How Progressives Can Win

Derek Kilmer shows the way in a south Puget Sound legislative swing district -- by continually sounding a message of economic populism to beat a social conservative.

By Sandeep Kaushik

After the Democrats went down in flames on Nov. 2, liberals gave themselves over to a bout of gnashing of teeth and clenching of fists or simply to wailing out plaintive keens of profound despair. Which then led into an orgy of high-minded self-flagellation. I've gluttonously consumed the endless outpouring of untethered advice picking at the scab of our failure. And I have learned a variety of fascinating, if contradictory, things along the way.

I've learned that Howard Dean was right, and we need to move left (Dean for DNC chair!). I've learned that Dean was wrong, and he needs to shut up so establishment Dems can get back to losing elections in peace (Vilsack for DNC chair!). I've learned that we need to bash the gays (but only rhetorically; please, we're Democrats). I've learned we need to fall in love with the exurbs (David Brooks for DNC chair!). That we need to advocate for further abortion restrictions, trash the liberal libertarianism of our dominant culture (and of our urban base), and -- just to be safe -- rush off to buy an AK-47 at a gun show.

I've learned that we need to be more urban, or more rural, or more godly or more humanistic. I've learned we need a vision, or a message, or a narrative or at least a less snooty set of values. To sum up: I've learned nothing at all, except that the chattering classes contain a lot of opinionated people who think the Democratic Party ought to be more like them.

At first I was inclined to join the frenzy; after all, why shouldn't the Democratic Party be more like me? But then I had a different, even radical, idea: I came to the conclusion that the party ought to be more like Derek Kilmer.

Poster Boy for Liberalism

Don't know who Derek Kilmer is? You should, because he accomplished something that most liberals believe is no longer possible in present-day America: He convinced voters in a relatively conservative swing district to vote their economic interests.

On Nov. 2, voters in a rural-suburban district in the south Puget Sound elected Kilmer, 30, to represent them at the Washington state legislature. He beat an honest-to-God right-wing Bible-thumping Republican incumbent -- a Church Lady type named Lois McMahan. You may have heard of McMahan before. She got her 15 minutes in the spotlight in 2003, when she stalked off the legislative floor while a Muslim cleric delivered the day's opening prayer ("It's an issue of patriotism," she explained).

How did Kilmer do it? Part of it was sheer hard work, knocking on 15,000 doors over the campaign. Part of it was natural talent. Kilmer's a bright, credentialed young man: Princeton grad, Oxford Ph.D. He knows, and is known in, his district: He grew up in the region, and spent the last several years working at the local economic development board. Kilmer won support from both Chamber of Commerce types and left-leaning organizations like the Progressive Majority PAC and Howard Dean's Democracy for America.

He avoided ideological labels, but he put forward a positive message of progressive change, in the best sense of the term. The gospel according to Kilmer was about strengthening the community and its families -- through economic development, infrastructure improvements, taking care of the elderly. He broadened his base by talking about boring bread-and-butter stuff. It just so happens, though, that his voters considered boring bread-and-butter stuff to be relevant and important: job creation, transportation (residents of his district have long commutes on congested roads), education, health care.

On the campaign trial, he told audiences about an old woman he met doorbelling, who showed him the pills she had to cut in half so she could afford to eat. He told his audiences that people like him were obligated to fight for people like her. At an October debate before local high school kids, his opponent said the novel Snow Falling On Cedars ought to be banned from the school library. Kilmer responded that education is about opening doors, not closing them. "I don't think it's my role to tell you what you should or shouldn't be reading," he recalls saying. Twenty-five of those students volunteered for his campaign, and in the end he won, albeit narrowly.

Labels Are So Retro

What Kilmer's success tells me is that the bright lights of the liberal commentariat are going at the problem wrong. They are setting up false dichotomies: left vs. center, issues vs. values, substance vs. vision, realism vs. idealism. In the you-can't-run-and-hide world of retail politics in non-urban America -- in Derek Kilmer's world -- these distinctions don't apply. It is not that they can be integrated into a compelling, distinctly progressive, message. It is that they have to be.

Recently, the Center for a New American Dream commissioned a poll of Americans' attitudes toward work. Ninety-three percent said they felt they were too focused on work and money, and not focused enough on family and community; 53% said if they could spend more time with family and friends they would be more satisfied with their lives; 64% said the American Dream is harder to achieve today than 10 years ago. What the poll found is that there is a very real middle-class squeeze, but it is only partially economic. It is also about time and stress and a widespread perception on the part of ordinary people that they are missing out on what matters in life.

There is a lesson in these numbers for Democrats. There is a natural, bottom-up language (or a vision, or a narrative, or whatever) in these numbers, about the Democratic Party as the party that stands for strengthening family and community by making sure that the economic playing field is not stacked against the average working stiff. And that language flows, quite naturally, into a set of progressive policy ideas (here, I'm borrowing from the Take Back Your Time movement -- There is the potential for a family and community agenda that idealistic Deaniacs and Clintonian realists might agree on: a living wage, restricting mandatory overtime, paid family leave, reasonable vacation time.

The Democratic Party may have lost this time, but that doesn't mean that losing is inevitable, or that liberals have to sell out their core values. But don't take my word for it. Just ask Derek Kilmer.

Sandeep Kaushik is a staff writer for the Seattle independent weekly The Stranger. This originally appeared at

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