What Do We Do When We Win?

Dan Choi salutes Sen. Harry Reid at NN10

As we kick off Netroots Nation 2012, we have some progressive wins to celebrate: halting Keystone XL, defeating SOPA/PIPA and a nasty anti-union bill in Ohio, changing the economic conversation in the country and gaining advances on marriage equality, to name a few. But throughout the past year, we’ve also witnessed some aggressive and reckless conservative attacks on the middle class, immigrants, women and voters as a whole. You’ll find many of these issues addressed throughout our programming this year.

Heading into the 2012 election cycle, the stakes are higher than ever. Conservatives aren’t going to back down, so there are real consequences in every race, from the Presidential all the way down the ticket. And while we may still have to play defense, we need to be more proactive about taking the offensive position.

What I’d like to challenge you to think about this weekend is this: What do we do when we win?

If you look around today the movement that’s gained the most over the past 3 years is the LGBT movement. And it’s worth examining how that happened.

Back when the vast majority of us were celebrating our hard work from 2008 (literally, Netroots Nation hosted a “Yes We Can” party for 900+ people in DC for the inauguration), the LGBT movement went to work. Bloggers were hitting the not-yet-formed Obama administration on their selection of Rick Warren to give the opening prayer at the inauguration. Activists were getting arrested at the White House pushing for DADT. Donors shut off the ATM until they saw tangible results. And even when the community made progress, they didn’t quit—they moved on to the next fight and focused their efforts in a concentrated way. They worked at the state level, and they worked on influencing federal agencies. It wasn’t an easy fight (and it’s still not over), but their work has resulted in tangible and positive outcomes for LGBT individuals across the country—and likely the highest level of progress of any community over the past few years.

There are some lessons we can learn from them and other successful endeavors over the past year:

It isn’t just about the presidency
Sure, there are things presidents can do that other branches can’t, and sometimes things a president says matter a great deal. Obama’s support for marriage equality is a good example of that (no conservative president would have signed the repeal of DADT). But if your theory of change starts and ends with “Make the president do X,” it’s probably flawed.

Drive the agenda by focusing on Congress and State Legislatures
We have to drive the agenda in other ways too: by focusing on Congress, by pressuring federal agencies and by working to retain our majorities in State Houses across the country to make sure we aren’t constantly fighting the right. And while re-electing Obama is an important part of fighting for a progressive future, it alone is not enough.

A tale of two bills
One bill we passed and one we didn’t may provide some insight and inspiration for future campaigns.

The first is a bill we didn’t pass–the American Clean Energy & Security Act, or ACES. House Democrats burned a lot of political capital trying to pass something that even divided many within the environmental movement. But in the time since the bill failed, activists worked locally to block 166 new coal plants–something that wiped out 60 to 70 percent of the emissions that were predicted to be reduced with the ACES bill had it passed.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill did pass, however, yet got largely dismantled by Wall Street in the days and months after its passing. This piece in Rolling Stone gives some background on how bankers are all but nullifying the law. This should serve as an example of how we must stay on guard even after a bill passes to ensure that hard-won progress isn’t undone by the opposition.

Greatness isn’t achieved by asking for permission
If there’s one thing the Occupy movement has taught us as activists, it’s that you’re not protesting if you have to ask for permission. Many of us forgot that somewhere along the way; but thankfully, this fearless approach to activism is popping up again and again.

We all have different roles in this movement
Some of us play the inside game; others are born to push boundaries. Some are meant to build bridges, develop infrastructure and collect resources. To be effective as a movement, we have to understand that just because someone doesn’t have the same role as us doesn’t mean they’re the enemy.

So as you’re out there attending one of the 70 panels or 30 training sessions, chatting in the hallway with friends or having an intense brainstorming session over drinks, keep some of these lessons in mind.

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Connector of awesome progressive activists. Rocking Providence June 7-10, 2012. Register at http://bit.ly/nfqqF1.

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