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 too.

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.

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