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If Not Now, When do we Start a Brand New Congress?

As a political scientist who has focused on “democratization NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations) in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina, I was intrigued by the recent emergence of similar organizations in my own country.  After the 2016 election, I started volunteering for a new political organization, founded, prophetically, even before Trump was elected, in April of 2016 (brandnewcongress.org) by veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign. It immediately attracted major volunteer and financial support, particularly from idealistic, young millennials, but also from older followers such as myself.  

The founding “post- partisan” principle of BNC was to look for “extraordinary, ordinary” people in all walks of life who had already demonstrated their creativity by improving life in their own communities.  They also had to subscribe to the major principles of the BNC platform, including environmental protection and revamping our energy infrastruture, getting money out of politics, protecting the Bill of Rights, immigration reform, combating stagnant wages, medicare for all, and ending foreign wars plus citizen activism in foreign policy.

The initial mandate of BNC was to find 400+ candidates to run in Democratic and Republican primaries for both the Senate and the House. Since all of these candidates had to be nominated (on the website), evaluated, contacted (if approved) and then agree to run, I found the goal to be highly unrealistic for 2018, even though I was enthusiastic about BNC’s long-term impact on the country. In response to these considerable difficulties, BNC has itself decided to focus first on the earliest primaries and to scale down its original goals. The BNC website now has 23 candidates, some of whom ( how many?)were running before they were contacted, because they fit the BNC requirements. In this group there are only two Republicans, not surprisingly, since moderate Republicans are, for the moment, an endangered political species. 

Although I consider myself a progressive Democrat, it was, ironically, BNC’s pragmatic stance on finding moderates for heavily Red districts that most attracted me to their mandate. It may take decades to change the overall composition of the Congress, but what if, over the next 6-8 years Republican candidates had to worry about primary challengers from their left? Even if these challengers lose, this could begin to reverse the deeply damaging impact that right wing extremism has had on our political system.  Rob Ryerse, minister of an inclusive church in a heavily Red district in Arkansas, calls himself an “Eisenhower Republican” who favors strong environmental protection of the world that God created, continuing to reduce the incidence of abortion through strong health and anti-poverty programs, and a public option for healthcare.

The BNC platform does, in some ways, reflect this pragmatic “big tent,” whereas Justice Democrats, BNC’s erstwhile ally, focuses only on the Democratic Party, and Democratic incumbents that they consider progressive. This tension between ideological purity and political pragmatism is particularly evident in the contrast between the platforms of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress.

Less pragmatic, however, is BNC’s idea of supporting primary challengers against progressive Democratic incumbents if they are taking any corporate donations. Some highly progressive members of congress get a smattering (10%-30%) of donations from several corporations. Would they be unduly influenced by these donations? It seems unlikely. And what if their biggest corporate donor was an alternative energy company? Or, how should BNC view a congressman who has announced he considers himself a bridge between the progressive and more centrist party groups? These complex issues require thoughtful consideration. 

Such caveats aside, my overall volunteer experience with BNC, has been highly positive. I started looking for candidates in several states and was astounded that in almost any congressional district I researched I found “extraordinary ordinary people.” A young girl in Las Cruces,New Mexico (district 2) stands out in my mind.  At 17 she started an environmental organization to get rid of garbage on the desert. At 24, when I last read about her, she had mobilized 1000 volunteers to clean up the desert every Saturday, with the cooperation of the Bureau of Land Management. Although BNC did not select her for their first round, focused on earlier primaries, she was an object lesson to me about the amazing people everywhere in this country.

A second phase of my volunteer experience began when I started  evaluating nominees, making me more aware of the difficulties and complexities of assessing congressional districts, some of which were heavily gerrymandered. 

Most recently, I became part of an effort to re-write and improve the BNC platform. I loved helping to re-write the foreign policy plank, and focusing it more on the role that private citizens can play in shaping the contours of our world.

As I think about the future of this movement, I remember my late, brilliant colleague at the Kettering Foundation, Harold Saunders, who helped broker the end of the Tajik Civil War. As the creator of the Inter-Tajik Dialogue in the 1990s, Hal brought together civil society representatives from the two Tajik sides of the conflict, the United States, and Russia. The dialogue participants met regularly for over 3 years and in the course of their long discussions, managed to create a settlement to end the war. By the time the United Nations negotiators met with the official, governmental representatives, they were almost able to “cut and paste” the terms of agreement from the unofficial settlement.  

I once asked Hal how this dialogue helped end a horrendous conflict that killed over 50,000 people. His answer was, “the magic ingredient was time. ” As hard as it is to think about time in this dangerous moment in our history, those of us working or volunteering for Brand New Congress and the many other strong organizations that have developed since the election need to do just that. 

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