Progressives often wonder why so many Republican lawmakers stick to their avowed principles while so many Democratic lawmakers abandon theirs. We can grasp some answers by assessing the current nationwide drive called "Primary My Congressman" -- a case study of how right-wing forces gain ground in electoral terrain where progressives fear to tread.
Sponsored by Club for Growth Action, the "Primary My Congressman" effort aims to replace "moderate Republicans" with "economic conservatives" -- in other words, GOP hardliners even more devoted to boosting corporate power and dismantling the public sector. "In districts that are heavily Republican," the group says, "there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress -- not more 'moderates' who will compromise with Democrats..."
Such threats of serious primary challenges often cause the targeted incumbents to quickly veer rightward, or they may never get through the next Republican primary.
Progressive activists and organizations could launch similar primary challenges, but -- to the delight of the Democratic Party establishment -- they rarely do. Why not?
Here are some key reasons:
* Undue deference to elected Democrats.
Members of Congress and other elected officials deserve only the respect they earn. All too often, for example, plenty of Congressional Progressive Caucus members represent the interests of the establishment to progressives rather than the other way around.
* Treating election campaigns more like impulse items than work that requires long-term planning and grassroots follow-through.
The same progressives who've spent years planning, launching and sustaining a wide range of community projects are apt to jump into election campaigns with scant lead time. Progressives need to build electoral capacity for the long haul, implementing well-planned strategic campaigns with candidates who come out of social movements and have a plausible chance to win on behalf of those movements.
* Assuming that millions of dollars are necessary to win.
Yes, successful campaigns require effective fundraising -- but money is often a less significant obstacle than a shortage of commitment and willingness to do painstaking grassroots organizing.
* Self-marginalization by ignoring elections.
Some on the left prefer to stay out of electoral contests while focusing on the next protest demonstration -- thus leaving the electoral field to battles between corporate Democrats and Republicans. One sure result: a progressive won't win.
* Self-marginalization with third-party efforts in partisan races.
In congressional races, Green Party and other progressive third-party candidates have a zero record of success in our lifetimes. In other races with party affiliations also on the ballot (such as governor and state legislature), victories have been almost nonexistent. In such races, the corporate-military complex is not in the slightest threatened by third-party candidates, who rarely get higher than a low single-digit percentage of the vote. In nonpartisan races, by contrast, there are examples of successful and uplifting campaigns by third-party candidates, as with Green Party member Gayle McLaughlin, the mayor of Richmond, California.
By changing just a few words in the Club for Growth's "Primary My Congressman" manifesto, progressives have a road map for electoral progress: In districts that are heavily Democratic, there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real progressives to Congress -- not more of those who go along with the Obama White House as it keeps compromising with Republicans.
Anyone serious about getting genuine progressives elected to Congress next year should be engaged in developing campaigns now. To avoid the impulse-item syndrome, that means identifying key races where progressives have a real chance to win, while remaining mindful that election campaigns should be subsets of social movements and not the other way around.
If there's a defining issue that now separates the Obama party leadership from social decency, it is the president's push to cut Social Security benefits. Less ballyhooed but also crucial is his push to cut Medicare benefits and the ever-present danger of cuts to already woefully underfunded Medicaid. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders are unwilling to seriously cut the enormous military budget.
Any incumbent Democrat who is not serving progressive interests should be weighed as a possible primary target. And the most fruitful primary challenges are beckoning in heavily Democratic districts where there are many progressive voters and incumbents aren't measuring up.
By that standard, the Congress members who may be vulnerable to a primary challenge include the 44 who tout their membership in the Progressive Caucus but have refused to sign the letter (initiated by Congressmen Alan Grayson and Mark Takano) promising not to vote to cut Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.
A good starting point to consider launching a primary challenge in your area would be to look at those 44 members of Congress who continue to refuse to make such a promise, leaving themselves wiggle room to vote for cuts in three crucial programs of the social compact. To see the list of those self-described "progressives," click here. (Meanwhile, wherever you live, you can let your Congress member and senators know what you think of proposals for such cuts by clicking here.)
It's fair to say those 44 members of Congress are among the many Democratic incumbents showing themselves to be more afraid of the Obama White House and the Democratic Party hierarchy than they are of voters in their own districts. Progressives in and around those districts need to do less venting and more organizing.