This was an election not so much about economic and social justice issues, but about values and culture. While economic security, health, education and income were always a part of this year’s political debate, family and faith were the strong motivators for many across the country. Over the past 20 years the Republicans organized a very strong base in middle America around a set of values that speak to their constituency. This has been a long, deliberate effort funded and organized by conservative foundations and others.
Democrats have organized their constituency around a loose set of issues and have failed to understand that what motivates many people are their values. This is not to say that Democrats don’t have strong values. Liberals and progressives share a strong concern for economic and social justice, and for many these values are rooted in their faith. The problem is that they don’t feel comfortable talking about them and don’t clearly understand what a strong motivator they are to the American public.
A real danger is for liberals and progressives to simply write off everyone in the “Red States.” We need to understand that a 51 to 48 percent victory is not a mandate and that this margin can be easily moved in the other direction.
We need to look to the successes in the election. The Democrats, through the efforts of organized labor, community organizing and progressive groups, did a great job of registering voters and moving them to the polls in those areas where they had strong constituencies. For the first time, community organizing groups developed strategies to register voters and worked to turn them out in a national election. ACORN, PICO, the Center for Community Change and others organized major efforts. They used the election to involve leaders and members in strategic discussions around national issues that were tied to their local work. In many cases they won important local efforts.
The faith-based community organizing groups have been particularly successful in bringing people together around their values. They have been able to build very strong and effective organizations through churches by listening to the values that motivate people and using them to organize. They have focused on social and economic justice and family. They train leaders to translate these shared values into issues that affect people’s everyday lives – housing, jobs, crime, health, schools, etc.
Another positive lesson that came out of the election is that 72 percent of the voters in Florida and 68 percent in Nevada voted to pass ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage. Both of these states went to the Republicans and voted for Bush while at the same time voting for progressive ballot measures.
Also, an encouraging outcome is that many foundations increased their support of voter engagement activities and were much more inclined to fund these efforts through their current grantees. We have also seen an increased interest over the past several years of foundation support for community organizing as an effective way to bring about change and affect public policy.
Now we must learn from the successes, take a long-term view and continue the work of building strong grassroots organizations that speak to the values and aspirations of people in urban and rural communities. Funders must continue to support efforts that bring diverse groups together to learn from each other and build effective coalitions. Funders need to clearly communicate to the groups they support that voter engagement is important and should be an ongoing part of their organizing work.
Taking back the country will require strong leadership from community-based organizations and a willingness on their part to take risks. It will also require foundations to continue to take risks in supporting this work. If foundations retrench into more conservative modes of action and community organizing groups fail to build coalitions around national strategies, we will continue to lose the electoral fights for social and economic justice.