A Political Priority List for the Post-Trump Era
Here are some ideas on how to invest your time and resources in 2021
One of my mentors throughout my life in the political sphere is a man named Pete Rouse. Over a long career in politics, Pete advised senators, helped President Obama get elected twice, and mentored thousands of young staffers who ascended the ranks to run campaigns, congressional offices, and eventually work in the White House. On Capitol Hill, Pete’s influence was such that he was known by the moniker, “The 101st Senator.”
You may have never heard of Pete, which is just how he likes it. When he served as Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Pete had a backdoor built into his office so he could come and go without running into reporters, senators, or other swarms of people who were constantly congregating outside Majority Leader Daschle’s suite of offices.
But for all Pete’s myriad accomplishments, he is perhaps known best as the greatest memo writer in American politics’ past, present, and future. As President Obama wrote in his book:
“The Memo Master” is how some on the staff referred to Pete. In his hands, the lowly memorandum approached an art form, each one efficient and oddly inspiring.
At the beginning of every year, Pete would sit at his computer to author a memo that laid out a roadmap to achieving our goals with a set of strategic priorities. A ‘Pete Memo’ set the direction, kept us accountable, and created a strategic filter through which we could make decisions and allocate resources.
As a tribute to Pete — without whose guidance I would have never worked for Obama — here is my poor imitation of one of his memos with a set of strategic priorities for the progressive movement in 2021.
To be clear, this is not a list of things the Biden White Houses needs to tackle nor is it a list of legislative actions for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. My focus is on what all of us can do — where we can focus our time and resources to ensure that we build on the successes of 2020, address the shortcomings and ensure that this past election is the end of — not a respite from — the Trump Era.
Keep People Fired Up and Ready to Go
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was propelled by a massive grassroots movement of millions of volunteers, many of which became involved in politics for the very first time. After the election, the movement stepped back from politics and Democrats paid a steep price in the 2010 midterm elections. The reasons for this are numerous and complex. Contrary to some revisionist history, Obama didn’t make a decision to shut down his organization. Quite the opposite. Thousands continued to organize and register voters, but it wasn’t sufficient. A combination of complacency from winning a previous election, frustration at the unexpectedly slow progress, and the impacts of a brutal economy zapped the strength of the biggest and most powerful movement in recent political history.
I am quite concerned that something similar could happen in 2021. Four years ago, Donald Trump’s victory caused millions to become engaged with politics. We cannot allow Trump’s defeat to cause disengagement in the Democratic Party under the mistaken assumption that the work is done. Democrats have built a massive base of grassroots donors, volunteers, and activists. This base is the only reason we were able to compete against a billionaire funded Republican Party on the air and on the ground. If this grassroots base demobilizes in 2021, Democrats will be swamped in 2022.
The question is how do we keep people engaged with a very tough economy, a recalcitrant Republican Party looking to block progress at every turn, and a raging pandemic. I am in no way suggesting this is an easy task or that I have all of the answers, but here are a few thoughts on what we need to do:
Give People Something to Do: Volunteers tend to disengage when there isn’t enough to do in the movement. The sorts of people who volunteer on political endeavors are going to find other ways to fill their time if they aren’t provided with marching orders. It is critical that these tasks be real and pertinent. The people who volunteer for political causes can smell a make-work task from miles away. Our political engagement needs to be real organizing with specific and delineated objectives.
Support the Grassroots Groups Filling the Vacuum: Activists need campaigns to plug into. Unfortunately, the vast majority of 2022 campaigns will not get off the ground for many, many months. This is part of what happened in 2009. Without active campaigns, there wasn’t a place for even the most eager of volunteers to turn. After Trump won in 2016, grassroots groups sprung up and became vessels for Americans looking to turn their anxiety and anger into activism. A culture of off-year political activity emerged. To keep that culture going and give our volunteers a place to keep making an impact, we need to keep those grassroots groups funded. Here are some suggested groups to support:
Use Your Platform: Whether you host a podcast, are a prolific poster on social media, or simply have the contact information of your friends and family, you have a platform. And if you have a platform, you have the opportunity and the obligation to use it. Convince people that citizenship is a full-time job. Everyone can rest up and relax for a moment, but then it’s back to work! Plead the case to your network. Remind them of the stakes. Share volunteer opportunities with them. Every one of us has the power to keep people engaged. We just have to recognize our influence and use it.
Invest in Sustainable Political Infrastructure
The 2022 elections will be challenging. Democrats will be defending the narrowest majority in memory and doing so on a tougher, more gerrymandered map. The Republican base is going to be fired up. Billionaires will be pouring money into the election to protect their low tax rates. The dangerous disinformation techniques deployed by Republicans in 2020 will be more insidious than ever.
All of that depressing information is why the work of winning elections must begin now. We win elections by breaking the boom and bust campaign funding cycle and building sustainable political infrastructure. Democrats raised a metric shit ton of money in 2020. Much of the money came very late in the campaign, after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In some cases, it was more money than the campaigns could reasonably (or responsibly) spend. Sara Gideon ended her campaign against Senator Susan Collins with $15 million in the bank.
Ben Wikler, the very talented chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, is trying to break this cycle for the 2022 campaign against the odious and moronic Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Starting now, Wikler is recruiting people to become recurring monthly donors. $100 a month given over 12 months is more valuable than a single $1200 donation one month before the election. Having a sustainable, regularly scheduled source of funding will allow the Wisconsin Democrats to make investments in the future of the party. These investments will help defeat Johnson and pay off far beyond that single election.
Ben’s idea is brilliant. It is exactly what the Democratic Party and the larger universe of progressive activists should be doing. In addition to Wisconsin, we need to create similar sustainable funding sources for 2022 battleground states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Florida. And we need to keep up the work in states like Arizona and Texas that are trending blue. In addition to supporting the Democratic Party in those states, there are also local organizations that are focused on grassroots organizing and voter registration like the New Georgia Project, which was started by Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke’s Powered by the People in Texas.
Recruit More People to Run for Office
Politics is really not that complicated. You can’t win if you don’t field a candidate. A huge part of the Democratic Party’s success over the last four years has been driven by tens of thousands of people deciding to run for office at every level. People who had never previously considered politics were motivated by Trump’s election and began to throw their hats into the proverbial ring. The flood of first-time candidates was a key contributor to Democratic success in Virginia in 2017 and 2019 and across the country in 2018 and 2020. Building sustainable political power requires a continual flow of people running for every office in every state no matter how red or how blue.
Run for Something is an organization founded by Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto in 2017 designed to recruit and train young progressives to run for office. Over the last four years, they have recruited more than 50,000 people to consider running for office. Having strong candidates up and down the ballot is essential. Well-funded down ballot candidates can create a strong reverse coattail effect by bringing out voters for the top of the ticket. Every well-run campaign, whether winning or losing, promotes involvement in the next campaign because these campaigns build a local organization, recruit more volunteers, and improve voter data. To keep this momentum going in the post-Trump Era, the Democratic Party needs to prioritize candidate recruitment and encourage people to run for office, as well as ensuring that Run for Something and other similar groups are well-funded. You can donate to Run for Something here. You can also follow the link to run for something yourself.
The cost of the first month of every new subscription to Message Box from now until the end of the month will be donated to Run for Something.
Focus on Defending Democracy
In 2020, Democrats improved on their 2016 performance in 44 of 50 states, which will cause Republicans to double and triple down on gerrymandering and voter suppression as a means of survival.
It’s easy to become distracted by the latest machinations on Capitol Hill or the outrage du jour from Trump or some Trump wannabe (nearly every Republican not named Romney), but we can’t lose focus on the long-term threat to American democracy. It is necessary to spend 2021 calling out these efforts by the Republican Party and fighting back in every way possible. Here are some ways to do just that:
Fair Fight is a group started by Stacey Abrams that fights voter suppression across the country.
Let America Vote was started by Jason Kander and helps run political campaigns against voter suppression laws and the politicians who support them.
All of these organizations will be looking for volunteers and donations in the fight against Republican efforts funded by huge, and often secret, donations from billionaires and Wall Street tycoons.
There is so much work to do. This is only the beginning of one person’s list. In addition to the above, we need to narrow the media gap, develop a message about the post-Trump Republicans, and build up more data and tech capacity for campaigns. I could go on and on. But we have to start somewhere.
This list is a living document and I will add to it throughout the year as opportunities present themselves, challenges arise, and things change.