Paul Booth’s Last Call

Ideas and Issues
Paul Booth in the Middle

New Orleans   Paul Booth had a long career over 50 years as student leader, community activist, and labor organizer running from the Students for a Democratic Society in the 60’s to the Alinsky inspired Citizen’s Against Pollution in Chicago and then a long stint in various capacities with the public employees union, AFSCME, both in Illinois and at headquarters in Washington, D.C. I knew Paul, though not well and more in meetings where we were all one of many, and sometimes with competing or conflicting interests. I knew his partner, Heather Booth, and her work better, where we had more intersections.

Still I was surprised to hear of his death at 74. Reportedly, Heather was being arrested in Washington standing with Dreamers in their fight for DACA reform and immigration extension the day that Paul died, and on what turned out to be his deathbed, he was finishing an article advocating a different and more “enduring” strategy for the Democratic Party. All of that speaks to a life well lived and a commitment to justice and change that commands respect and attention.

It’s worth taking Paul’s last words – and advocacy – seriously, so what follows is the heart of his argument in a piece called, “Building an Enduring American Majority” in the American Prospect, published two days after his death. It’s an argument for Democrats to build a wedge program to permanently shift swing voters over to the Democratic base, and it ends with a call to action and almost a prayer for someone or something to pick up the challenge and carry it forward:

“…a campaign’s outreach to swing voters is not the same as a long-term wedge strategy, though both may be targeting the same set of voters. Campaigns have to evaluate every program proposal, whether for base or swing, in terms of how it contributes to getting to the campaign’s win number. There’s no room in a campaign budget for the long-term investment of a wedge strategy.

Candidates (with the exception of a Huey Long, motivated by building power above all else) don’t sustain the temporary inroads they make into the opposition. If it’s possible to bring one-time Jones voters into the Democratic coalition, it will require sustained commitment, repetition, and the leadership of validators. If those validators can be mustered, they will be found on the independent side.

That is precisely the formula that has brought about the realignment of the Latino vote. The backlash to California Governor Pete Wilson’s nativist initiatives in the 1990s produced sustained effort by institutions in the Hispanic community, most notably by the labor movement.

So little effort has been devoted to wedge strategies by Democrats that we have no hard evidence of what might work among—to cite a few possibilities—veterans, seniors, suburban moderates, small town/rural/exurban (STREX) voters, or evangelical Christians. Even the Latino realignment has been under-resourced; though resources have been made available for the issue fight around immigration and for civic engagement in election cycles, they have not produced a self-sustaining mass-membership organization, which could enroll millions.

Can Democratic seniors create a movement, engaging millions, pushing back against the forthcoming GOP budget? Can they transform the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and the Alliance of Retired Americans to lead that movement? Or should they create a new entity to take on the challenge?

Can Democratic veterans create a movement, engaging millions, to defeat the privatization of VA health care? Could Vote Vets lead such a movement, transforming itself into a mass-membership organization?

Can Christian Democrats build a large fellowship of evangelicals offended by the worship at the altar of Mammon and allegiance to the GOP?

Could Swing Left or Indivisible or any of the networks, post-election or pre-existing, organize a base among suburban moderates? Or might the moderates do it themselves? Perhaps suburban millennials can spearhead it.

Might rural and exurban trade unionists create campaigns for good jobs and economic security that attract the support of their neighbors?

These or kindred efforts require massive investment and sustained commitment. Money, organizers, coalitions and long-term plans are all necessary. Identifying a “persuasion universe” of potential swing voters for one election—as consequential as 2018 will certainly be—is not equivalent to the wedge strategies that brought the GOP to power. There are networks with the human resources, and funders with the capacity, to tackle these opportunities. There are leaders in these constituencies who sense the strategic opportunity, and hope to be able to seize it.

A robust Democratic majority, big enough to win back power in a majority of states, will not appear without some success in attracting some voters who’ve been within the Republicans’ electoral coalition.

Will anyone step up to make this happen?