Most Americans have felt disappointment with what their elected officials have done, even if the person voted for the official. Many politicians say one thing and do another. Even on issues such as Social Security where huge majorities of voters oppose cuts, many Democratic politicians won't even vote with that big majority to gather votes in their next election. Anyone who wants to be an informed voter needs to have as clear an idea as possible about what particular candidates will and won't do. That's not so easy if the candidate isn't already an elected or appointed official - so one can review their actual actions in office. For the moment, let's consider those politicians who have been in office and can be judged on their past actions.
Today, how we deal with elected officials has gained an additional significance. Citizens United and upcoming court rulings are increasing the corrosive effects of big money. There's efforts at voter suppression / intimidation, and hours-long waiting lines at polling stations where they want to discourage voters. Gerrymandering has prevented true majority rule in state legislatures and Congress. Our democracy is being carved away more and more each year. Every time we let some silver-tongued politician sweet talk us into electing him although he really won't fight to restore democracy, the further erosion of democracy will make it harder to correct the problem next time.
There's more to rating politicians than seeing if they vote "yes" or "no" on certain bills. One indicator is the distinction between a sponsor of a bill and a non-sponsor who votes for it. Even when politicians vote the way you wish they would on a bill, it doesn't always indicate they are dependable supporters. Sometimes, politicians vote the way their constituents prefer when their vote doesn't really matter (the bill will pass or fail regardless of that individual politician's vote). So, the real indication of what one can really expect from a politician is how they vote when the voting is close enough that his/her vote could make the difference in whether a bill passes.
Sometimes on close votes, politicians even wait to see how many other legislators vote yes and no. Once they know whether or not their vote will make a difference, they decide if they can vote according to the image they try to project or according to some other agenda.
I would strongly suggest that each progressive organization establish its own rating system for politicians. (There's nothing wrong with more than one progressive group working together to rate politicians, but the factors which make them remain separate organizations can affect what rating they would give particular politicians.) Based on the issues that are most important to a group, select particular legislation and/or other actions of elected officials and rank the actions in importance. Based on the importance, designate how heavily the rating of a politician depends on their vote on that legislation. Then evaluate how the politicians did on these points. if they sponsored and voted for good bills, that should count the most towards their rating. If they voted for a good bill or against a bad bill when the vote was close, that should count as the next most significant. If they voted for a good bill or against a bad bill when the vote wasn't close, that counts a little but not much. If they vote for a bad bill or against a good bill, that counts against them. If they sponsor a bad bill that counts against them more. Publicly speaking for a bad bill or against a good bill should be an additional negative contribution to their rating.
Most likely, not all groups will agree on the criteria, but each group should have some standard which determines whether or not a politician's record earns him or her the right to be supported in the next election.
Sometimes, there is legislation of special importance. Once in a while, it's reasonable to tell politicians, "This legislation is extremely important. We don't say this all the time, but on this one you've got to be with us or against us." When a politician votes the wrong way on this kind of item, they should be given a rating that prevents them from being supported in the next election.
While each progressive group may want to pick which legislation should be given greater weight in the ratings, here are some possibilities. There are a few issues on which large majorities in the public have tended to be in sync with progressives - such as protecting Social Security from cuts, changing rules so the super-rich pay tax rates higher than their secretaries rather than less, and Wall Street accountability. (As of today's email from Credo Action, just 24 Congressional Democrats have pledged not to vote for cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. The tax rate for capital gains is still half that for an equal amount of wages. Obama's fake investigation of Wall St. did nothing.) Limiting corporate influence on government and big money in elections is essential to true democracy. Prohibiting gerrymandering is also essential to real democracy.
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There are too many candidates who haven't held an office which shows how they tend to vote. We can't ignore this problem and naively support them simply based on what they say. If nothing else, we can distinguish between where they say what. Do they sound progressive when they speak before civil rights groups and progressive organizations, but sound less progressive when talking elsewhere? Do they associate enough with social change groups to act as speakers at rallies and demonstrations? Do they just show up to speak at demonstrations, or do they participate in the march?
If they've never held elected or appointed office before, what have they been doing with their lives? Are they only known for talk, or have they been active in organizations? Have they participated in the campaigns for other politicians, and if so what kinds of politicians?
Perhaps, rating these candidates would be more subjective than other candidates, but we should do our best.
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The recall elections in Wisconsin were an excellent example of how the official Democratic apparatus can sit back and let progressives try to do the Democrat's job for them. The Democratic Party and its non-progressive candidates have sources for much more money than progressives do. We have to be willing to make them do their own work and campaign for their own non-progressive candidates. Progressives have to carefully choose which candidates don't just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Then put our limited resources there. When progressives carry the burden of getting non-progressive Democrats elected, that takes away time and money we could put into causes which are dear to our hearts - which may be why Democratic officials like to make progressives work for non-progressives instead. If the mainstream Democratic Party won't run real progressives and won't do their own work to elect non-progressive Democrats, it's time to re-think some things.
The fact is, there can be opportunities outside the Democratic Party. There can be electable independents such as Bernie Sanders. On low level posts, there are many Green Party elected officials. There can be campaigns where the major parties don't offer a better alternative than spreading a message through an independent with little chance of winning. It would help us to better understand where and when to find these opportunities. What locales are more open to this? Where are there elections with only one major party candidate? Where has the public become most disillusioned with established politicians? Which races have essentially indistinguishable major party candidates?
Independent candidates have the potential of feeling more free to act progressively, and an increase in the number of independent elected officials might cause some in the Democratic Party to see the writing on the wall and have to decide which side they want to be on.