Can Movements Stop Politicians From Selling Out?
Can Movements Stop Politicians From Selling Out?
Grassroots groups can help elected officials resist the pressures of mainstream political culture.
It is a pattern we see again and again: new political hopefuls are elected to office espousing progressive values and vowing to challenge the status quo in Washington, D.C. They are sent off with high hopes. But then, over time, the change they promise never materializes.
Worse yet, the politicians themselves begin to change. They become more distanced from the supporters who first put them in power. They aspire for a higher office and assert their “independence” by bucking their base and playing to the center. They make amends with key commercial interests in their district. They become apologists for “the way things work,” and they criticize those wanting bolder action as naive and unduly impatient.
Does this have to be the case?
In recent years, social movements have taken increasing interest in engaging the electoral system and voting champions into office. They have done so with the recognition that we need inside players to amplify and respond to pressure generated by activists on the outside. And yet we know that many inside players—even ones who initially seem sympathetic—end up getting co-opted and becoming part of the system.
Movements do not need to give up on the prospect of an inside-outside strategy. But they do need to look carefully at a central problem: How do we keep those we send into the den of Beltway politics from selling out? What factors allow for an exceptional minority to remain true to their democratic base?
The goal for progressive groups seeking to intervene in electoral politics has been to elevate “movement candidates” or “movement politicians”—people who operate differently than the typical politicians who are prone to careerism and driven by oversized egos. Yet the idea of what constitutes a movement candidate can be amorphous.
In giving the concept more clarity, it is important to emphasize that a movement candidate is not just someone who speaks up in support of social and economic justice, or whose innate integrity makes them stay true to their values. Nor is it simply a matter of an individual’s background, with the politician coming out of a marginalized community. What defines someone as a movement politician is more structural. Movement politicians do not act alone. Rather, they rely on grassroots organizations as an institutional base of strength and support to help them reject the ingrained norms and culture of mainstream politics. They stay accountable not just because they are believers, but because movements offer them an invaluable foundation from which to operate.
In order to effectively combat the corrupting pressures of mainstream political culture, it is first necessary to name these forces—to account for why so few are able to navigate the norms of Washington politics without being pulled into treacherous currents. With a detailed conception of the institutional pressures at work, we can then understand how movements can help politicians resist.
How Washington Co-opts
For his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, renowned linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky teamed up with University of Pennsylvania professor Edward Herman to analyze the culture and institutional structures of mainstream media that prevailed in the United States during the Cold War. Chomsky and Herman sought to determine how—in the absence of formal systems of state censorship—the mass media nevertheless served the interest of dominant elites, making sure that viewpoints that were truly critical of corporate capitalism and Washington militarism would remain ostracized.
Sketching what they called the “propaganda model,” Chomsky and Herman argued that there were five ways that “money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.” First, the media was owned by the rich, with mergers consolidating firms into ever fewer hands. Second, publications relied on ad revenue as a primary source of income, making them dependent on corporate advertisers. Third, the media accepted a culture of “expertise” that deferred to official sources from business and government. Fourth, reporters who stepped out of line were disciplined by those in power. And finally, the ideology of anticommunism was used to make certain viewpoints off-limits for mainstream discussion.
With these filters in place, there was no need for oligarchs or government officials to officially censor the press. The filters created a media culture that would do it for them. Although there were occasional exposés that revealed corporate or political misbehavior, expressions of dissent from the tenets of the “free enterprise” system or the assumptions of Cold War foreign policy were kept to a minimum. In Chomsky and Herman’s words, the filters worked effectively to “fix the premises of discourse and interpretation.”
For each of the five filters that Chomsky and Herman identified, an analogue can be found in the ways mainstream political culture bolsters status quo norms and places constraints on politicians seeking change. These norms can be found throughout U.S. politics, including at the state and local levels. But they are most pronounced in Washington.
A first filter in Washington political culture is the formal structure of the two-party system. Although U.S. political parties are weak compared with many European ones, the Democrats and Republicans still have carrots and sticks they can use to discipline their members. The parties control committee assignments in Congress, with senior members securing powerful chairmanships. Newly elected officials who aspire to greater influence quickly learn that deference to party leaders can result in valuable perks, while outspoken criticism brings impediments to career advancement.
An obsession with “access” and being on good terms with powerful people does not affect only junior party members. It shapes the entire milieu of progressive advocacy in Washington. In a 2022 Twitter thread, Evan Sutton, a Democratic political operative and former trainer for the Obama-era New Organizing Institute, described how such preoccupation becomes toxic. “Access is a plague,” he wrote. “During the Obama administration, I sometimes attended meetings organized by the White House Office of Public Engagement. The groups invited would almost never say boo, because in D.C. the most important thing is being invited to the meetings and the Christmas party.”
The slights that upstart politicians receive when they refuse to defer can impose significant costs. The parties run big-money committees such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to oversee efforts to win seats in both the House and the Senate. These institutions have influence in determining which candidates will be recruited and backed in various districts, and whether they will receive millions of dollars of support for their campaigns.
In addition to determining priority races and giving their blessing to candidates, the parties’ campaign committees help to determine which campaign managers, strategists, and media consultants can get jobs working in politics. In 2018, shortly after veteran Democratic Representative Joe Crowley was defeated by the insurgent campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, and after incumbent Mike Capuano similarly lost to Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, the DCCC implemented a new rule designed to ward off such grassroots primary challenges: a ban on doing business with political consulting operations that took on incumbents. It effectively froze out some of the most mobilized forces at the party’s base.
Ocasio-Cortez would later rail against the logic of the decision: “If you are the DCCC, and you’re hemorrhaging incumbent candidates to progressive insurgents, you would think that you may want to use some of those firms,” she said. “But instead, we banned them. So the DCCC banned every single firm that is the best in the country at digital organizing.”
The second filter that colors Washington culture is money, specifically the massive amounts that fuel U.S. campaigns and end up infecting the political system as a whole. Officials in both major parties have described the current structure of American democracy as “a system of legalized bribery and legalized extortion.” The costs of running for elected positions in the United States are astronomical. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the combined total of all spending in House and Senate campaigns came to more than $4 billion in 2016—almost double the inflation-adjusted total from 2000. Tasked with raising thousands per day throughout the length of their terms, sitting representatives spend lengthy sessions “dialing for dollars” from wealthy donors at party-sponsored call centers just blocks from Congress.
In a 2016 interview with 60 Minutes, then-Representative Steve Israel explained that these demands sharply escalated after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for spending in elections. In the early 2000s, “I’d have to put in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, at most, two hours a day into fundraising,” he said. After Citizens United, “everything changed. And I had to increase that to two, three, sometimes four hours a day.”
Elected officials widely dislike such fundraising burdens, and beleaguered staff members often have to cajole their lawmakers to stick to scheduled “call time.” Nevertheless, if politicians wish to rise through the ranks of their party, they must excel at the task. In addition to raising money for their own campaigns, elected officials are expected to contribute to organs such as the DCCC or its Republican equivalent—payments known as “party dues.”
As a 2017 report by the reform group Issue One explained, “although they do not often admit it publicly, party leadership, in private, explicitly ties congressional committee assignments to members’ dues.” The report quoted Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky: “They told us right off the bat as soon as we get here, ‘These committees all have prices and don’t pick an expensive one if you can’t make the payments.’”
Trey Radel, a former Republican representative from Florida, described the none-too-subtle mechanisms through which expectations are conveyed: “Every time you walk into a [National Republican Congressional Committee] meeting, a giant goddamn tally sheet is on prominent display that lists your name and how much you’ve given—or haven’t,” he writes. “It’s a huge wall of shame. The big players, people in leadership positions and chairs of powerful committees, always dominate the board, raising millions.”
To secure these funds, lawmakers lean on not only wealthy individuals but on businesses. The Issue One report further argued that “chairs are often reliant on money from lobbyists and special interests, frequently pressuring and cajoling those working in the industries they regulate to donate generously to their campaigns.” The impact, as former Democratic Representative Jim Jones of Oklahoma described it, is that “Big money doesn’t come in casually. It wants to have its point of view prevail, whether it’s to block legislation or to promote legislation.”
In principle, politicians are not personally enriched by campaign contributions: the money goes to fund their campaigns, and it is not bribery in the sense that the cash is pocketed by an overtly corrupt official. Yet financial largesse both enhances their job security by allowing them to get reelected, and it heightens their power and standing among their peers. Moreover, should they ever decide to “retire” from public service, cozy relationships with lobbyists mean that plush boardroom appointments and handsome consulting contracts await them through Washington’s infamous revolving door.
In the end, money permeates nearly every aspect of Beltway culture and profoundly shapes the strategic vision of the major parties, including how they relate to their bases of support. “I go to the Democratic caucuses every week,” Senator Bernie Sanders explained in a 2013 interview, “and every week there is a report about fund-raising. . . . In the six years I’ve been going to those meetings, I have never heard five minutes of discussion about organizing.”
Experts, Consultants, and Staffers
Mainstream political culture takes cues from a relatively small network of think tanks, legislative advisors, and technocrats. This class of policy experts, staffers, and political consultants create a third filter that enforces politics as usual and screens out wayward viewpoints. They make up the “adults in the room” whose sensibilities help set the Overton Window, or the range of policy positions that are regarded as realistic for elected officials to pursue.
Not surprisingly, within these ranks, representatives of poor and working-class people tend to be few and far between, as are critics of the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, business leaders and economists directly or indirectly backed by corporations are considered credible voices on a wide range of public affairs, and markets regard the selection of Wall Street veterans for government posts as reassuring. Foreign policy positions are passed between neocons and reliable centrists who can be counted on to endorse American exceptionalism and support the spread of “free markets.”
In December 2018, newly elected members of Congress were invited to a week-long training at the Harvard’s Institute of Politics meant to ease their transition into Washington life. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted of the event: “Invited panelists offer insights to inform new Congressmembers‘ views as they prepare to legislate: # of Corporate CEOs we’ve listened to here: 4. # of Labor leaders: 0”
In a 2018 article in the Nation, journalist Joseph Hogan cited former U.S. Representative and current Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who cautioned that constantly standing up to consensus opinion can be a wearying prospect: “You are surrounded 24-7 by colleagues and lobbyists who are constantly telling you how things work. You know they’re wrong but after a while you halfway believe their BS.”
Community organizing leader George Goehl echoed the sentiment: “progressives who get elected and go into the halls of power quickly realize that neoliberalism is the baseline, the dominant politic. Quickly, their radical imagination starts to fade.” Elected officials “need to learn to be able to spot the way neoliberal assumptions and compromises can creep in,” he argued. “Otherwise, we elect people with great intentions, good politics, who still get swept up by the machine.”
Even with Democrats in power, neoliberal groupthink has prevailed at critical moments. In her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance, Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote of the Obama administration’s failure to create any serious accountability for the financial sector in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis: “The president chose his team,” she argued, “and when there was only so much time and so much money to go around, the president’s team chose Wall Street.”
In retrospect, Obama himself has been willing to acknowledge that the biases of prevailing wisdom in Washington limited the policy options his administration was willing to consider. “I think there was a residual willingness to accept the political constraints that we’d inherited from the post-Reagan era—that you had to be careful about being too bold on some of these issues,” he stated in a 2020 interview with New York Magazine. “And probably there was an embrace of market solutions to a whole host of problems that wasn’t entirely justified.”
Of course, many progressive groups—including ones that contributed to the unusually robust grassroots drive that put Obama into office—were telling the administration at the time that Wall Street’s responsibility for the financial crash should be the occasion for a major break from economic orthodoxy. But these people were not seen as “serious” voices that the president needed to heed.
Warren relates that she was explicitly warned against disparaging those in power upon arriving in Washington. In April 2009, when she was serving on the congressional oversight panel monitoring the Treasury Department’s economic rescue plan, she was taken to dinner by Obama’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers. “Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” she writes.
I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.
The fourth filter in Chomsky and Herman’s model, “flak,” consists of the negative responses that a reporter or news organization receives if they step out of line. Advertisers could pull their sponsorship. Access could be withdrawn. And irate administration officials could complain to a reporter’s editors. All of these illustrate that it is less painful to follow the path of least resistance.
A similar type of flak can be directed at officials who place themselves at odds with the norms of mainstream political culture. While the first three filters can be subtle and preemptive, setting boundaries to stop wayward action from ever taking place, flak comes later and is more direct. It is the retribution experienced by those who persist in spite of implicit warnings. It is losing a committee assignment, being denied campaign funding from the DCCC, or, as per Summers, being expelled from the circles of “insiders” given influence over policy deliberations.
Evan Sutton, the former New Organizing Institute trainer, noted that “the Biden White House has made no bones about its willingness to cut people off,” and that having the “temerity to publicly challenge the president lands you on a permanent shitlist.” He added, “The Hill is no better. . . . Funders will cut you off if you’re perceived to be crossing the president or the speaker.” As a result, Sutton explained, “very few are willing to risk it.”
Industry produces flak of its own—the second part of the political system’s “legalized bribery and legalized extortion.” Often, this takes the form of opposition groups funding primary challenges by rivals, or running well-resourced recalls or referendum campaigns that cripple efforts to pursue progressive policy.
In a 2013 interview, Sanders described situations in which fellow lawmakers would express sympathy for legislation he proposed but were cowed by the promise of flak. “If there’s a tough vote in the House or the Senate—for example, legislation to break up the large banks—people might come up and say, ‘Bernie, that’s a pretty good idea, but I can’t vote for that,’” he explained. “Why not? Because when you go home, what do you think is going to happen? Wall Street dumps a few million dollars into your opponent’s campaign.”
Nor can those who are challenged count on the support of their party. There have been numerous incidents where Democratic organs have opted not to endorse incumbents who are seen as too progressive. And although flak is not always decisive, the constant need to combat it can be a serious drain on time and energy—as well as a deterrent to others who are not willing to brave the same treatment.
Ideologically Imposed Limits to Debate
The final filter identified by Chomsky and Herman pertains to how ideological labeling and scaremongering impose boundaries on public debate and mark certain positions as impermissible. Specifically, they highlighted how anticommunism was deployed. The fact that left-leaning policy aims—whether foreign or domestic—could be denounced as signs of creeping socialism “helps fragment the left and labor movements and serves as a political-control mechanism.”
Twenty years after the original publication of Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman revised their framework slightly to note that other ideologically laden charges—particularly those related to “anti-terrorism” and the “war on terror”—could be used to push dissenting opinions outside the bounds of acceptable debate.
In today’s context, the filter of ideology might be applied to limit what is acceptable in discussions about immigration, policing and prisons, or a number of other topics. Accusations of radicalism, for example, forced the resignation of “Green Jobs Czar” Van Jones from the Obama administration. And the concerted attacks on Representative Ilhan Omar seek to characterize her criticisms of Israeli policy and objections to AIPAC’s stances as anti-Semitic and beyond the pale.
It is noteworthy that anticommunist dogma and red-baiting have lingered long after the Cold War. The line of attack remains especially pertinent among Republicans. In just the past few years, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has used such language to denounce everything from the Green New Deal (a “radical, socialist” policy) to student debt forgiveness (“student loan socialism”) to statehood for the District of Columbia (“full-bore socialism“) to pandemic social spending (“a Trojan Horse for permanent socialism”). In early February 2023, House Republicans passed a resolution stating that “Congress denounces socialism in all its forms, and opposes the implementation of socialist policies in the United States of America.”
Perhaps more distressing is the number of Democrats who play into the attack—or fumble when responding to it. While the success of Sanders and the Squad in recent years has changed the political landscape, party leaders remain defensive and fearful. In 2017, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a point of stating, “We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.” For their part, 109 Democratic members of Congress voted with the Republicans in support of their February resolution.
How Movements Break the Filters
Chomsky and Herman argued that the filters on mass media rarely needed to be imposed overtly. Over time, the biases they created became so embedded in the professional culture that its practitioners internalized them:
The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news values.
Within Washington politics, these cultural norms are pervasive enough that those who are primed to succeed are the ones who have habituated themselves in advance. They have accepted how the game is played, and they are comfortable embarking on a quest to gain power within the confines of the existing system.
Meanwhile, those who try to retain their integrity by denouncing the system find themselves constantly repulsed. In November 2020, as she reached the end of her first term, Ocasio-Cortez had been remarkably successful by conventional standards, solidifying her support in her district, achieving widespread celebrity, and gaining a large platform from which to advance her views. Yet she stunned a New York Times interviewer by reporting that she regularly considered getting out, saying, “I don’t even know if I want to be in politics.”
“Externally, there’s been a ton of support,” she explained, “but internally, it’s been extremely hostile to anything that even smells progressive.” She made clear that it was not just violent threats and demonization from the right that were disconcerting, but also the behavior of fellow Democrats: “It’s the lack of support from your own party,” she said. “It’s your own party thinking you’re the enemy.”
The combined power of the five filters provides a compelling explanation for why once-hopeful political champions bow out, or why politicians elected to take on the system acculturate themselves to it over time. Left on their own, individual elected officials have slim hope of standing up to the institutional forces arrayed against them. Although some exceptional individuals may be able to sustain themselves, most need significant help if they are to survive.
This is where movements come in. Having a base of grassroots institutions gives movement candidates a grounding they can use to sidestep Washington norms, wage insurgent campaigns, and govern in a manner that shows accountability to their core constituencies rather than to wealthy elites. Instead of relying solely on personal values to remain principled, they make this challenge into a collective task. With regard to the five filters, movements provide tools for resistance, offering infrastructure, resources, and conscious strategy for counteracting each of them in turn.
In terms of party structures, movements help politicians form effective factions and allow them to join organized attempts to create realignments in party composition and ideology. While groups like Justice Democrats work at such tasks in Washington, D.C., more developed structures exist at state and local levels. In some cities, central labor councils have significant influence over nominating or approving candidates for party leadership. Progressive caucuses have built mutual support among elected officials who may be to the left of their party’s local leadership. In others, bodies such as the Working Families Party or New York DSA’s Socialists in Office committee have provided alternate quasi-party structures that can provide homes for lawmakers who may otherwise be marginalized.
When it comes to campaign finance, technologies of small donor fundraising have given grassroots campaigns the ability to compete with more conventionally funded candidates. (Sanders, for one, raised more than $231 million from 2.8 million donors in 2016.) Furthermore, the ground game and volunteer muscle of movement field operations—drives that knock thousands of doors to reach local voters—have sometimes given progressive candidates the edge over more lavishly endowed opponents who rely on the “air war” of political attack ads. While neither solution is perfect, movements offer candidates the option of trying to win by energizing the base rather than triangulating toward the center.
To disrupt a culture of insider expertise, movements can both inoculate incoming officials and elevate alternate sources of policy know-how. Networks such as People’s Action have invested in political education trainings for rank-and-file members and prospective candidates alike. Others, such as Movement School and re:power (formerly Wellstone Action), have invested in pipelines for campaign managers and legislative staffers rooted in movement values. Finally, community-based groups can organize progressive academics to craft alternative proposals for public policy.
When flak comes in, having a movement at your back can make the difference between robust defense and abandonment by your own party. And, ideologically, movements create a new sense of the possible. They work to move the Overton Window and bring ideas that might initially be considered verboten into acceptable public discussion. Same-sex marriage, millionaires’ taxes, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and student debt cancellation are just a few such ideas.
As bolder demands are mainstreamed, attempts to ostracize their advocates as radical extremists lose their potency. Even politicians who were once fearful to be associated with a cause may suddenly “evolve” in their consciousness, as a wave of public officials did in 2013 after same-sex marriage was shown to be a winning issue. Movement politicians who share a set of collective beliefs are less likely to back down from principled positions, because they have a clear sense that these stances are rooted in the values of their community.
A basic tenet of social psychology is that if someone is surrounded by others who accept the same set of norms and rules of behavior, that person will find it very difficult to avoid internalizing this dominant set of values. “Honestly, it is a shit show. It’s scandalizing, every single day,” Ocasio-Cortez reported of her experience in Washington. “What is surprising to me is how it never stops being scandalizing. Some folks perhaps get used to it, or desensitized to the many different things that may be broken,” she said. And yet she emphasized the need to guard against such desensitization and resist deferring to the supposed “adults in the room” who have made their peace with the system. “Sometimes to be in a room with some of the most powerful people in the country and see the ways that they make decisions—sometimes they’re just susceptible to groupthink, susceptible to self-delusion.”
That this conventional groupthink prevails is no accident. It is a product of political economy and cultural influence, the forces that make up the five filters. Movements provide a structural counterbalance that makes resistance possible. The institutional support of grassroots organizations gives movement politicians a chance to avoid being absorbed into the system. And for those interested in social change, it is likely the best chance we have.
Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles, and a cofounder of the Momentum Training. They are co-authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books), and they can be reached via www.democracyuprising.com.
This article was originally published at Waging Nonviolence.