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The Left's Green Lantern Problem

To truly change America, progressives must start winning down-ballot races—and soon.

Scott Elsen/Getty Images

The story of the post-Obama Left began just a few years into his presidency, with the rise of Occupy Wall Street. The 2011 protest movement injected catchy memes like “the 99%” into popular consciousness, and it kickstarted the debate about inequality that’s now at the heart of the 2016 election. But Occupy’s work remained incomplete, partly because its activists never united behind a clear political strategy, and never teamed with others on the left to turn their vision into reality. “We were defeated because we couldn’t learn to work together,” says Winnie Wong, a NYC-based Occupy activist.

Wong is among the Occupy alums who have now shifted gears: She’s working with more than a dozen of her former comrades from Zuccotti Park to support Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign. Well before Sanders mobilized his own volunteers, Wong helped set up People for Bernie, a digitally driven grassroots campaign to support his presidential bid. People for Bernie is credited with starting the #feelthebern hashtag that’s helped mobilize Sanders’s online ground troops. It’s even received funding from the National Nurses Union—one of only two labor unions that has endorsed Sanders—to hire staff and make digital media buys. 

There’s a certain irony here: Veterans of a movement hellbent on being bottom-up and leaderless, now working to elect the leader of the free world as their first big foray into electoral politics. But in many ways, it’s a logical extension of the left’s lopsided organizing model: American progressives have long focused their energies and resources disproportionately on presidential contests. 

For a bottom-up movement, this top-down approach has been one of the fundamental contradictions of the Obama era. An unprecedented grassroots campaign powered the first black president into office, and pressured him to pursue an unabashedly progressive agenda on issues like health care, gay rights, and immigration. At the same time, the 21st-century coalition behind his two victories proved impotent in midterm elections. That allowed Republicans—hardcore conservatives, in most cases—to take control of Congress and more statehouses than any time in recent memory. 

Now Sanders, like Obama, is providing another unexpectedly strong challenge to a Democratic frontrunner (the same one, in fact). And again, it’s thanks to a dedicated army of true believers. Progressives are also succeeding in nudging Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, to the left on a host of issues. But so far there’s little evidence that progressive enthusiasm is trickling down to where it’s most desperately needed. With Congress in perpetual gridlock, national politics and policy are increasingly hashed out at the state level. So while the left’s agenda keeps growing more more ambitious, its ability to enact that agenda is diminishing.

The 2016 presidential election has coincided with a rebirth of the progressive movement, in causes like Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, and a restive wave of campus activism. While some of these activists are now more willing to delve into electoral politics, their focus remains largely on the White House, whether it’s joining up with Bernie or pressuring Clinton. And they aren’t alone: Lefty donors have joined the activists in largely zeroing in on federal elections—allowing Republicans to invest their way into winning congressional and state races, even in many of the same states that Obama won.

To see the limits of this approach, consider what a Sanders presidency—even one fully dedicated to each and every one of these platforms—would look like, in the likely event that Republicans keep Congress and control of most states. Sanders may have succeeded in dragging Democrats to the left on issues like tax reform, expanding Social Security, and getting money out of politics, but how would he actually turn his dream agenda into law? CBS’s John Dickerson pressed him on the question during the second debate, pointing out the scale of Democratic losses across the country. Sanders replied that his candidacy will spark “a political revolution, which brings working people, young people, senior citizens, minorities together.”

In other words, Sanders’s basic argument is: Elect me, and it will happen. There was a moment where that same dream of a post-partisan progressive coalition looked like it might work. That was 2008, when Obama’s victory also helped his party sweep Congress. But in retrospect, those majorities were hugely inflated by President George W. Bush’s collapse and disappeared as soon as the GOP cut his anchor. Since 2008, the party has lost 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, and 12 governorships. It now controls only 30 out of 99 state legislative chambers. The depth of the losses mean that even a winning Democratic presidential candidate with long coattails can’t count on flipping Congress back to Democratic control. Democrats’ down-ballot losses also undermine the party’s future prospects, as the statehouses have long served as a pipeline for national political talent. 

Electing a new Democrat to the White House in 2017 won’t likely mean big policy changes, but rather holding the line against Republican attacks and pushing far more incremental reforms through execution action. That is essential, of course, and the threat of unified Republican governance is reason enough for progressives to invest deeply in electing a Democrat to the White House. But the only way to achieve anything approximating the kind of change that the rising left wants to see—or Hillary, for that matter—is by wresting back control of Congress and the states. To believe otherwise essentially relies on the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency. This, as political scientist Brendan Nyhan defined it to Vox, is the idea “that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.”

The Green Lantern critique has sprung up around Donald Trump and his ham-fisted vision of the presidency. Unlike Trump, of course, Sanders is a true economic populist. But his fan base also runs the risk of viewing the presidency as a cure-all, and a President Sanders would face even bigger political constraints from a GOP-controlled Congress than President Trump.

The real road to progressive victory doesn’t run through the White House in 2016, but the states in 2020. Those races will decide who controls the next round of redistricting—and whether Republicans can largely lock down majorities in state capitals and Washington for another decade, as they did after their sweeping wins in 2010. “In Congress, the Tea Party lunatics have taken over the asylum,” says Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party. “It’s state legislatures where progressives need to win back power.”

President Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 victory was powered by grassroots enthusiasm, but it didn’t pave the way for his party to follow. The Obama campaign capitalized on his ground-level support through an organization that was notoriously hierarchical and centralized; it enlisted state and local parties, but the campaign was in charge. This proved to be an effective strategy for winning the White House—but not much else. After Obama took the helm of the Democratic Party, the party also abandoned Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy to bolster state parties and put field operatives on the ground everywhere. 

Now Democrats are catching up to their mistake. Clinton has vowed to re-invigorate the state parties, and her campaign appearances at fundraising events have helped them fill their coffers. After a long delay, the Democratic National Committee finally released its plan for beefing up its support for both state and local party-building in advance of the 2020 redistricting. The Democracy Alliance, a network of rich liberal donors with close ties to labor unions, has also launched a project called “2020 vision” to invest in state-level electoral and policy fights by pouring money into outside groups.

It may be tough, though, to bring along progressive activists who see the political establishment as part of the problem. If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, many Bernie supporters are likely to hold their noses and vote for her. But convincing them to turn out in 2018 to support less prominent down-ballot candidates for the party’s sake may be far more of a stretch, particularly in the off-cycle elections where young and minority voters who are part of the Obama coalition are historically less likely to turn out. And if Democrats don’t make inroads in 2018, the 2020 Plan will take a miracle. 

Conservatives have traditionally had an easier time rallying the GOP base at the local and state level—an advantage that’s only grown with the nationwide decline of organized labor. Though Tea Party conservatives are even more antagonistic toward their own party establishment, they’ve embraced down-ballot elections as a counterweight to centralized power in Washington—and, over the last seven years, as a way to strike back at Obama. And GOP power outside Washington has translated into huge setbacks for abortion access, along with new voter restrictions and the passage of right-to-work laws.

In more limited ways, a polarized Washington has also prompted progressives to take action on the state and local level, with initiatives to raise the minimum wage, shield immigrants from deportation, strengthen gun-control laws, and pass police body-camera laws. But most of the left’s activity in the states concentrates on on single-issue fights rather than candidates. And winning on those issues hasn’t always helped Democrats: In 2014, for instance, Nebraska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Alaska all passed minimum wage increases through ballot initiatives backed by progressive donors and groups. But that wasn’t enough for Democrats to prevail in any of the contested Senate or gubernatorial races in those states, or shift the statehouse majorities. 

The national agenda that’s helped revive the left doesn’t always translate to wins for state and local candidates. Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety pumped millions into TV ads to help flip the Virginia Senate to Democrats in October, but Republicans prevailed in part by seizing on a controversial proposal to raise tolls on the I-66—the kind of bread-and butter issue that tends to dominate down-ballot races. When Democrats do get elected on the state level, they often find themselves in the political wilderness, says Nick Rathod, executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a newly formed (and Democracy Alliance-funded) progressive policy hub. “They feel they’re on an island, they’re not connected to each other, they feel abandoned by the party and national leaders, and they don’t have a central place to go for ideas.”

The left is trying to find—and fund—new ways to sustain grassroots enthusiasm and connect activists to local causes. The Democracy Alliance is flirting with funding groups affiliated with Black Lives Matter, and it’s already backing efforts like the National People’s Alliance, which supports local candidates in Chicago, and the Working Families Party, which helped NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio prevail in 2013. There’s even a new Black Lives Matter SuperPAC that plans to “endorse candidates in local races across the country,” according to The New York TimesAnd like many Sanders activists, Winnie Wong insists that the Bernie movement isn’t just about the 2016 election, but about building something bigger that will continue well after the race is over. “This,” she promises, “is the beginning of a story that will continue to scale over the years.” 

It’s easy to understand the temptation for progressive activists to go national. But in leapfrogging from the grassroots to the national stage, they also risk bypassing the political work that needs to happen—has to happen—for their demands to be met and their dreams to be realized.