The Art of Progressive Persuasion (with Maurice Mitchell)
April 6, 2023
Click to read the full transcript
Maurice Mitchell [clip]: Organizing one-on-one is meeting people where they’re at. You’re at their door. You’re interrupting their life. And it requires a level of empathy, compassion, a level of curiosity. To be completely devoid of cynicism, I think, if you want to be an effective organizer. And you have to listen, you have to listen a lot.
Felicia Wong: Talking to people who don’t agree with us. That is politics, that is persuasion, but is persuasion possible?
Michael Tomasky: And how can progressives do it more effectively?
Felicia: What is stopping us?
Michael: Those are the big questions we address on today’s episode of How to Save a Country.
Felicia: I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia: This is season two of How To Save a Country, the podcast about the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States.
Michael: So Felicia, last season was all about these new ideas.
Felicia: Sure was.
Michael: Talk to me about this season. How’s it different?
Felicia: Some of the things we were talking about last year, they’ve been legislated. We’ve got all this money going into decarbonization or they’re being worked on in federal agencies. Lots of people are actually working on antitrust, but then what happens?
Michael: Yeah. Then it has to work. Now these ideas need to produce actual results in the real world.
Felicia: That’s true because apparently Michael, it’s not enough just to be right. We’ve got to bring more people onto our side.
Michael: People sort of matter, and that’s what today’s guest is here to talk about, isn’t he?
Felicia: Exactly. Maurice Mitchell is the head of the Working Families Party. He’s an organizer with experience all over the country. He started as a Movement for Black Lives organizer, and he is the perfect person to talk about how to balance believing in big ideas, big missions, with the day-to-day work of persuading people that those ideas are worth chasing. He wrote an essay last fall that really shook the world of progressive nonprofits and frankly, organizing and managing generally in today’s political environment.
Michael: Your world, in other words?
Felicia: That’s right. I run the Roosevelt Institute—we are a mid-sized nonprofit. Of course, Michael, you are a journalist. You’re the editor of a magazine, so you’re pretty focused on day-to-day news, political news, but probably a little bit more from the outside. But I got some news for you, my friend, it has been a rough few years for progressive organizations.
Michael: Now that’s interesting. See, because like I would’ve said from my perspective that progressive organizations have had a pretty good few years. Our politics generally have moved in your direction. There’s some good legislative wins along those lines. Got some wind at your back. But I guess you’re talking about internal politics.
Felicia: Internal politics, and also, it’s just sometimes more complicated to hold a coalition of people together when you’re on offense rather than when you’re on defense the way many of us were in the Trump years. When you have a little bit of authority, a little bit of power, a little bit of influence, suddenly you have a lot of responsibility. That means different kinds of decision-making choices, and that can be a lot harder than just being in resistance against Trump. In Maurice’s essay, he really diagnoses the problems that plague various left-wing spaces, and he tries to offer practical solutions that still hold true to progressive values.
Michael: Why don’t you just read a little excerpt from the essay so people understand what we’re talking about here.
Felicia: This is what Maurice says about one of the problems he identifies, which he calls maximalism, “Considering anything less than the most idealistic position as a betrayal of core values and evidence of corruption, cowardice, lack of commitment, or vision. Relatedly, a righteous refusal to engage with people who do not already share our views and values.” So that’s what he calls maximalism. And he says it has a real fallacy because it “ignores the fact that the value of any tactic or the appropriateness of any demand must be evaluated within a larger strategy, grounded in a power analysis.”
Michael: I’ve agreed with that for a long time. There’s a simpler way to put it, which is: If you’re not winning elections, you’re not doing anybody in your constituency any good at all. This commitment to maximalism, to the most idealistic position on the part of some people, really gets in the way of persuading people who don’t share that position.
Felicia: Yet it’s really hard when you are so sure that you are morally right about a thing. A lot of what we have seen in the last few years in this Trump-driven polarization. We’re going to link to Maurice’s whole essay in the podcast notes, and I totally recommend that everyone listens, gives it a read. It’s so good. It’s been really influential. It’s opened many people’s eyes, maybe even many people’s hearts, but that’s a different matter. Anyway, Michael, I think now we should probably just go ahead and listen to our conversation with Maurice.
Michael: Let’s do it.
Maurice Mitchell: My identity is the work that I do. I’m an organizer, I’ve been organizing since I was a young person, and it, like my religion, is the thing that helps me make sense of the world. It’s how I am able to express my ideas to the world. It’s how I think change happens in the world. And organizing roughly is the ability of people to be able to aggregate their concerns. Oftentimes we’re trying to organize people to counterbalance the influence of organized capital. I’ve been doing it as a student, as a college student, as a grassroots organizer on the hyperlocal level, and now at the Working Families Party. The Working Families Party is a national political movement, and we believe that people, not corporations, not the very wealthy, should govern. The way people have historically around the world been able to seize governing power is through political parties. And so we’ve built a political party for and by working people. Currently we operate in many states around the country. We endorse close to a thousand candidates around the country up and down the ballot. Our bread and butter is local elections where we recruit everyday people—educators, organizers, parents—to run for city council, to run for state legislature. Now we have a crew of people in Congress who identify with the Working Families Party.
Felicia: So, Maurice, you said that organizing aggregates people’s interests. Can you talk about that as it pertains to our two-party system? How do parties aggregate interests?
Maurice: We focus a lot in this country, in our political debates, on voters. We focus a lot on politicians and we don’t focus as much on the role of parties. For me, the role of parties is really important because parties help make meaning, parties help, through their platforms, tell a story about where we are and where we’re trying to go. Parties help people understand what might be politically possible if we’re able to fight. Parties bring people together, both people and institutions and resources together, in order to fight for a particular political ideology. In this country, we have this rigid two-party system, and for us that’s unsatisfying. We think there should be more parties because that doesn’t represent the political thoughts and the political desires of the American people. In the future that I want to live in, there would be a multitude of parties representing all different types of political thought. In a multi-party democracy, those parties can align with one another in order to advance their political objectives. For example, the people who have QAnon position, they would have their own party and less of an incentive to hijack one of the two major parties. The rigid two-party system, I think, leads to and intensifies and exacerbates and creates an incentive for political tribalism, political violence, the hijacking of one or two of the two major parties, of corporate capture, of a lot of the problems that are endemic in our democracy, the lowest common denominator, so that all of our policies end up being gutted, so that we’re never doing the big lifts that we actually need to do in order to do the big things that we want to do in our country, in order to deal with some of the existential crises that we see before us. The two-party system in itself is a structural barrier to accomplishing all those things or overcoming some of those really endemic crises that we find ourselves in.
Felicia: While Maurice thinks third parties, like the one he runs, can actually help advance Democratic objectives, there are definitely those who look at them with disdain. Because third-party candidates are so often considered long shots, or they draw money or resources away from more viable candidates, but the Working Families Party operates a little differently. So Michael, can you help us understand what that means? Can you give us some examples?
Michael: New York is one of the few states that allows this thing called “fusion voting.” Let me explain what that is. In New York and just a couple of other states, state law allows for the existence of more than just the two big political parties.
Felicia: So more than just the Democrats and the Republicans.
Michael: Right. So the idea is this: rather than run your own candidate who’s going to finish in a distant sixth or seventh or whatever, cross-endorse the Democrat. There are several Democrats in the Democratic primary, so you, as the Working Families Party, choose the Democrat who you think is (a) closest to your own values, and (b) has a shot at winning.
Felicia: So the Working Families Party could endorse the Democratic candidate, Governor Cuomo, Governor Hochul, whatever. That’s what you’re saying?
Michael: Yes, right.
Felicia: Why would they want to do that if they’re more left than those people?
Michael: Because there are some voters out there who, for whatever reason, they don’t want to vote for a mainstream party. They don’t want to vote Democratic or Republican. By the way, these parties exist on the right too. There’s a conservative party in New York State, the Right to Life Party. It’s not just a left thing, but the idea is that you cross-endorse the Democrat for that Democrat to win the primary. In November, you tell people, if you don’t want to vote democratic, you can still vote for so-and-so on the Working Families line. If the Working Families Party gets that Democratic candidate a requisite number of votes that they can plausibly claim they really had an impact on the November result, then they have some political power. They have some leverage over that person. Particularly, for example, if the Democrat beats the Republican by 80,000 votes and the Working Families Party got the person 100,000 votes, then they can—
Felicia: That sounds like some power. We’ve got some people who want you to raise that wage or regulate that corporation. They’ll do it.
Michael: Bingo. So that’s the idea of fusion. It’s a lot more effective for a group on the left or the right to cross-endorse a major party candidate, get them votes, and have leverage over them once in office than to run some symbolic maximalist candidate who’s going to get a handful of votes.
Felicia: It sounds like that’s really doing two things. One, it’s actually creating space. Having effective third parties can create space for broader political coalitions, like a center–left coalition, for example. And it also sounds like it gives people like Maurice the opportunity to speak to people who maybe wouldn’t necessarily agree with them, but they have to because they’re in coalition and start to do that thing we’ve been talking about, which is called persuasion.
Michael: Bingo. Finally, this is the last thing I’d add, is that it can change the substance of the way the Democrat governs.
Felicia: Right. Raise that wage.
Michael: Make him or her support different things than he or she might otherwise.
Felicia: So this fusion idea is actually connected to the idea of persuasion, whether that’s a major party and a third party working together to advance agendas they have in common, or to present a more convincing argument to the broader voting public. Persuasion is really interesting to me because it’s about political education and it’s about building alliances across differences. It’s not just convincing people, “Hey, agree with me.” It’s about saying, “We might not agree 100 percent, but we are going to have to work together and we can do it.” That is something Maurice learned in his earliest work as an organizer.
Maurice: I flamed out of an organizing job as a canvasser for one of the PIRG organizations when I was in college. It’s hard work because you have to knock on strangers’ doors and you’re basically raising your salary and you’re asking them for money. I didn’t last very long. When I eventually went to Long Island, where I grew up, and started my first organizing job, organizing one-on-one is meeting people where they’re at. You’re at their door. You’re interrupting their life and they’re opening—
Felicia: You are literally meeting them on their porch.
Maurice: —maybe they were watching TV, maybe they’re in the middle of lunch, who knows what they were doing. You interrupt that, and then in that conversation you are able to shift their opinion or discern where they’re at on a particular point of view or what they think about a politician or change their mind around what they think about a politician or ask them for money or get them to become a member of your organization. These are really big lifts for a stranger at a door who didn’t sign up to be part of a political conversation. And it requires a level of empathy, compassion, a level of curiosity; it requires to be completely devoid of cynicism, I think, if you want to be an effective organizer. And you have to listen, you have to listen a lot. You have to understand what that person’s self-interest is, whatever it is, and you have to be nonjudgmental about that person’s self-interest so that you can figure out how their self-interest aligns with the issues that you care most about or—
Felicia: You mean even if you really disagree with them personally, like they say something that you just find reprehensible. Isn’t it hard to be nonjudgmental when somebody says something to you that you find problematic?
Maurice: Absolutely. That’s why organizing is not for everybody. That’s why organizing is a serious discipline. The best way to get somebody to close the door in your face is to express hard disagreement. You’re searching for places of alignment and then once you find those places of alignment, then you could travel with that person, maybe in that short conversation at the door or maybe in a long conversation over time, where you’ve built a relationship with them as a member of an organization. I do think that that art of organizing has gotten lost and atrophied. Instead, we’ve found shortcuts through mobilization and through digital organization, which I think are great. We need to mobilize people. We need to, in moments of clear ethical outrage, we need to be able to aggregate hundreds of thousands of people. Also, we need all the digital tools we can in order to reach scale and everything else, but that doesn’t in any way fill the void that deep organizing and relationship building and persuasion fills.
Michael: Let me ask you this: Do you think the right is better at that than the left? Compare the two.
Maurice: I think the right does some things very well. Yes. I disagree with just about everything the right seeks to do in the world, but I do think that there’s things that we could learn about how they do things. The right approaches its audience on its face in a way that is curious about its audience’s emotions, and how the audience is experiencing things. That’s really important because as humans, we are experiencing life. We’re not thinking life.
Michael: And the left does what? The left tries to connect people. The left doesn’t pay as much attention to people’s emotional lives and pays attention to what instead?
Maurice: I think the left is much too preoccupied with ensuring that we are both morally correct and factually right. Right. We assume that if we could prove that we are morally correct, then we’ve won—
Michael: Then they’ll see reason.
Maurice: —or if we could prove that we’re factually right, we’ve won. And my thing is: Look, it’s great that we have the facts on our side. That is a wonderful thing to have. The fact that we have the facts on our side and the fact that we have some moral anchoring to stand on. But as we know, persuasion in politics can be totally devoid of fact or ethics, right?
Michael: You don’t say.
Felicia: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Maurice. Never seen that in recent American politics.
Maurice: My provocation to progressives and people on the left is: great, you are right, you are correct. Now what? That “Now what?” question is where the right starts. But that “Now what?” question often isn’t even where many people on the progressive side begin. My provocation is, “Look, I think it’s wonderful and I think it’s only helpful that we actually have ideas that work, but we need to persuade others that our ideas are their ideas.” We need to be out there and we need to be engaging people who don’t agree with us every single day. That is our job, and that is something that we are less practiced in and we have to become masters at that.
Felicia: On that note, we’re going to take a quick break.
Felicia: Let’s put a couple things together. First, you said that progressives really like to be morally right, yet you are saying we have to also listen to people we disagree with, and really hear them with as much humility and kindness as we possibly can. And we need to try to persuade them. It seems to me that this creates a situation where, to persuade right now as a progressive requires a lot of courage, requires a lot of bravery.
Maurice: I think it does require some courage, but I think it also requires a shift in perspective. It requires a shift in the identity of what a progressive is, from a passive identity to an active identity.
Felicia: What does that mean? Say more about that.
Maurice: Sure. The passive identity of a progressive is somebody that knows the right things, is able to perceive and articulate accurately all the horrors of the world, and is able to be the town crier. “I was the first one to notice that that house was on fire. And we need people with buckets filled with water putting the house out.” If you’re a protagonist, if you’re putting the house out, then it would be, of course, commonplace to be doing everything you could do to put the house out. And in this analogy, one of the chief tasks is persuading as many people as possible. Imagine you see that house in the corner. You don’t know who’s in there, but you know there’s people in there. You’re going to gather as many people as you can—
Felicia: Get in line with me. Carry this water.
Maurice: Yes. You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to have the same identity as them. But you are going to enlist them to get that water as quickly as possible to the house in order to put the fire out. If we could shift the identity from town crier to fire person, then we will become persuaders naturally.
Michael: So let me ask you this. I can picture some progressives listening to you and listening to this and saying, “Well, that’s all well and good, but what about mobilization?” Because persuasion and mobilization are usually considered the opposites of each other in our political dialogue. And some people say, we’ve got to persuade swing voters. Other people say, we’ve got to mobilize the base. And most people say, we’ve got to do both. How do you do both? What’s a message that both persuades and mobilizes? What is something that Cori Bush and Abigail Spanberger can both say in their districts that works?
Maurice: I tend to think that this is a false choice, and there’s a lot that we’re experiencing that brings most people together. Every single human being across every category on this planet had an experience with Covid-19 and the pandemic. Every single human being is experiencing this feeling that it’s hard to put words to, this discomfort or dislocation or this feeling, after 40 years under neoliberalism, that our system is not exactly working the way it’s supposed to work. A lot of people are asking similar questions. The real question is, “Which political party and political movements will reach these people as they’re searching for answers and searching for meaning, and engage them with understanding and compassion? Will it be the far right parties of our world, or will it be the progressive parties of our world?” That’s the only question I think that matters at this moment. To me in the Democratic party, there’s a lot of alignment around these key questions.
Michael: Name two or three specific things that every Democrat should be able to be behind, and that should be vote winners.
Maurice: The ability to negotiate drug prices is very popular, right? Number one. Number two, and this is pretty broad, but expanding healthcare, Medicare for all, all the way down. At this point. Obamacare is popular. In fact, a lot of the universal programs like Universal Childcare, are very popular. A lot of these progressive ideas are popular. They’re popular with independents, they’re popular with Democrats of course, and they’re popular with some Republicans. These are good policies, meaning, if they were enacted, they would actually meaningfully improve people’s lives materially in a significant way. They’re already popular. So there’s a political advantage to supporting these things. If you’re in a purple district and you’re concerned about getting elected, you want to be known as the candidate that supports this issue. You want that contrast. This is actually good politically for you. And number three: power. The idea that these issues actually empower people on the ground. It actually makes the lives of working people more democratic. It actually improves people’s lives and improves our democracy in significant ways. If we align those three and we focus on those policies, those are the policies that could bring together a pretty broad swath of people.
Felicia: I think the problem and the reason that I said that persuasion actually requires courage here is that we live in a moment now where even if we agree on these economic ideas, the politics of race makes persuasion, especially for people of color talking to white people and probably vice versa, really hard. The right is throwing culture wars, deliberately baiting the hook with culture wars. How do you persuade in that environment? And I’d love you to tell me a really specific story of a time where you did that, either at the doors or on a phone or whatever, where you were able to persuade somebody even across a kind of identity barrier.
Maurice: I remember a campaign that I worked on years ago on Long Island in Suffolk County. Suffolk County is the eastern county of Long Island. It’s very racially segregated. This power plant company was trying to build a power plant in this neighborhood, and it was in the middle of a number of communities: this working-class white community and this working-class Black and Latino community. I was able to organize these very racially dissimilar communities together around this common problem. They both did not want this power plant near their community, spewing smoke into their community, and I was able to bring them into rooms together, to eat together, to learn from one another. The folks in the white community learned about this concept of environmental racism that they had no idea about.
Felicia: How long did it take?
Maurice: This was a one- to two-year campaign. It was a long and intense campaign. We fought the good fight. We did not win. But what I did see was the ability for people to work across differences, against this common corporate enemy.
Felicia: You didn’t win the corporate fight, but you did build some kind of political awareness and political coalition and political education. That’s what I’m hearing you say.
Maurice: Yes. And I’ve seen that again and again. Regular people across differences—and our differences are real—can, if given the right framework, draw those connections where people can decide to prioritize their identity as people in a common fight over their racial identity or over other identities. That’s the job of organizing. It happens, but it requires us to not be so cynical to believe the tribal fiction that is being propagated by the far right. I do think that the tribal binary culture war, we can’t win that.
Felicia: We can’t win that meaning like what? Because I would like to win that, but I want to hear why you think we can’t win that.
Maurice: Those battle lines both align around the business model and the political interest of Fox News and the property supremacists of the far right. It’s not about the battle, it’s about the particular battle strategy of the far right. I don’t want to be a character in their narrative. I don’t want to be the reliable progressive foil, the coastal elite woke progressive versus the QAnon right. That’s a losing battle for us. I want to be clear that there’s people that I disagree with but the fight that I’m fighting is the fight against poverty, not against you. As much as I disagree with you, I’m going to ensure that your kids have food in their stomachs when they go to bed.
Felicia: That’s what you think is going to ultimately be persuasive.
Maurice: It shifts the battle lines. If you think about it, I’m in a Mets family. Why do I support the Mets? I don’t even know why. My identity as a Mets fan is more about my relationship with my father in 1985 and 1986 than the winning record of the Mets today. Understanding that people’s political identities are deeply personal will inform how we approach this strategy of persuasion. Don’t try to convince somebody that they should not be who they are. Try to convince somebody that it is deeply in their interest and their identity as an American to join you in your fight against poverty, to join you in being a bigger we. That is something that I think there is a legitimate path toward. In that strategy, we could win people over. The other thing I’ll say is that there are millions of people who are unaffiliated and the far right loves to—
Felicia: Not Mets, not Yankees, neither.
Maurice: Yeah. They’re unaffiliated, they’re not Mets, they’re not Yankees, and the far right is like, free tickets, come to the stadium. We need to be as excited about engaging those folks.
Felicia: You wrote this 6,000-word essay. It’s very erudite and I don’t know how surprised you were that it became a national phenomenon, but it really did, and it is really about building resilient organizations on the left and some of the dangers of progressives’ own practices in embracing purity or embracing maximalism rather than thinking in ways that you consider to be more strategic. A lot of people read that piece and are like, “Yeah, managers need to be able to manage again and enough with the young people.” But the other way to read that piece is like, “No, we actually need to educate ourselves about how to build coalition and build community.” So do you see it that way? Is that why the piece is really going to endure for you?
Maurice: The piece is not a management guide, it’s a guide for fighting fascism. It’s building resilient organizations, not just for organizations’ sake. It’s building resilient organizations at a time when it really matters that organizations are impactful and effective and powerful. To that point around persuasion and political education, the thing that coheres our organizations is a North Star. Political education is like the ideological North Star that helps us make sense so that we’re not sort of incoherent. It helps us bring our organization into some sort of consolidated clarity. When you have that, ideas like we should be talking to people that don’t agree with us make a lot more sense. When we were completely incoherent, it’s kind of hard to argue for anything because every idea in a vacuum could be argued for. Any smart person could make a good argument for any tactic.
Felicia: So what I hear you saying is that the piece is really about, “Hey, everybody in this organization or in this movement, let’s understand who we’re fighting against and who we’re fighting for.” And then some of the things that we’re fighting about internally—because shock, organizations fight internally—we can actually have those disagreements on much smarter grounds if we educate ourselves about what we’re fighting against and what we’re fighting toward. That’s what I hear you saying.
Maurice: Yes. It’s two things. Number one, if we do that work, that political education, and we take the time, then there are a number of false debates that we won’t have to get into because we won’t constantly be trying to recreate ourselves. Every time a new person enters into the organization, we’ll have that clarity. This is who we are, this is who we’re not. And our debates will be so much more informed and richer. We’ll be debating about things that I want to debate about. Just within the same strategy, there’s so many interesting things we should be debating about. But I don’t want to debate, for example, at WFP whether or not our main intervention is elections. That’s what it is. And if you’re seeking for an organization whose main intervention is direct action, which is perfectly fine, go somewhere else where that is the main intervention. If your main intervention is elections, there’s probably 20 things we could debate about just around how to do that in the most effective way possible.
Michael: Here’s the last question: For a show called How to Save a Country, Maurice Mitchell, if you could wave your wand, what one specific thing would you want to do to set the country in the right direction?
Maurice: Wow. I didn’t know I’d be clothed with this much power so late in the podcast.
Felicia: It’s not a democracy anymore, Maurice. You are all powerful.
Maurice: All right. I would want to choose the policy that would have the most impact and mitigate the most harm for the most people. So it would probably be one fell swoop for universal healthcare. Boom, done. You just walk into the hospital, you just go to the doctor. You don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s just done. I should think more about this, man. I’m not equipped to think about having imperial power. I need to get into that.
Felicia: Maurice Mitchell, imperial power. You heard it here first on How to Save a Country. Maurice, it’s so great to have you. Thank you so much for spending the time with you.
Michael: Thank you.
Maurice: Thank you.
Felicia: So after talking to him, do you think persuasion is possible?
Michael: It’s tough, but I do, and I always have. On the one hand, people are just deeply locked into their identities, like the stuff he said about Mets fans versus Yankee fans. That’s just impossible to dislodge in people.
Felicia: You’ve never met a Mets fan who became a Yankees fan ever in your whole life?
Michael: No, I don’t think I have. Now, most people feel more strongly about sports than they do about politics. Unfortunately, however, politics is catching up.
Felicia: Maybe that’s a bad thing, but anyway, keep going.
Michael: I would just say this. Elections are so close these days, decided by a few thousand votes in Georgia. A few thousand votes in Arizona. At the presidential level, to say nothing of congressional races or local races, state races, they’re so close that you don’t really need to persuade that many people. And there still are persuadable people out there. There are people who swing from Obama to Trump to Biden, and from a Republican to a Democrat in a Senate election or a House election. They exist. And they decide elections, for better or worse. So persuasion is really, really, really important.
Felicia: And it seems like one of the things we might want to do this season is to try to bring some people who’ve been political candidates onto the show to ask them what it feels like to try to persuade people who are in that swing segment. What it feels like to campaign in a very divided, very swing district. But I do hear what you’re saying about how these battle lines can be so hardened at this moment. And we’re actually going to talk a lot about that with our next guest, Lilliana Mason. Lily’s research digs into the partisan identities. This Mets-Yankees thing. These identities that define us, and exactly why they’ve become so ironclad.
Lily Mason [clip]: Every election feels like it’s also about the status of our religious group, our racial group, our culture, where we live, and who we grew up with. All of these things get roped into partisanship.
Felicia: Michael, before we sign off on this episode, I kind of want to start a new segment for the end of our show, for the end of How to Save a Country.
Michael: Wow. New, right now?
Felicia: Yes, right now. I think we can call it “It’s Not All Bad,” where every week one of us brings a positive trend, a positive policy, some piece of news that progressives are rallying around, that shows that progressives are gaining ground. Something that gives us a little bit of hope.
Michael: I’m pessimistic more days than not, although some days I’m a little optimistic, but most of the time, I could use some cheering up. Sure.
Felicia: Okay, good. I think you’re maybe a little bit skeptical. Not necessarily always pessimistic, but maybe you’re like the reasonable journalist skeptic. Anyway, I’m going to try to cheer you up now with this piece of news. There’s an article that I read recently that’s called “Low-Wage Jobs Are Becoming Middle-Class Jobs.” It was written by Annie Lowrey over at The Atlantic and is a really great piece because she basically describes how the jobs that we associate with low wages and few benefits, terrible hours. Food service jobs, retail jobs, the kind of jobs we’ve talked about with some of our guests, like Dorian Warren. Those jobs are actually becoming better because employers in those sectors are beefing up what they offer their workers.
Michael: Beefing up how?
Felicia: Higher salaries for one. Target’s hourly wage for new workers could be as high as $24, $25 an hour. What’s interesting about Annie’s piece is that she doesn’t really describe some bout of corporate generosity. What she really says is that a couple things are driving this trend. First, we have a really low unemployment rate, and that means that employers have to give something up and have to actually pay workers more to get them. She also says that all of the various government benefits that people got during the Covid legislation gave people a little room to look around at their employment options and to actually create something that I like to think of as a worker’s market.
Michael: That absolutely happened after Covid. It was a great thing to see. And the interesting thing, I’ve read a number of studies that show that that was more true for working-class people, blue-collar people than for white-collar and professional people.
Felicia: Absolutely. We saw the highest wage increases in the lowest income deciles, and so that is pretty good news.
Michael: All right. I accept. Good news. So it is.
Felicia: All right. Well let’s read us out, Michael. I think we can save our country.
Felicia: How to Save a Country as a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community and societal well-being at omidyar.com.
Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at hewlett.org.
Whether you’re a canvasser knocking on doors or a member of Congress building coalitions on the House floor, persuasion is a fundamental part of politics. In recent years, deepening polarization has led to a renewed focus on voter turnout, but Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, argues that persuasion needs to be a bigger part of progressive strategy. Fresh off a tour on this topic with Anand Giridharadas, author of The Persuaders, Maurice stopped by How to Save a Country to talk to Felicia and Michael about how progressives can better engage with those outside their politics—or outside politics altogether.
Maurice has been organizing for racial, social, and economic justice for decades, and played a pivotal role in organizing the first Movement for Black Lives conference in 2015. Now, he’s helping to make the Working Families Party a political home for a progressive and multiracial working-class movement.
“We’re trying to organize people to counterbalance the influence of organized capital,” he tells Felicia and Michael.
Maurice offers insights on how to engage with someone who fundamentally disagrees with you, and compares persuasion strategies between the right and the left. He discusses how progressive organizations can focus on the most important battles, by expanding on his essay that shook the progressive movement last fall: “Building Resilient Organizations.”
Finally, he argues that progressives need to adopt a more active role: “It’s helpful that we have ideas that work, but we need to persuade others that our ideas are their ideas.”
Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.
Learn more about the pieces discussed in this episode:
- Read Maurice’s essay “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” and a New York Times piece about it.
- And Anand Giridharadas’s book, The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy.
You can also read more about Maurice’s ideas on how progressives can organize to win in his 2021 piece, “Organizing the Multiracial Working Class.”
And catch up on last season’s How to Save a Country episode with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, in which he discussed the importance of messaging for the progressive movement.