02 May 2006

Joel Rogers Seminar - summary

First Progressive Strategy Seminar
Joel Rogers, presenter

co-sponsored by the Progressive Strategy Studies Project
at the Commonwealth Institute and the Boston Review
13 December 2004

Introduction by Charles Knight: Building a strategy

As progressives step back and look at the results of the 2004 election, we are starting to understand the election as not an isolated victory for the conservatives but rather as the latest step in a 35 year march to towards conservative dominance over public policy. Progressive leaders working in thousands of different organizations around the country are faced with the question of what they should do now.

Progressives in United States have been active for a long time without having a grand strategy. Although it is unlikely that all parties would ever agree on a single grand strategy, if we do not even have an outline for an overall strategy this significantly diminishes our prospects for progress.

To begin the discussion about strategy we should clarify how we define the term “strategy.” Strategy is the art and science of marshalling human and material resources and planning for action to reach complex and articulated goals. Political strategies are employed in circumstances of uncertainty and opposition. Successful strategies make contingency plans for the unknown circumstances that might arise and they also plan counter moves to the actions taken by the opposition.

Any comprehensive strategy must conduct an assessment of material conditions in which progressives operate. Once the current material conditions are assessed, a statement of priorities must be drawn up to guide allocation of resources to the efforts that will be most helpful in achieving the movement’s goals.

The immediate goal of the Progressive Strategy Seminar is not to make great strides in developing a common strategy but rather to make progress in identifying the areas of strategy where we need to focus our attention and to begin the process of thinking about how we might work on these strategic issues.

Joel Rogers: Defining a vision and agreeing on common values

The first area of strategy that needs attention is the creation of a broad agreement on a common vision for what a progressive America would look like. Progressives have to clarify our vision of a better America before we can collaborate on strategies for how to achieve it.

Social democracy has come under hard times over the last 30 years for a variety of reasons. Progressives are in a very different era than we were in the first half of the 20th century and our current situation is very different from previous situations of egalitarian advance under liberal democratic conditions. For example, the old progressive idea of raising taxes to support the welfare of the people, the Keynesian welfare state, has become an unpopular and a politically challenging position to maintain.

Conservatives have a clear program to repeal the most progressive programs of the 20th century. The broad conservative economic vision is to remove taxation on capital, destroy unions, get rid of social insurance, reduce business regulation, and to insure business domination of American politics.

The conservative movement has been actively selling a conservative vision of the economy and our government for 30 years. It has been largely successful in moving public opinion significantly to the right on these issues. To respond to this challenge, progressives must define a shared vision of the economy and government that supports the progressive movement and allows us to speak with one voice so that we can sell the public on a vision of a more just and equitable society.

The second strategic issue that needs attention is creating agreement on the core values of the progressive movement. We should define what progressive core values are so that we can reach out to the public with a clear and unified voice. An agreement on a broad set of values as basic as the recognition that Americans believe in freedom, fairness, opportunity and responsibility would give the progressive movement enough to drive a powerful critique of a corporate dominated American society.

Progressives have been quite successful at winning the cultural wars on issues such as civil rights and women’s rights over the last 30 years and our society has made significant progress because of these victories. On the other hand, we have been losing a lot of the political and economic battles over the last 30 years largely because progressives have not focused their efforts there. It is becoming clear that it is time to get back into the economic and political battles.

The strategic challenge for progressives is to develop a clear vision of what we want to accomplish and a set of core values that will define what we stand for as a movement and will drive our critique of the conservatives.

Joel Rogers: Increasing communication and cooperation among progressive organizations

While the conservative movement focuses the majority of its funding on approximately seventy large organizations, the progressive movement disperses its resources widely among thousands of diverse organizations. The result of this fragmentation is that the sum of the parts of the progressive movement adds up to significantly less than the whole. This fact presents a strategic challenge for progressives to think about. How do we increase the level of communication and cooperation among progressive organizations to address this structural disadvantage?

There are several ways of increasing communication and cooperation within the movement. A major barrier to cooperation between organizations is that most are structured to think about projects in terms of their individual organization’s priorities as opposed to the movement’s priorities. Progressives could develop structures and methods which would lead to more movement-oriented thinking and behavior rather than organization-centered thinking and behavior.

Currently the leaders of the progressive movement do not gather together and systematically develop common strategies for the movement or discuss areas for collaboration. The closest thing to a strategy meeting for progressive leaders that exists is the Take Back America conference sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, but this conference is more of a show case and networking gathering than a strategic planning meeting.

A relatively low cost way of addressing the lack of systematic communication between the leaders of the movement could be to have regular executive leadership conferences. These conferences could occur at regular intervals at the national, regional and local levels and could serve as a kind of Renaissance Weekend for progressives. There could be a communication structure so progressive leaders could communicate the results of these meetings not only with their constituents but also with the other levels of leadership of the movement.

Coordinating the organizations working on similar issues is an example of a concrete project that could be put into motion right away. Part of the cost of a lack of cooperation between groups is that, in too many cases, the movement has been modestly successful in individual campaigns but mostly with symbolic effect rather than large scale, fundamental change. For example, many groups focus on living wage campaigns with modest local success when a combined effort of these groups on a hike in the minimum wage at a state level would affect many more people.

Designing structures and methods that would promote more communication and cooperation among organizations could also lead to a reduction of redundancy of effort and increase area specific expertise in the progressive movement. For example, if the hundreds of groups in the nation working in a particular area (like staff training) were to communicate and cooperate in more depth it could greatly improve effectiveness. Right now because individual organizations don’t cooperate on issues such as staff training, there are fifty, or more, separate staff trainings at the state level. This fragmentation and duplication of effort leads to higher costs for the movement and lower levels of trainer expertise. If progressives were to communicate and cooperate more effectively, organizations could agree to create common staff training efforts which would lead to less redundancy of effort and greater depth of expertise in the movement.

Joel Rogers: Building a progressive infrastructure

Over the last thirty years the conservative movement has been very successful in building an infrastructure of organizations which promote conservative views in public policy and public opinion. It is now widely recognized that the progressive movement is at a significant disadvantage in terms of such infrastructure. Clearly this is a strategic issue.

There are many areas of progressive infrastructure which need a strategic development plan but there are five that stand out:
* communication;
* youth development;
* service bureaus;
* message development;
* and messengers.

The issue of how to improve communication within the leadership of the progressive movement through regular leadership retreats has already been mentioned. The need to improve communication with the population at large which is left of center is another strategic issue that needs to be addressed. The fragmentation of communication with the left of center population of the United States is another opportunity that can be addressed through improving the progressive infrastructure. Polling data suggests that there are approximately 80 million people in the United States who identify themselves as left of center but there is no list that progressives can go to in order to send a message out to a large portion of those 80 million people. There is enormous power in internet management projects which would consolidate email lists among the left of center organizations in the progressive movement. There are obviously obstacles to creating such a list, but the benefits of overcoming those obstacles with something like a central, well-managed email database for the movement could be significant. Having a comprehensive email list for progressives would allow the progressive movement to create a progressive Internet news paper that could distribute the progressive message to millions of people.

The second strategic issue for progressive infrastructure building is youth development. Tens of thousands of young people are looking for ways to do work which fits with their left of center values. The challenge for the progressive movement is create mechanisms to help those young people to find ways to contribute to the progressive movement. Progressives could create a network of progressive youth resource centers so that young people that can go to a single place to connect with all the jobs and training opportunities available in the progressive movement.

Creating a central service bureau for the progressive movement is the third area of opportunity for progressive infrastructure building. Polling, campaign training and leadership institutes are examples of tasks which could be done more efficiently if they were conducted in a less fragmented way than they are today. The progressive movement is engaging in significant replication of each of those functions which causes them to be less professional than they would be otherwise and collectively cost significantly more. A central service bureau would allow the progressive movement to segment and define certain tasks that need to occur across many progressive organizations, as well as encourage organizations to divide up resources and farm the tasks out to the different groups that can fulfill the tasks the best.

The fourth area of progressive infrastructure development is message development. There are a few things that most Americans believe in such as giving kids a very good education and quality health care, giving workers affordable health insurance, making government less corrupt, and making the economic playing field fair for everyone. The striking thing about this list is that progressives have made little national progress on any one of these issues in the last 20 years. Therefore, there is a significant disconnect between a set of clear progressive messages that would be appealing to a majority of Americans and an inability of the progressive movement to successfully articulate those messages. The challenge for progressives is to think strategically about how to conduct well-coordinated message development work in think tanks and among progressive intellectuals and activists.

The fifth area of progressive infrastructure development is the development of messengers to carry the progressive message to the public. The strategic challenge is how to develop a large number of well-trained messengers who are appealing to the general public who can bring the progressive message to the American people. It is crucial to develop infrastructure that will enable progressives to recruit and train thousands of candidates to run for office at all levels of government. It is also very important to recruit and train people to communicate what is fundamentally the same progressive message in the various public venues.

The second area of messenger development is in the development of the media organizations themselves. We should support progressive media outlets like Air America but we should also develop alternative ways to get our message to the public. One idea is to build a mass email list of all the progressive organization and send a monthly email progressive newspaper which carries the progressive message.

The final area of progressive infrastructure building is the area of electoral politics. There are two areas that need strategic development in the political area. The first is the structure of the Democratic Party and the second is the coordination of efforts of the progressive groups involved in the political process.

If we compare the structural aspects of the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party we see a significant governance difference which has worked to the Republican’s advantage. The chief constitutional difference between the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee is that the head of the Republican National Committee controls the hiring and firing of all the state Republican Chairs. By contrast, the head of the DNC has very little control over the state Democratic Chairs. So before we look for more complex reasons why the Republicans seem to be on message and better coordinated than Democrats, we should look at the structural differences between the two parties. We need to think strategically about what is the best structure for the party going forward.

The second point about political infrastructure is that there needs to be sustained, disciplined attention to building infrastructure that will allow progressives to gain power at a political level. The progressive movement needs a well-organized community of progressive organizations focused on progressive electoral politics.

There are many issues related to progressive infrastructure which could be addressed but it seems clear that a systematic assessment of the current state of the infrastructure to see where our strengths and weaknesses are, followed by the develop of a prioritized action plan to develop the areas which are found to need improvement, would be very valuable to the progressive movement.

Joel Rogers: Organization and Allocation of Financial Resources

There are two major strategic issues related to financial resources that need to be addressed:
· organization
· and allocation.

Under the current system, there is so little donor organizing infrastructure for the progressive movement that fundraising from small donors is largely conducted on an organization by organization basis. The problem with fundraising from small progressive donors is that there are so many single issue groups soliciting small donations that these groups are overwhelming the small donors. Another problem this creates is that these donors have very little confidence that their money is going to be used in the most effective way possible. Both of these problems are depressing small donor giving to the progressive movement as a whole. A possible solution to this problem would be to develop a donor organizing infrastructure for small donors which could consolidate and simplify the process of giving for small donors.

An example of an organization which dramatically simplified and consolidated the giving process for small donors interested in supporting women candidates is Emily’s List. The organization was founded so that donors who want to give to women political candidates, but did not have the expertise to evaluate all of the potential candidates, could give money to a fund where well respected experts made the allocation decisions for them. One possibility that could be attempted in the larger progressive movement would be to use the Emily’s List model for small donor fundraising and funding.

In other words, the progressive movement could develop a few donor organizing groups which would hire experts who the pubic trusts to allocate their capital to the most worthy campaigns and organizations. The new small donor infrastructure, of Emily’s List-type groups, would be likely to increase small donor giving to progressive groups since donors would feel less overwhelmed as well as more confident that their money is going to the best use possible. It will also increase the likelihood that the money would be allocated in a strategic manner that is most beneficial to the progressive movement as a whole.

The second strategic issue is how the money being invested in the progressive movement should be allocated. Progressives could establish governance structures and methods of discussion within the movement about how the money should be allocated. We could have mechanisms where experts recommend projects worthy of funding and whether the project should not only be given project funding on a two year basis but also given operating funding as well.

The differences between Left funding and Right funding are:
· progressives fund projects and the Right funds their movement;
· The Right funds for 10 years because their project is taking over the country;
· Progressives don’t tend to experiment or have performance outcomes as much as the Right;
· We give to thousands of groups while the vast majority of the Right's funding goes to 70 well-funded groups.

Progressives could shrink the number of groups being funded, go deeper on organizational competence and start measuring outcomes of our investment in organizations.

The following is a process that could be used for resource allocation. First, progressives could take a serious inventory of what strengths and weaknesses exist in the progressive movement and create a map of the progressive movement that is based upon a systematic understanding of what the areas of strength and which areas need improvement.

Second, we could bring this map to progressive donor groups and take a poll about which parts of these donors would like to give money to. Third, progressive could create a procedure to make the donor groups aware of which part of the map would be over funded, or under funded, based on the original poll of donors. Fourth, we could reserve 10-15% of the total money committed from donors for projects that are important but would not fit any individual donor’s interests. Finally, we could apply performance criteria on the projects so that outcomes can be objectively measured. This way future resource allocation decisions can be made based on rational criteria. It is also important to challenge donors to be more patient with projects.

It is clear that the organization and allocation of financial resources is a strategic area where serious study of the strategic issues could lead to significant improvements in the movement.


Joel Rogers is professor of law, political science, and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also directs the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), a policy center and field laboratory for applied experiments in "high road" (high wage, low waste, democratically accountable) regional economic development.

Rogers has written widely on democratic theory, American politics, and comparative public policy (co-authoring such books as On Democracy, Right Turn, Metro Futures, The Forgotten Majority, and Working Capital), and is a contributing editor of The Nation and Boston Review. He's also a longtime activist, with a special interest in state politics and progressive strategy. He co-founded EARN, which now includes 45 policy groups in 35 states working on high road state program. Most recently he's been a founder of the Apollo Alliance for sustainable American energy independence, with overall direction of its efforts in states and cities, and is co-author of a broad proposal - Winning in the States - for building progressive political infrastructure in the states (covering candidate recruitment and training, legislative campaign support, policy framing and training, and ongoing networking and support for state and local elected officials.)

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