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The 50 Year Strategy: A New Progressive Era (No, Really!)

Beyond '08: Can progressives play for keeps?

a conservative president who is deeply unpopular with Americans. A country facing profound economic and security challenges. New technologies upending old media. A cohort of new immigrants and a bulging generation of young people ready to transform the political calculus.

2008? No, 1932, the tail end of the Hoover administration. And you know how that one turned out. FDR and his fellow progressives took on the challenges of their day and built the domestic programs and international institutions that ushered in an era of unrivaled prosperity and stability. They used a new medium—radio—to reach citizens, and fashioned a new majority coalition from the emergent demographic realities of their time.

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Today's progressives face a political opportunity as great as any seen since. The election of 2006 may well have marked the end of the conservative ascendancy that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. George W. Bush now has the potential to do what Herbert Hoover did in the 1920s—tarnish his party's brand for a generation or more.

As in FDR's day, a new media is emerging, one that will ultimately replace the broadcast model of the 20th century. A new American populace is emerging, led by the arrival of the millennial generation and a new wave of immigrants, particularly Hispanics. And once again, the nation faces massive challenges—from climate change to health care in the era of biotech and preparing young people for a global economy. On the eve of the 2008 election, it's worth raising our sights beyond what it would take for a Democrat to win the presidency, and begin thinking about what it would take to bring about deeper, more lasting changes. The stars have aligned to give progressives a chance to permanently shift the conversation about the nation's values. The question before us now is, Do today's progressives have what it takes to do what FDR and his allies accomplished 75 years ago—seize the new politics, take on the big challenges, and usher in a new era?

in a way, the story begins with those fireside chats of FDR's. As the 20th century progressed, American politics became increasingly organized around broadcast media. But now top-down, one-to-many communication is giving way to a very different kind of media—diffuse, participatory, individualized. In 1980, more than 50 million people watched the network evening news on any given night; in 2005 the number was down to 27 million. By 2010, as many as half of all voters will have the ability to skip commercials thanks to TiVo and other digital video recorders. Last year, 100 million videos a day were being downloaded from YouTube, and its owner, Google, had $10 billion in ad revenues, surpassing cbs.

This is good news for progressives. The gop's success in old media—think Morning in America, Pat Robertson, Willie Horton, Rush Limbaugh, Swift Boat—was essential to its ascent, while the emergent blogosphere and social networking sites play to progressive strengths. (Finally, decentralization and lack of hierarchy are an asset rather than a liability.) And though TV will be around for some time, it is going through seismic change as video migrates to cable, satellite, the Internet, and cell phones—79 million Americans will have phones capable of handling video by 2009.

These technologies have revolutionized our lives in many ways, but one of the consequences is only beginning to be understood: As media become more participatory, so can politics. In the broadcast era, a presidential campaign consisted of quick stops on an airport tarmac (for local evening TV news coverage), 200 young people in a headquarters (largely to shepherd the candidate to more TV coverage), and a constant scramble for the perfect 30-second spot.

Howard Dean's 2003 campaign was the first to put forth a truly 21st century, post-broadcast model—one that saw people as partners in the fight, not just as couch potatoes to be convinced or donors to be solicited. It took advantage of new tools—blogs, early online video, and the kind of voter databases that Republicans had mastered decades earlier. But most important, it put at its very core the notion that average people could be trusted to take action on behalf of the campaign.

Dean lost, but his campaign model survived—and today is becoming the new norm. This year, every one of the major Democratic candidates is running an Internet-oriented campaign, relying on the web for fundraising, organizing, and messaging. And even as the new tools are changing the way political insiders do business, they are also opening the system to new players: Organizations started by people with little or no experience in politics, such as MoveOn, Daily Kos, and ActBlue, are growing as powerful as the 20th century institutions that preceded them. Last year a 26-year-old Facebook user decided to rally support for Barack Obama. Within a month he had 278,000 supporters signed up. In 2003, it took Howard Dean six months to get a little more than half that many registered on his website.

This new paradigm represents a profound threat to the politics of privilege. Funding expensive broadcast campaigns forces political leaders to raise enormous sums of money, giving large corporations and wealthy individuals disproportionate influence. Republicans and Democrats have both played this game, but the Republicans consistently won; now, using Internet fundraising, Democratic Party committees consistently out-raise Republicans. The two leading Democratic presidential candidates raised $60 million in the second quarter of 2007—60 percent more than the $38 million for the two leading Republicans. By July, Barack Obama already had 258,000 donors to his campaign, more than any presidential campaign ever had at that point. Embracing this model has allowed the progressive movement and the Democratic Party to become much more authentic champions of the middle class, dependent as they now are on the financial support of average people.

the other massive trend transforming politics is the changing composition of the electorate. Some shifts, such as the exodus to the sub- and exurbs, to the South and West, the aging of the baby boom generation, and the shift from industrial to a digital culture, have been much discussed. Others, like the emergence of the millennial generation, the boomer babies and young immigrants born from 1978 to 1996, are less well known. They number approximately 80 million, 3 million more than their parents' generation, and we should expect to see them transform society, culture, media, and politics just as profoundly. They are the most diverse American generation ever, with nearly 40 percent from minority groups; chances are that within their lifetime, the term "majority" will become almost meaningless when applied to race.

Already, indications are that this generation is politically engaged, votes in high numbers, and leans overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2004, people age 29 and under would have given Kerry a landslide of 372 electoral votes had they been the only ones voting. In the 2006 congressional election, that same age group went for Democrats over Republicans by 22 percent—an almost unheard-of margin. Conventional wisdom has it that if a generation votes for one party in three consecutive elections, it tends to stay with that party for life. If that's true, the stakes are high for 2008.

But the millennials' impact will show up beyond the ballot box. Polling data indicate that they are unusually civic minded (they volunteer at the highest level recorded for youths in 40 years, according to one study) and hold a wide range of progressive values: Large numbers of them are concerned with the environment, support gay marriage, prefer a multilateral foreign policy, and even believe in government again. (Sixty-three percent think government should do more to solve the nation's problems.) This generation is poised to become the core of a 21st century progressive coalition.

thumbnail thumbnail It's the Demographics, Stupid
(Click here to show the demographic charts)

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