Colorado Shows Why Liberals Need to Get Better at Insurgent Politics


Alec MacGillis has a good rundown of yesterday’s recall election in Colorado, in which a couple of legislators who supported a new gun control law were ousted by the NRA and its fellow travelers. MacGillis points out that although the gun control side had more money and organization than usual in these fights, the NRA was nonetheless working on pretty favorable terrain. Ed Kilgore uses this as an illustration of one of his favorite hobbyhorses:

In stressing the circumstances that made the landscape difficult in Colorado, I’m not making excuses; au contraire, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that progressives chronically have a hard time winning ballot tests in competitive territory in anything other than presidential elections. Much of that has to do with the eternal reluctance to participate in midterm or offyear or special elections by the younger and minority voters who are disproportionately represented in the Democratic Party and progressive causes. That’s the practical reason (added to the moral reasons) why fights over voting procedures are extremely important, and why old-school and new-school voter mobilization techniques are more crucial for the Left than for the Right.

Generally speaking, the right has long been better at building up from the grass roots than the left. My hometown of Orange County is a pretty good example: starting with friendly territory in the early 60s, conservatives made it into a right-wing powerhouse by starting with the school boards, then the city councils, and eventually helping elect Ronald Reagan governor. We all know how that worked out.

This is basically an insurgent strategy, and like all insurgent strategies it was adopted from a position of weakness. If you have a big army, you want a straight-on battle. If you don’t, you adopt the tactics of George Washington. Likewise, if the broad public is on your side, you want to focus on big national elections. If it isn’t, you need to do the hard work of changing things from the bottom up.

In other words, it’s not as though the insurgent strategy is inherently superior. It’s hard work, and it can get washed away in an instant by a big national tide—as it did in 2006 and 2008. In one sense, then, it’s wise not to get too worked up about local losses like the one in Colorado. Those kinds of things happen all the time. At the same time, Ed is right: liberals really do need to figure out a way to get their core supporters to turn out for more than just big presidential elections. The insurgent strategy gave conservatives control of most state legislatures in 2010, which in turn paved the way for unprecedented levels of gerrymandering and a wave of voter suppression laws that threaten to cripple liberals not just locally, but nationally as well for years to come.

I’ll confess that since I have no real experience with this kind of thing, it all puzzles me. Why don’t young and minority voters tend to turn out except in presidential elections? I’m aware that they don’t, and that Democrats have spent plenty of time trying to figure out how to change that, but it’s still something of a mystery.

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