Column

A progressive bulwark is crumbling, and the movement itself may soon follow

Wellstone Action, and the progressive movement's game plan to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

UNITED STATES - MAY 20:  Andrew Procyk of West Palm Beach, Fla., attends Camp Wellstone, at George Washington University, which is training program held across the counrty for progress activists.  (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 20: Andrew Procyk of West Palm Beach, Fla., attends Camp Wellstone, at George Washington University, which is training program held across the counrty for progress activists. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

By now the future of the progressive movement should be apparent for all to see. The energy and momentum on the political left points to the need for leadership that creates, enriches, and sustains a broad and diverse coalition of voters. The way forward to victory requires a smart strategy that places emphasis on identifying, registering and lifting barriers for voters who have traditionally been kept out of the good old boys club that dominated all politics.

Let’s not be coy: this isn’t the 18th century, when landed, white men were the only voters who mattered. In 2018 and beyond, electoral success for progressives will not depend upon convincing white folks — especially working-class white men — to abandon their tribal and self-destructive voting patterns.

Need evidence of the wisdom of this approach? Consider just last year, when Democrat Ralph Northam defeated the Trump-backed Republican Ed Gillespie to become Virginia’s governor. Northam won with the overwhelming support of black women voters. A similar trend held true in Alabama’s special election for the U.S. Senate in December, where Democrat Doug Jones benefitted from a massive and unexpected turnout among black voters that pushed him past the GOP’s Roy Moore, who had the White House’s reluctant support. Exit polls published by the Washington Post told the story: 98 percent of black women in Alabama voted for Jones; 93 percent of black men voted for him.

Yet somehow this message doesn’t seem to have seeped deeply enough into the collective consciousness of those on the left. That’s the take-away lesson from last weekend’s disturbing Politico article that detailed how dissension over political strategy is rendering Wellstone Action, an influential progressive training group that was created to advance the work and legacy of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat who died in a 2002 plane crash.

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In much the same way that Tea Party, Trumpist and old-line fiscal conservatives have engaged in a fratricidal war for the soul of their political identity, progressives have much more quietly struggled to come to grips with their own fractious network of identity, gender and social causes within the movement’s ranks. What’s happening at Wellstone Action is a microcosm, albeit less remarked upon, of what’s transpiring among the diverse groupings of progressives.

Indeed, as news of the behind-the-scenes boardroom battles at Wellstone Action burst into public view, it serves as a cautionary tale for progressives about the perils of its own inability to reconcile racial and gender concerns of its most vibrant and activist constituents with the nostalgia for traditional party leadership and strategies.

According to Politico, Wellstone Action is responsible for training thousands of progressive candidates, campaign operatives and community organizers across the nation — including training for 2,135 data and digital strategists, 723 nonprofit leaders and community organizers, and 854 aspiring political leaders in 2016 alone, the last year that tax filings for the group was available.

But now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House and as Democrats cross their fingers that a corrective blue wave of progressives might wash over Washington this November, the future of Wellstone Action is troubled and cloudy because its board of directors can’t agree on how to move forward.

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Seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction at the most inopportune time, Politico reported, Wellstone Action ousted the late senator’s sons — Mark and David Wellstone — from its board of directors over, among other issues, their insistence that the organization should work harder “to win back white, rural voters who went for Trump in 2016.”

Since Trump’s election, Wellstone Action has ramped up its efforts to focus on bringing more people of color and women into the forefront of its political activism. It’s website makes clear “why this work is important“:

Public and political leadership in our country has rarely reflected the communities and constituencies it serves. And many potential leaders feel excluded from candidate selection and political work. There are communities in this country that are majority black with no black leaders, communities primarily composed of young families represented solely by leaders generations older than they are.

Communities want leaders who are in touch with their needs, who can advocate for change from a place of common experience. If our goal is to have real policies that impact real people, we have to start with real people making those policies.

At Wellstone, we believe all communities deserve leaders who represent the demographics and identities of the broader public – leaders who reflect the desires of our communities, collaborate with movements, and have the skills to govern effectively. And it’s why developing public and political leadership, especially in the states, is one of our three key impact areas.

Such language struck board traditionalists as too public and forceful a move away from the organization’s original work, which was heavily focused on the rural poor, a key concern of the late senator’s. For example, Politico reported, the Wellstone brothers and their supporters objected to a proposed change in the organization’s mission statement — from “advancing progressive social change and economic justice” to “advancing progressive social change and economic, racial and gender justice.”

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David Wellstone told Politico the group’s leadership was turning its back on his father’s legacy. “I said, ‘After Trump, we’ve got to figure out how we are going to go back after those Democrats that we lost’,” David Wellstone told Politico. “We can do all the stuff we do. We do great stuff on communities of color, we’re doing great stuff on gender identity politics. But we need to do some of these other trainings. … Nobody wanted to have a discussion about that.”

In an email to Politico, former board member Rick Kahn, who was the senator’s friend and campaign treasurer, said he supported promoting racial and gender justice in the group’s work, but felt it was too much to single out some groups and not others. “What I am calling into question, and vigorously objecting to, is the strategic thinking in expressly choosing to highlight our work for just those two groups, and no others, in a document posted online, that we share with the entire world,” Kahn wrote to Politico.

As a result of the infighting, a reliable progressive organization is staggering. The Wellstone brothers, humbled by their ouster, are demanding the family name be stripped from the organization. Though finders and other supporters are standing pat — for now, at least — with the organization, its future as a renamed group is unclear.

Such destructive dissension is unwelcome — and unnecessary. The proper route to political victory is, as the run-up elections to November’s midterms clearly indicate, to find ways to market a progressive agenda of expanding health care, providing living wages, strengthening public education, protecting the environment and rallying to the panoply of policies that benefit every American.

To be sure, progressives are on the road to ruin if they fail to stop the infighting and lose sight of the constituencies that promise to make a favorable difference on Election Day. Engaging in useless spats and chasing voters who have cast their lots with Trump’s lies only benefits those seeking to reestablish a white male-dominant status quo. That’s a disasterous relic of the past, not a winning strategy for the future.