Before I start, I should note that, much to the chagrin of my more radical friends, I've always supported the Democratic Party in elections and have never subscribed to the theory that they are "inherently flawed" or "just as bad" as the Republican Party. I'm a believer in the maxim: "More and better Democrats." We need more Democrats because Republicans are inevitably opposed to the things that progressive people care about. And we need better Democrats because, as we saw during the health care debate, all too often even the members of the Democratic Party will stand in opposition to the stated principles of the party if they are getting leaned on by Big Money or if they get too suckered in by the latest Fox News spin.
And though I've always voted for Democrats, I think it would be nearly impossible for any progressive person to think that the Democratic Party on a local, state, and national level doesn't have serious problems that are an impediment to needed changes. With 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House, Democrats stalled so long that they were forced to seriously water down healthcare reform. They also failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, an extremely important bill that would have restored some fairness to negotiations between workers and their employers (who right now have no reason to negotiate in good faith). This weak strategy is not only bad for enacting progressive legislation: it's bad for Democrats' chances of reelections.
So with all of this in mind, I want to emphasize the importance of having groups that are not directly affiliated with the Democratic Party organizing for progressive values. What do I mean by "organizing for progressive values?" I mean groups that fundraise, get out the vote, advertise, hold events, and persuade based on their stated values. And what do I mean by "not directly affiliated with the Democratic Party?" I mean groups that are not affiliated with any particular candidate or Democratic Committee. These groups presumably will support Democratic candidates, but it's important that they have the freedom to move resources around as they see fit. If a particular Democratic city official is not living up to the values of the group, then the group has the freedom to support a primary opponent. Or, less dramatically, the group has the freedom to shift their resources to support some other candidate in a different campaign that they think does a better job of living up to their ideals.
Right now, it seems to me, that the Democratic Party is responsible for most of the organizing that wins political contests in our region. I don't want to downplay the value of what they do or the importance of working on campaigns for the Democratic Party. After all, it is extremely important that Democrats win certain elections. For example, Russ Carnahan, Lacy Clay, and Robin Carnahan are all infinitely preferable to their likely Republican opponents. However, given that the party is responsible for most of the organizing, the politicians themselves are not necessarily indebted to progressive values. They're indebted to a whole host of people, but often the most salient can be the big money donations that they see coming in.
In contrast, imagine if most of the political organizing for elections was done by a progressive organization. Politicians would know that they can't win elections in Region X without the support of a coalition of people with a shared set of progressive values (presumably pro-union, pro-environment, pro-LGBT rights, etc.). The demographics of the people voting might stay exactly the same, but the mere fact that people with shared values are explicitly working together as a group can create a huge incentive for the politicians to support the goals of that group. And, I think, if this starts at a local level, these good candidates will begin to work their way up to higher offices.
This is why I'm very excited about the fact that people are working to rebuild the progressive group Democracy for America in St. Louis. DFA is a group that pushed hard for meaningful health care reform, that opposed the Iraq war and occupation (and demands clear goals for Afghanistan), and that supports a host of progressive issues like Net Neutrality. DFA is also a group that endorses progressive candidates in key elections, and can work to push the "more and better Democrats" philosophy without being wholly indebted to the insider conventional wisdom that is often self-destructive to the party.
Finally, DFA is also known for holding one of the best campaign training academies in the country, and this academy will be coming to St. Louis on July 10th and 11th. The academy will cover a number of skills, such as getting out the vote, secrets of fundraising, event planning, crafting a communications strategy, and running a field program. It will also provide a great opportunity to meet with other folks from St. Louis interested in working together on progressive organizing. I highly recommend signing up for the training, which you can do at this link. With all the bickering that goes on on TV and on blogs, it's often easy to forget that the real thing that wins elections is organizing. Progressives need to start doing a better job at it if we want to address the problems in our society.