By Pamela Shifman
When news broke last June of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, it was confirmation that a 40-year conservative strategy to reshape the American judiciary—and society along with it—was being realized. Conservatives were playing and winning the long-game, while progressives were showing up siloed and short-sighted.
One year later, we are still struggling to learn the lesson.
From the courts to culture, the common thread of the conservative strategy has been patient, long-term investment in the people, institutions, and strategy needed to win. Amid course corrections, pushback, and big mistakes, they’ve kept moving towards a common end.
As progressives, we will win on our own terms and according to our own values. But we ignore the lessons of the conservative movement at our own peril. We need staying power of our own: with a big-picture vision, shared strategy, and, most important of all, the backbone to see it through. With our democracy on the line, we have no time to lose.
Focusing on core rules of our democracy
As we organize around individual issues—from climate to abortion rights to LGBTQ rights—conservatives are rigging the very rules of democracy that will determine the fate of every issue at once. From election laws to voter subversion and voter suppression, Republicans have been changing the rules in ways big and small, from counties to Congress.
Just this month, for example, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose admitted that a special ballot proposal to make it harder to amend the state constitution was really about blocking any effort to make abortion a Constitutional right. In Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country, lawmakers are trying to make it harder for young people to vote, knowing they are more likely to support Democrats. In other words, if Republicans can’t win fair and square on the issues, they will take our freedoms away to guarantee a win. We must be equally focused on the rules of the game, or we will be guaranteed to lose.
This includes essential pro-democracy reforms at the state and local level—but it also includes prioritizing and passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Expanding the map
With our freedoms on the line, we can no longer accept the political map of the past, which assumes that red and blue are set in stone, and that elections will always come down to a small set of battleground states. In fact, that has never been true. Ohio, now seen as solidly red, voted twice for President Obama. Florida did too, before ushering in a Republican supermajority. When Democrats lost focus in the “blue” state of New York last year, it cost us the U.S. House of Representatives. Put simply, we cannot sustain a movement that is always one election loss away from catastrophe.
There are no quick fixes. It is time for transformational efforts to expand the map through dedicated and robust long-term investments in people, organizations, and infrastructure that have historically been left behind—but offer our greatest chances for progress. And this includes the South, the fastest-growing and most ethnically diverse region of the country with a growing population that firmly supports progressive values.
Since Reconstruction, the right has focused relentlessly on rigging rules to prevent Black people and other people of color from voting. It’s up to us to fight back with equal vigor. Unrigging the rules and building long-term infrastructure could mean an unbreakable majority in the future—if we stay focused and committed.
Using every tool we have
When you’re up against an opponent who will do anything to win, we have to show up with everything we have, including 501c3 and 501c4 funding. But the hard truth is that too many progressive funders remain hesitant to fully engage in 501c4 funding—creating a chilling effect that spreads to others.
While the other side is maxing out on every tool they have, we are fighting for democracy with one hand tied behind our back. What feels safe or even strategic in the short term has devastating results. As some funders avoid 501c4 funding because it feels risky, our worst long-term risk is being realized right before our eyes as our core rights are stripped away.
It’s no surprise that the largest known donation for political advocacy—$1.6 billion—came from Barre Seid to a new nonprofit run by Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, the very architect of the Supreme Court strategy that led to Dobbs and the crisis we are facing now.
Winning the long game
The battle for our rights and our democracy is happening before our eyes. Conservatives have been working for decades to curtail our freedom, but it is not too late for progressives to fight back with a long-term strategy of our own. We just need the vision and the fortitude to see it out.