Be Timeless, Not Timely

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movement building occurs when we prioritize timeless principles over timely responses.

Because policy makers are thinking about the next election and not the next generation, our politics remain at a standstill.

Sadly, this is also true of the broader progressive movement that's been rightly critical of elected Democrats. It is important to show power & numbers and tell elected officials that they'll get unseated if they do the wrong things. What's missing is a broader context.

A bigger, more important story

"Next election pressure" has to be part of a larger, cohesive narrative describing a progressive future. We worry too much about "speaking our elected officials' language" instead of giving them a better vision of a future and a story that they can use to make the right policies and get re-elected. Run for office if you want to do that. Even then, telling a bigger, better, simpler story will still work better.

The difference between "we'll un-elect you" and "there's a train leaving the station that everyone's on board except you" is subtle and substantial. The first narrative is timely. It is framed in terms of the next election that's 2, 4, or 6 years away. It can be fired off quickly with context. The second, stronger narrative is timeless. It can be used candidates on the campaign trail just as easily as during my annual Christmas political "debates" with my family.

Marshall Ganz in a recent interview with The Citizen said:

The legislative process has been much more responsive to the creation of crises that legislation is needed to resolve than it has been to, "Gee, wouldn't it be a good idea if we made things work better?' So, the job of those trying to create change is actually to create crises that require legislative solution.

What Ganz calls "creating crises" I call telling a story bigger than a specific policy or an election.

Example: Health Care

During President Obama's nomination speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, he said something I wish he and others would remember: "don't make a big election about small things." That type of thinking would have benefited us all on health care reform.

Let's describe what we want the days after the next election to be like. Instead of yelling and screaming about whose head you want on a silver platter, talk about the progressive future in a way that's simple and compelling (and probably excludes your least-favorite elected officials).

Let's strengthen our "Democrats that block health care reform will be challenged in primaries and face the wrath of constituents on election day" message by wrapping it in a strong, future-facing narrative like so:

America is a place where we give a damn about one another and are proud to see people be healthy and succeed in life. It's disgusting that being unlucky enough to inherit susceptibility to an illness or being injured in a car accident puts not only our lives but our dreams in danger. The best way to protect our dreams and our future is to protect our health from any and everything that threatens it. The biggest threat to our health comes from insurance companies that determine who gets help and who doesn't, who's in pain and who isn't, who lives and who dies. There are more people in this country who know this is unacceptable than who think this is OK. That majority will rule tomorrow.

This says the same thing while simultaneously communicating the values that are the foundation of a progressive framework for every policy debate. They are the values that define our progressive future.

Movements transcend elections.

Minutiae murders movements.

The necessity of elections must not distract us from our broader goals of building power and creating a better future. Don't forget this tomorrow or the next time a politician does the wrong thing.

This piece originally appeared on the Center for Community Change blog.