PDHblog This is a place for members of Progressive Democrats of Hawai‘i to express their thoughts, hopes and exasperations about political happenings.

July 25, 2011

How Progressives Can Effect Change with Obama as President

Filed under: General,Going Forward,National Politics — frosty @ 10:54 pm

It has been suggested that the previous post should have been geared more along the lines of this topic. After thinking about it, I decided that instead of rewriting it, I should simply write a follow-up post. For starters, I think it is important to say, again, and with no equivocation, that Obama isn’t progressive, even though there are those who believe he is, “in his heart of hearts.” Using this notion as a starting point for action is, in my opinion a mistake, and progressives will serve their causes much better if they first abandon it.

I’ll be referring to PDH for my examples, but the concepts will obviously apply to other organizations, as well as individuals.

Building Relationships

It is my experience that the progressive movement has long been disorganized and fractured along various lines. If we are to have any hope of forcing, or empowering (whichever you’d prefer to call it) Obama to be more supportive of progressive ideals and policy initiatives, we’re going to have to come together as a more cohesive movement.

While the leaders of PDH understand the need to do this, I have to admit that we haven’t been very successful. Some of our members are also members of other groups, but as an organization we haven’t done as well as we could at strengthening or relationships to labor, environmental groups, and other “specialized” groups. Doing so will not only advance the larger progressive cause, by cross-pollenating energy and ideas, but it will also lend greater numbers to causes and issues that might otherwise have difficulty attracting large number on their own. In this way we draw everyone into a tighter knit movement.

With respect to labor, I understand there are some unions that we might not think of as “progressive,” but that’s not to say we should dimiss them out of hand. In this seemingly anti-labor, anti-union era, we need to do what we can to align ourselves with the broader labor movement. There are both explicit and implicit benefits in doing so. Historically, unions were the core of the “left” and in may ways they still are, at least when it comes to issues of workers’ rights and the broader cause of economic justice. As a group, PDH has had moderate success at building relationships with some of the more progressive unions, like Local 5 and HGEA, and maybe slightly better relationships are being built by individual members, but on both fronts we can and must do better. What’s more, as I said, we need to look at the pros and cons of building relationships with some of the other private-sector and trade unions whose records on social justice and environmental issues may leave something to be desired. They may nonetheless be allies on other issues and it would behoove progressives to take a hard look at on what issues we might partner with them.

The religious right and broader conservative movement have done a much better job of organizing and coalescing a movement. Granted, the architects of the conservative movement have bene working slowly and steadily for 30 years, or more, but given the success they’re now experiencing on any number of fronts can potentially show us how to be more effective.


This is where the conservative movement has really made major gains and where Democrats and progressives have largely failed to gain much traction with either the major news media, or the public at large. Progressives must do better at developing and deploying strategic messaging.

For starters, we cannot hope to win the messaging battle if we are forever reacting to conservatives. We must develop a strategy that is somewhat independent of current events and begin looking ahead; we must be more proactive and less reactive. For example, with respect to the economy and government, we can begin by pushing the budget proposal from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, rather than reacting to the Ryan proposal, or even the apparent weakness of the President in proposing a progressive budget of his own. Another example would be to begin saying, public and otherwise, that the rich should pay higher taxes, not just because they can, not just because they can afford to, but because they, more than the middle and working classes, have benefited tremendously from historically low tax rates, not to mention a deregulated market.

As a broad coherent movement, finding the right message might also prove to be our biggest obstacle as there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on how to taylor that message. This is where the progressive movement my have to sacrifice the “perfect” for the sake of the “good.” take, for example, the issue of Oahu’s proposed rail project. There are progressives who support the rail, because “we need something,” and others who oppose it for any number of reasons. On this issue, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus among progressives on how to proceed, or what our collective message should be. Honestly, I’m still learning may of the nuances of politicking and for my part, wouldn’t know where to begin on this particular issue, as well as many others. What’s more important, I think, is that progressives with various opinions start to talk candidly and with an open mind on any number of issues if there is to be any hope of developing a messaging strategy.

Without an intelligent and compelling messaging strategy, I fear the progressive movement will continue to be reactionary and largely sidelined in the national conversation dominated by moderate and conservative pundits and talking heads.

Attracting New, Younger Activists

Put another way, we need to energize people in such a way that they will be compelled to engage, to participate and, in turn, attract others. In this area, maybe more than anywhere else, PDH has largely failed, as have I personally. We’ve had some limited successes in attracting new people, but we very quickly lose them.

Often when I talk to people, young and old, who have an opinion on a particular political topic, they will, in the next breath lament the broken, money-driven, corporate-controlled political system. They feel powerless to fight the overwhelming power structure stacked against the average person and often give up before they’ve even begun to try. I completely understand these feelings and often have them myself. There’s no doubt I, PDH, and progressives generally, have experienced more failures than successes and that near constant defeating blows can be demoralizing.

What I remind myself and try to tell others, is that they’re right; the system is stacked against us. But without a concerted and organized effort that includes long-term planning and dedication, nothing will change. In my experience, while those I’m talking to agree with me on this point, they nonetheless shrug their shoulders and go on about their day, seeming to not give it a second thought.

Putting it All Together

None of these strategies operates in a vacuum, obviously. They overlap and intermingle with the others, making it difficult, in my experience, to know where to start. I’ve learned a lot since getting involved with PDH, but I still have more to learn, particularly about how to become a more effective community organizer.

For its part, PDH need to work at holding more events that appeal to a broader cross-section of progressivs (and Democrats). As an organization, we’ve had some successes in defining what it is to be progressive, building relationships with progressive legislators, individuals, and other progressive organization, but we need to do much better.

I’m not suggesting here that these are the only three strategies we need to employ and there are almost certainly others that can be included in this list. Rather, these are the areas that I’ve tried most to focus on and so are the ones that came immediately to mind as I sat down to write this follow-up. It is my hope that this will serve as a catalyst for discussion, as well as for clarifying where we are and what more we need to do to be more successful going forward.


  1. This is a great essay, Josh. It’s similar to the discussion we’re having now in Region 5. Ie what issues should we be involved in, or should we be rather be doing political organization. Some of us, for example, are strong environmentalists, but know that there is already an environmental caucus which is much more active on testifying to the legislature, etc, than we could be here in the burbs.

    OTOH if there were some leader already interested in the issues of environment in the Leeward area, then it might help them if we could help them to organize in some joint activities. Some of our new leaders in the party could come from these new young leaders in the local environmental organization. Region 5 is a pretty quiet place though and we just don’t know what kind of issues are of concern here. Perhaps we lead too sheltered lives?

    Comment by Al — July 26, 2011 @ 12:42 am

  2. Hello from the big island. It seems to me that Hawaii democrats in general are fractured by geography which is then exacerbated by power plays. How can we work together when Oahu acts as if the other islands do not exist and that the west side of the big island thinks that Hilo is the armpit of the world and etc. We all have to defend our turf. There is no time to fight the republicans. I stand ready to work with you guys when you are ready. Don Anderson, Hilo

    Comment by Don Anderson — July 26, 2011 @ 10:00 am

  3. Thanks, Don, for the comment….

    I think its true that Hawaii’s geography serves, unfortunately, to divide groups and movements creating yet another obstacle for effective organizing. Still, I think it is possible to overcome them.

    While I think it is an accurate criticism that Hawaii politics seem to be Oahu centered, there are people here who work consciously to avoid and overcome the Oahu-centric mentality, just as I believe there are people on the Big Island who have overcome the east-west divide. But I don’t think these fractures of geography are more difficult to overcome than any of the other differences that I laid out.

    And I think there are reasons to be hopeful. Over the last few months, I’ve had multiple conversations with people from the neighbor islands that are interested in working with PDH, whether its by creating a chapter on their respective islands, or creating an independent partner organization. While I continue to hope these conversations bare fruit, it shows me that there are people on all the islands that are willing to overlook their geographic ties to help contribute to a larger movement. In addition to those conversations, I’ve been attending a series of forums sponsored by the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii talking about energy. The most recent of one took place last night and it’s topic was on the proposed “Big Wind” projects on Lanai and Molokai. While there were people from the neighbor islands both on the panel, as well as in the audience, the majority of those in attendance were obviously from Oahu.

    While these events have been hugely informative, they’ve also given me some hope; one of the messages I took away from last night’s event was “what’s good for one island is good for all.” That’s not to mean Lanai and Molokai (and maybe others) should give themselves up for the sake of Oahu’s insatiable appetite for energy, but rather, a decentralized, democratized energy generation model would allow not only for each island to find productive paths to their own energy independence solutions, but large centralized projects, like Big Wind, will hurt everyone except the land owners and developers.

    In this context, as in so many others, we can see how coming together for a good cause can be to everyone’s benefit, regardless of geographic location.

    Ultimately, you’re absolutely right, though. As Democrats, as progressives, we need to organize ourselves into a cohesive movement before we can have much hope of effectively countering the Republican and Tea Party movements.

    Comment by frosty — July 26, 2011 @ 11:36 am

  4. Just a note here. “Decentralized” grids are inherently unstable and expensive to control. A “centralized” grid where energy is transferred from all over the country or the outer islands is more stable and easier to control. I can see that the expense of transporting power from distance points or from the outer islands is expensive. The biggest concentration of geothermal power for example is on the big island. I would expect that the cheap energy on the Big island could transform it in a big manufacturing area for example, rather than transporting the energy to Oahu.

    I just don’t see the association of “democracy” with “decentralized” grids. There are economies of scale with energy. With some energy sources, there are fixed costs and it just doesn’t get cheaper until there’s a big enough demand for the energy. The most “democratic” version of cheap energy then would be fusion power.

    The internet has seen a lot of discussion in January of an Italian energy-catalyser for home water heating. This is the most “democratic” of energy sources. In fact, an idea is to have the car power plant (when they start to work on that. The inventor says he is focusing now on a power plant for a train because cars are a difficult system to do) furnish energy to the home and charge home batteries when the car is parked at home.

    The Italian E-Cat emits 30 times the power put into the system. It’s the first instance of good control over the process. Right now the inventor is stymied by the US Patent Office’s refusal to grant him a patent because his energy-catalyser is really a cold fusion device which they have decided not to allow as a matter of policy. So the first 1 Mwatt demo plant will be built in Greece– in operation this October. France, Italy, and Japan have been leaders in this research for many years. Our own researchers with military funding, call cold fusion as LENR research or Low Energy Nuclear Reactions and do not publish under a cold fusion title– as do the Italians. They call their device an energy-catalyser. It’s interesting that Fleishman and Pons also did not claim to have “cold fusion”. That was a name given to them by enemies of their research.

    Comment by Al — July 28, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

  5. Here’s a good way to make change even with Obama. I’ve sent emails to all four in Congress to REJECT the compromise. I wish the whole country would do that. To me it’s a BAD compromise.

    Comment by Al — August 1, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  6. Here’s what Paul Krugman’s blog has on the compromise. I notice that its not one of our links…


    Comment by Al — August 1, 2011 @ 9:20 am

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