Imagine a 25-year-old running for Congress. That was what happened in Illinois's tenth district Democratic primary on March 20; The 25-year-old is Ilya Sheyman, former mobilization director for liberal Political Action Committee MoveOn.org. His swift ascent among the activist ranks has made him one of the progressive community's great hopes. Funded by MoveOn, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Howard Dean's Democracy for America, Sheyman raised over $600,000 from donors across the country. The alliance of left-leaning groups backing him wanted victory in the primary, followed by him taking back the tenth for the Democrats. Then progressives could make the case that candidates like Sheyman are those who defeat Republican incumbents in lean Democrat districts. A move leftwards is what the party needs.
Sheyman lost by eight percentage points. His opponent was Brad Schneider, a manager supported by the establishment - his greatest endorsement was from House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer. Yet Sheyman seemed on track to victory the day before the primary; normally reliable pollster Public Policy Polling had him with an eleven-point lead. With the results out, the pollsters are ashamed and Sheyman's campaign website is practically gone. Looking at the big picture, his defeat is a further sign of the progressive movement's diminishing influence.
After Sheyman's loss, anonymous sources waxed about how he was not congressman material. At the same time, the risk must have seemed to be worth taking in order to "push the conversation to the left." Had Sheyman became the nominee, the choice would have flied in the face of political wisdom. IL-10 is a suburban district, voting heavily for Democrat presidents but also for Republican congressmen. The Democrats should have elected someone like former representative Mark Kirk: socially moderate but fiscally conservative. If Sheyman went all the way, the progressives' case would have resounded even more than if they primaried an incumbent Democrat. Sheyman shaped the media narrative well even during the campaign. His staff framed his primary as a "battle for [the] party's future."
The hype obscured the situation on the ground. Schneider had the big names, the endorsements from local politicians and the experience. While Sheyman's volunteers knocked a lot of doors, Schneider's hawkish support for Israel entrusted him with the Jewish vote. As if that were not bad enough, Sheyman's campaign released a series of ads calling Schneider out for being a conservative due to his donations to Republicans. After stating he has mostly donated to Democrats, Schneider fired back. After months of back-and-forths, maybe the district Democrats were not inspired to vote: turnout was just around half of Sheyman's predicted 60,000 voters. Either Sheyman's supporters no longer liked him enough to vote for him, or they have switched sides. If infighting within the Republican Party has cripped it, would it not cripple the Democrats too?
The irony is Schneider and Sheyman are not too far apart. Neither offer great deviations from Obama's domestic or foreign policies. The two candidates are identically committed to gay rights and repealing the Bush tax cuts, while Sheyman uses cloudier phrasing on the Israel question. Sheyman's key difference was using progressive buzzwords: He supported workers' rights, ending the war in Afghanistan, universal health care and repealing Citizens United. Calling Schneider a "Republican" on these differences alone is questionable, since none of those policies are supported by the Obama administration. The negative attacks are rather signs of frustration from the progressives. They citepolls to show a majority of Americans side with them on the hot-button issues. They have the numbers, and yet the establishment still refuse to consider their demands.
One should pity these "organized progressives." As an interest group within the Democratic Party, they are outnumbered by the economic moderates and taken for granted by the establishment. They rallied the hardest for Obama's healthcare reform and other legislation, only to realize the results were watered down. They must continue to support the little they accomplished and to defend their party before attacks on the right. Newer PACs like the Progressive Change Campain Committee represent cracks among organized progressives; they want to throw out conservative Democrats as soon as possible. Their efforts are met with failure, because the Democratic leadership would rather win more seats through moderation than risk supporting progressive policies. They are left wondering why they are perpetually in the minority, or if they are even expressing the views of a "silent majority."
Not all is doom and gloom. The PCCC is going into 2012 with a million in the bank. Elizabeth Warren, the progressives' star candidate, leads Massacheusetts's Senate race. At the same time, organized progressives need to learn something from the Sheyman debacle. There is something questionable with attacking one faction of a political party in order to strengthen one's own. Even if polls show the strategy works, it still shows pettiness on the progressives' part. The results in the tenth have shown few voters get excited by political donations.
What are non-organized progressives excited by? They are excited by the Occupy Movement, which spread like mad across North America. They are riled by the death of Trayvon Martin and took to the streets in protest. If organized progressives spent less time fundraising and more time exposing injustice in our society, people would care more and they would gain more prominence. If, however, they are more concerned with elections and politics, they will not have much influence outside of their intraparty back-and-forths. Hopefully this primary leads to soul-searching among both organized and non-organized progressives in order to keep activists from turning into electioneers.