, do it more and do it in a coordinated way.
Progressives, our New Year's resolution, like that of millions
of other Americans, should be to get in shape. There is no more
time for whining. We must create our time for winning.
Jan Schakowsky is a Democratic Member of Congress from Illinois.