DMI Blog

Andrea Batista Schlesinger

It’s time to expect our politicians to transform (and no, this isn’t about Barack Obama)

It seemed fitting that during the same week that the New York State Democrats came within one seat of retaking the Senate, I came across “Transforming the Liberal Checklist” in The Nation. Written by Eric Schneiderman, a member of that body, it is an ambitious call to action for progressives in the political world to change their expectations, and in doing so, change their results.

Schneiderman thinks that there are two pieces of his job description as a progressive elected official: transactional politics and transformational politics.

"Transactional politics is pretty straightforward. What's the best deal I can get on a gun-control or immigration-reform bill during this year's legislative session? What do I have to do to elect a good progressive ally in November? Transactional politics requires us to be pragmatic about current realities and the state of public opinion. It's all about getting the best result possible given the circumstances here and now.

Transformational politics is the work we do today to ensure that the deal we can get on gun control or immigration reform in a year--or five years, or twenty years--will be better than the deal we can get today. Transformational politics requires us to challenge the way people think about issues, opening their minds to better possibilities. It requires us to root out the assumptions about politics or economics or human nature that prevent us from embracing policies that will make our lives better."

As an elected official, Schneiderman knows the transactional well. Vote this way. Vote that way. Most of time, being in the minority party, he loses. But his frustration isn’t limited to the short-term pain of electoral disadvantage, it’s also at the refusal of his progressive comrades to ask him to do the long-term building of a progressive movement from his important perch.

Allied organizations only want him to vote the “right way,” fill out the questionnaires, we know the drill. No one expects him to make the case for why he is voting whichever way. No one expects him to go out there and compel his constituents to understand his perspective and to, in doing so, shift public opinion. We expect him to vote no on regressive tax bills, but not to go out there and make the case to people why progressive taxation policy is in our best interest. If we did expect it, we’d hold him accountable for it. As he puts it, we’d ask for more than “checklist liberals,” we’d demand proof that our elected officials are not only transacting but transforming. We’d want to see the speeches, the writings, the transcripts.

I know we’re guilty of this here at the Drum Major Institute. We do scorecards each year evaluating members of Congress based on their votes. It’s what we do here at In our case, as a national shop, it is somewhat difficult to imagine holding all members of Congress accountable for transformational work. But there is no reason that local groups couldn’t demand it. I daresay the Working Families Party is the best candidate for this experiment in New York, since their success is dependent upon the power of an engaged public who have been convinced that a progressive governing ideology is in their best interest.

So as everyone in New York, anyway, sits back in anticipation of a takeover of the State Senate, perhaps we’d be wise to ask – to what end? Maybe if we expect our leaders to transform as much as they transact, that victory would be as meaningful in the long-term as it is exhilarating in the short-term.

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Posted at 1:31 PM, Mar 07, 2008 in Democracy |
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