These days, there are plenty of reasons for progressives to feel pessimistic.
There’s a midterm election looming, and it’s impossible to look at the political terrain and not be worried about the possible result. There is a broad set of structural disadvantages in our federal system limiting our ability to build durable majorities in Congress, and we’re not using the power we have today to advance any meaningful electoral reforms. We face an opposition party that is increasingly anti-democratic in its governing posture, and very few of our institutions are calibrated to accept that reality.
But those concerns aren’t the focus of an argument from Sam Adler-Bell in NY Magazine this week. He scans the landscape and argues that today there is “almost no grassroots energy or urgency of any kind on the Democratic side.”
That’s wrong in multiple directions.
Right now, workers who staff Amazon warehouses, pour coffee at Starbucks locations, and fill the ranks in a wide range of media or creative spaces are winning union victories that would have seemed impossible just a few short years ago. Longtime organizers are looking at those developments and asking whether we are entering a distinctive new moment for labor. Fueling that momentum is one of the most consequential projects imaginable for progressives today — and it’s one place where the grassroots urgency is undeniable. The energy is also organic, sparked by personal connections and a willingness to try new approaches. It’s bottom up, happening locally on the ground — rather than as the result of any overarching strategy.
And it’s not the only example of our base showing their continued engagement.
In 2021, Democratic donors gave more money than in 2017 (when people were rage-contributing every time Donald Trump hit send on a tweet) or 2019 (when a hyper-competitive presidential primary was motivating lots of people to give for the first time). In the first quarter of 2022, the total number of dollars processed through ActBlue was more than double the amount raised in the first quarter of 2018, in the build up to the last midterm election. The DNC raised $42 million in the first quarter — the most the committee has ever raked in at this point in a midterm. And it’s not just about dollars. So far this year, 22,000 young people have signed up to seek office with Run for Something — close to a record for the organization.
There have, of course, been changes over the past two years. In a pandemic, we can burn out in our activism just as we can in our professional lives. And across the spectrum of advocacy groups we support at Blue State, we’ve noticed some shifts in how people show up. We’ve always known, for instance, that those who have made donations and taken advocacy actions are more likely to sustain their engagement over the long term than their peers who fall into only one category—and today, we’re seeing more grassroots organizations make the deliberate choice to create holistic engagement programs that place value on the full range of investments that supporters take. And tellingly, with some clients, we’ve seen that our most committed supporters are more likely to take high-barrier actions right now than in years past.
We’re getting those results because we hold faith with our base. We trust that our grassroots supporters will be with us in the work when we need them. We intentionally design campaigns so that our activists have meaningful things to do. And that’s the secret that keeps grassroots energy alive both in the middle of heated elections and when policymakers seem to be stuck in deliberation.
That kind of steady, long-term organizing might be less visible than a march on the National Mall or a rally that packs a football stadium. It’s something that a pundit can overlook. But it’s an essential part of what it takes to achieve any kind of meaningful progress.