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A few weeks ago David Axelrod—former senior strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and current CNN political commentator—wrote a New York Times Op Ed. In it Axelrod advanced a theory of political succession in open-seat presidential elections. Simply put, Axelrod asserted that voters generally prefer candidates that are different—substantially different—from the incumbent.

Making America Progressive

As Bernie Legitimizes Socialism, We Should Remember This—Jeremy Kuzmarov

The theory—let’s call it the flip side of the coin theory—makes a lot of sense. It helps explain (at least in part) why Donald Trump is getting traction nationally. It applies broadly, too. Time and time again I’ve seen it play out in leadership succession in all types of organizations, large and small, across all sectors.

Axelrod’s essay stimulated me to reflect on what I’ve learned over the years about how change gets to a tipping point. I’m especially interested in how we can make America Progressive again. I mean truly Progressive, akin to what the U.S. experienced from the early ‘30s (FDR era) to the late 1960s (JFK-LBJ era).

What might it take? Actions related to four of my favorite theories could help.

True Believers Aren’t Enough

True believers, people who are “all in,” serve as a movement’s core supporters. But big change requires more. It requires people who are “in” but not necessarily “all in.” The reason is practical, a matter of numbers. That’s why I support the true believers aren’t enough theory: you need “in” types to get to a tipping point.

The theory applies to the Progressive movement. There’s a lot to like about the Progressive platform—e.g., restraining Wall Street’s reach—even if a person doesn’t label herself as a Progressive. But a tricky proposition is having both types of folks—those “all in” and those “in”—engaging together comfortably. Some standard-bearers draw lines of demarcation narrowly.

The fight to make America Progressive again is going to take millions and millions of people wanting change—for different reasons and at various depths. It will take devotees, who have deep ties to the movement; and affiliates, who have weaker ties to the movement.

Defend Against Party Crashers

It’s not unusual for interlopers to find value in what a movement is offering. They “crash the party,” so to speak, sidling up, cherry-picking ideas, and aligning themselves for patently self-serving reasons.

I see this dynamic in this year’s presidential campaign. When Hillary says, “I’m a Progressive who gets things done,” she makes two questionable claims: she’s just like Bernie (a Progressive) and she acts (when Bernie, presumably, does not). Hillary’s political intent is obvious: she’s trying to position herself as a Progressive and, at the same time, distinguishing herself from Bernie.

How might we counter such claims? One way is by turning to a third party, public intellectuals, to help enhance public understanding. Consider a recent article—essays written independently by four historians—and published in The Nation, entitled “Who’s the Real Progressive, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders? Interestingly, the co-authors don’t answer that question. Instead they analyze the Progressive Movement as it should be treated: not as a monolith, but as something nuanced. Intellectuals like these educate; they don’t pontificate, even when they advocate (e.g., Robert Reich).

Party crashers overreach. At an extreme, they convert something meaningful into something meaningless. Consider, for example, Hillary’s proclamation made on MSNBC [2/4/16]: “The root of that word, Progressive, is ‘progress.’” That means, I guess, that anybody who prefers progress is a Progressive. Hogwash!

Hanging Around Is Good

Big change is …well… big. It’s new, different, and threatening. Because people haven’t experienced it, they’re not sure what’s involved, including whether the downside outdistances benefits. Big change = big risks.

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Bernie declares himself to be a ‘Democratic Socialist’ (a threatening word), but also gives relatable examples of it. Democratic Socialism he says “… builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that, ‘This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.’ It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.”

The lesson here? It’s the application of what I call the hanging around theory. If we can position an unfamiliar, even threatening, idea in positive terms—and good things, not bad things, happen because of it—then it’s more likely that people (over time) will see it as less threatening and potentially acceptable.

Blessed Be the Crisis

Isn’t success the outcome of hard work, creativity, and persistence? Not always. Our success sometimes requires another party to be in distress. Consider sports. An opposition player goes out with injury. My team wins.

Let’s apply a theory—blessed be the crisis—to the current presidential campaign. Republican primary voters are making Donald Trump the Republican frontrunner. The Republication Establishment is pushing back fiercely. The Republication Party is facing a crisis.

What should Progressives do? The default option is “piling on.” Eviscerate Trump: he’s “a nativist, sexist, arguably fascist and racist demagogue.” List the bad things that will happen if Trump becomes president, e.g., Trump will challenge the essence of American democracy.

That’s all well and good, but both responses are theory-less. Give me a theory of what’s going on. Then I’ll design a strategy for action.

Katrina van den Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, offered her theory in an on-air commentary at CNN (3/2/16). For years, she argues, Republican Party faithful have been duped: party elites delivered more benefits to themselves than to rank-and-file members. Elites assumed that rank-and-file members would always be there, but this year a large number of rank-and-file members aren’t buying the party line. Even when Party leaders promote “Conservatism”—of maintaining “The Party of Reagan”—many voters are sticking firm with their choice, Trump. And they’re upset that the Party may seek to displace Trump at a brokered convention.

So, given that interpretation, what’s a strategy? It’s not just that Trump may be a ‘con’ per the Establishment (he is) or even that the Republications may have been duping its members (it has). It’s that both types of activities (self-serving politicians and political parties) have taken this country to the brink. They have “rigged” the system in their favor.

If we really want to make this country great again then we’ll need to activate a countervailing platform, a platform that consistently and pervasively PUTS EVERYDAY PEOPLE FIRST. There’s no political alternative in that regard … other than the Progressive platform as it is being articulated and espoused by Bernie Sanders. None.

Conclusion

Many people in this country understand the dangers associated with the Conservative right. They also see limitations associated with the Hillary-occupied middle. They get it.

What matters is getting beyond critique. It boils down to answers: What works? What comes next? How? Answers to those questions, it seems to me, are better served when they are tied to theory, application, learning from experience, and repeating the cycle, again and again.

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That’s one way to make America Progressive again.

Frank Fear