Progressives around the country are struggling to figure out how to define ourselves in the Trump era. Should we be in a state of permanent war against the new Administration? Should we be working within the system to make better the shitty deals on health care, immigration, and infrastructure that the GOP-controlled Congress will be offering us? And regardless of which of those two paths we take, can we get a certain subset of the white electorate to overcome their fear of the other and recognize that the rich don’t have their economic best interests at heart, regardless of what party they are funding?
In my own evolving thinking about those questions, it’s been helpful for me to revisit the strategies that led to an historic election in Pennsylvania in 2014—one where progressives managed to defeat an incumbent Republican governor, in marked contrast to a wave of Republican gubernatorial wins that year*.
My biggest takeaway (and one that is by no means rocket science) is that we can’t just jump into races in the year that they are happening, and expect to win against the kind of money that will be shelled out by corporate America. Pennsylvania has no campaign finance limits, so we are a kind of laboratory of how to run a campaign in a post-Citizens United world. The 2014 race for governor cost $73 million, and many reports have attributed Tom Wolf’s victory to the fact that he was a self-funded candidate—but the ground to defeat Governor Corbett was laid long before the dust closed on the Democratic primary on May 19th.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, when he was first elected, many of us (both in the labor movement and other progressive movements in Pennsylvania) thought that Governor Corbett would be a moderate Republican of a type that has thrived in PA for years—someone along the lines of Tom Ridge or Arlen Specter. No one thought that we were going to achieve great progressive victories during his term, but we did believe that we’d be able to have a working relationship with him.
However, almost one of his first acts in office was to end a program (called Adult Basic) that had been set up by Governor Rendell, which provided working poor adults an affordable way to buy health insurance. Corbett appointed several extremely right-wing Secretaries to important departments (particularly the Departments of what were then called Public Welfare and Health)—but threw the labor movement a bone by setting a technocrat up as Secretary of Labor & Industry. In addition, his first budget cut a billion dollars from education funding in the state—hitting both the state system of higher education as well as requiring budget cuts in nearly every school district.
Over time, it became clear that Corbett’s major agenda items would be very harmful to state employees—the particular things we fought involving public employees were privatization of state services & pension reform. However, his overall agenda was really quite hurtful to working families regardless of their union membership and we wanted to make sure that working Pennsylvanians—not just union members—were aware and willing to fight back.
After he had been in office for a few months (and after other newly-elected Republican governors, like Scott Walker, had begun their attacks on labor), a group of political organizers from movement organizations began a conversation about how to make sure that Governor Corbett faced ongoing opposition to his agenda. We were benefited by the fact that SEIU had invested in two community-labor campaigns—so we had organizers on the ground in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that could build a base to come out to actions, and be involved in organizations that fought the Governor’s agenda (particularly around health care & public education). In addition, due to the statewide nature of some of the groups in the coalition, we were able to turn out people in many of the state’s smaller media markets. We were routinely able to do press events in a single day in 8-12 cities. It is much easier to get on the front page of a newspaper in Altoona or Erie than it is to get a front page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer—and it threatened GOP state legislators a lot more when their local constituents were reading those stories over breakfast.
A list of all the things that progressives did would be too long, and redundant (and I am prone to forgetting some of them), but here’s a smattering:
- For the second, third & fourth years of his term—brought busloads of demonstrators to Harrisburg on the day of his Budget Address, to make sure that the media had to talk to working Pennsylvanians about the Governor’s agenda, not just legislators;
- Held media events that were “on offense” on a progressive agenda (ie—closing corporate tax loopholes, accepting the Medicaid expansion), not just defensive actions in reaction to regressive policies—and did those events in many small cities, not just the big ones (our days of action were routinely held in 8, 10, or 12 PA cities);
- Worked furiously to keep public anger about the Philly schools funding crisis aimed squarely at Corbett, instead of the Mayor or City Council (who, thanks to the state takeover, do not have taxing authority to fund the schools). During his entire tenure as governor, Corbett never visited a public school in Philly largely because he ran away from the crowds of parent & student demonstrators that appeared every time he tried;
- Used 2012 state mid-term legislative election work to tie Republican legislators to the “Corbett Agenda,” so they had to distance themselves from this unpopular governor (which also helped us to pick up three seats in the state senate);
- Created the #onetermTom hashtag, which eventually trended after every group adopted it (and then retired when we ended up with a nominee who was also named Tom);
- In the third and fourth year of his Administration, had demonstrators spend days on end in late June occupying the Capitol (the first year around Medicaid expansion, the second on public ed funding), so that reporters who were covering the budget debate had real people—and lots of events—to cover, not just the horse-trading between legislators;
- During the ACA sign up period, groups who were not c-3 funded used our outreach work to remind low-wage workers that Governor Corbett’s refusal to expand Medicaid was making them unable to benefit from one of the main benefits of Obamacare; and
- Some organizations declined to make an endorsement in a crowded Democratic primary, choosing instead to focus on keeping voters angry at the Governor so that whoever emerged from the primary would be at a polling advantage.
Governor Corbett was the first incumbent in Pennsylvania ever to be denied re-election. It’s easy for people to say, “well, Corbett was unpopular because of his education budget cuts,” and to forget that there was a lot of work that actually went into making voters remember that they had many reasons to dislike him. The constant demolishing of Corbett’s approval ratings didn’t happen by accident—it was the result of thousands of staff hours, millions of dollars, and countless hours of activism by volunteers.
Here’s my list of advice, for those of us who are thinking about how to defeat Trump in 2020 (and to defeat his agenda, between now and then):
- Understand that this is not work that the Democratic Party can be expected to do. We can argue about whether they should or shouldn’t—but that’s not going to make them do it. If we want to hold a coordinated strategy around activism, it can’t depend on either elected officials or political consultants.
- Don’t let yourself be put on defense for four years. Defense is important—but you can’t win without an offense strategy that paints a picture of the world we’re building—not just what we’re fighting to defeat.
- For funders or national organizations that have the ability to shift resources from one place to another–there will be a lot of temptation to create wins in California, New York, or other progressive, coastal cities. Make sure that you are also investing in North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota and Arizona. We could not have won the 2014 election if we had just focused on Philly & Pittsburgh–and our movement can’t shift a national conversation if we’re only moving progressive policy in the most progressive places.
- Know and agree that not every member of every coalition can do every thing. Some of us have more resources in general. Some of us can do partisan election work—others cannot. Some of us will be squarely facing attacks against our right to exist. Some of us have government funding that precludes certain kinds of activism. Celebrate and amplify the work that other parts of our movement are doing, even when you can’t participate in them yourself.
- Remember that sometimes having 30 people on the steps of a county courthouse, or in front of a rural legislator’s office will generate more media than having 300 turn out in a big city. Make sure you have dedicated resources (particularly communications prep) to make the 30 person rally just as effective as the 300 (or 30,000) person one. Getting a good constituent quote in a Republican congressman’s local paper is better than getting one in the big city paper that is only read by Democrats (or worse—having a great quote prepped that no one ever picks up, because your rally is deemed unimportant by the assigning editor that day).
- Only the strongest among us should ever read the comments online. Don’t feed the trolls.
- Include youth in your coalition. And not just on the days that you need a student spokesperson.
- Bring the people you are organizing to the corridors of power on the days that matter, so that reporters have to talk to those people. Do not allow organizational spokespeople to speak on the record on those days. On background for technical stuff? Fine. But not on camera or for attribution.
- If you can afford paid media, use it to tell a person’s story about how they are affected by a policy or issue. Our movement is about people, we should be using our media to uplift their stories—not to promote candidates for office.
- Pick corporate targets that expose the financial connections between elected officials and their terrible policies. March on those targets, too.
- If the solution to a problem is federal or state-based, don’t feed people’s anger at local elected officials, just because they’re easier to get in front of.
- Use the mid-term elections to tie Republican Congresspeople to the most unpopular elements of Trump’s agenda. They’re in office, they’re going to vote to confirm his nominees, support his legislative efforts, and put resources toward his budget—make them own it.
- If you are a group that makes endorsements, when 2020 presidential candidates come knocking, don’t feel like you have to be “in first” in order to have leverage in their future administration. Make the issues that matter to you the issues that elect them—and you’ll be important enough to have leverage later.
We are already seeing a reaction from the political elite to the outpourings of activism that have happened in just the first week of the Trump Administration—whether those are Democrats who are scrambling to keep up with their base of voters, or Republicans worried about their fate in the 2018 elections, if they align too closely to the president. We must counter conservatives’ description of a world that is full of threats with our vision for a better, more inclusive, more equitable world. We will all have days where we lose hope—but our movement must never lose hope.
*This post is written from the perspectives I sat in, during the four years of the Corbett administration, and shouldn’t be taken to deny other people’s perspectives or hard work. No one organization was capable of doing everything, and all the work that everyone did mattered.