The best defense is a good offense. That maxim has been repeatedly proven in athletics, business competition and, sadly, in war. It is also true in advocacy.
To make progress, progressives need to go on the offensive. We must make the development of proactive policy a central component of our work. We must drive bold, proactive agendas in states and localities, even the ones controlled by conservatives. We must arm our activists with policies that represent their values, and that energize them to fight for something instead of just defending the status quo.
Only a proactive strategy makes news, frames the debate, and dictates timing. Only a proactive strategy forces opponents to shift their resources and time to defend unpopular positions. Only a proactive strategy shapes the broader political environment.
Here are six advantages to a proactive strategy, even when the policy is quite ambitious or the governing body is quite conservative:
Proactive policy educates policymakers
Unless a policy is formally introduced, many officials are unaware that a problem exists. Policymakers deal with hundreds or thousands of issues at a time, as well as constituent service complaints. And in most jurisdictions, they have few or no staff to help them. If lenders are misrepresenting themselves in a devious way, or there’s an unexpected source of pollution, or women’s rights are quietly violated, then you should devise a policy response. Bills and other formal proposals get the attention of policymakers, and at least they will understand there is a problem to address, whether they are liberal or conservative, elected or appointed.
Proactive policy generates news coverage
To be effective, progressive advocates need media coverage. It’s the most cost-effective way to communicate with the general public. But it is often hard to make our policy arguments newsworthy. One big advantage of legislation is that it can be pitched as “hard news” at many points in the process: at an announcement that legislation is forthcoming; when the policy is introduced; when a committee holds a hearing; when a committee fails to hold a hearing and advocates call for one; and when a policy passes or is defeated in any committee or body. (For more about earned media, see Chapter 15.) You can generate news coverage even—or especially—when the legislation is directed at top policy leaders, the policy is satirical, or it’s simply a resolution. News coverage is essential to progressive advocacy—after all, how can local residents get excited about our issues if they’ve never heard of them?
Proactive policy frames the issue
The right wing has a history of framing their issues successfully. Just look at their cynical use of the phrases “death tax,” “partial birth abortion,” and “job creators.” Yet, framing is not just a matter of clever words. The most effective way to frame a debate is to select the policy that will be debated. The right wing introduces measures, even when they have little chance of passing, in order to spread misinformation, such as “voter fraud” and “fetal pain.” Progressives need to promote measures that frame the debate to our advantage, where the other side has to play defense against popular causes such as a higher minimum wage, closing tax loopholes for the rich, supporting clean energy, lowering prescription drug prices, and protecting women’s rights under Roe v. Wade.
Proactive policy forces officials to take a position
Unless they are leaders on a particular issue, policymakers usually will not take a position until they have to. When there’s a specific proposal, you can pressure progressives to cosponsor or commit, and get conservatives to publicly confirm their opposition—which you can later use against them. And, with a policy introduced, you can compel your opponents to publicly state the reasons for their opposition, which you can also use.
Proactive policy builds grassroots support
Progressives have a tremendous core of supporters at the grassroots, but activists often feel helpless. On the federal level, few of them live where there is even a remote chance of persuading their U.S. Senators or Representative. Our activists need to be given tasks that are positive, significant and achievable. That is possible—and needs to be done—at the state and local levels across America. Proactive bills and ordinances, even resolutions, allow progressives to activate volunteers and strengthen the movement.
Proactive policy shapes the debate
In many jurisdictions, it has become nearly impossible to pass progressive, or even moderate, legislation. In those places, little good is going to happen until we elect progressive majorities. But it is awfully hard to do so without showing that the current officials oppose good ideas. Therefore, one of our priorities must always be to introduce popular policies, compel officials to take a public stand for or against them, and make sure the public knows when they do the wrong thing.
As Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) said, “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.” So, promote the boldest legislation possible—measures that force your opponent(s) to debate you on your strongest ground.