The future of democracy: It might be a lot brighter than you think

There are dark years ahead, says Amanda Litman of Run for Something. But after that, the future looks "amazing"

Published March 5, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

Run for Something Co-Founder Amanda Litman speaks onstage during Global Citizen - Movement Makers at The Times Center on September 25, 2018 in New York City. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen)
Run for Something Co-Founder Amanda Litman speaks onstage during Global Citizen - Movement Makers at The Times Center on September 25, 2018 in New York City. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for Global Citizen)

As difficult as this is to remember, 2021 began with a sense of political optimism in America, with Joe Biden's victory in the presidential election followed by the two surprise wins in the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia. But the Democratic "trifecta" (White House, Senate and House) has delivered only limited results, and the drawn-out sabotage by Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema has left many frustrated, dispirited or disillusioned. But not everyone and not everywhere. In fact, that high-level betrayal has only motivated some people more. 

Even as things grew darker, with the widespread assault on voting rights and the manufactured backlash over "critical race theory," the public simply doesn't believe that racism is just a Marxist hoax. In fact, most people understand that it's real, and support teaching actual history, even if that's not always comfortable. Even in deep-red Wyoming, an anti-CRT bill was voted down, after one of just seven Democrats in the state legislature called out its provision that "The teaching of history must be neutral, without judgment," saying, "I'm Jewish, and I cannot accept a neutral judgment-free approach on the murder of 6 million Jews in World War II."

RELATED: Right's attack on "critical race theory" goes back decades — but media hasn't noticed

"His fight inspired enough members to vote it down," tweeted Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something. "It matters to elect fighters in every state, no matter how red. You never know who will make the difference!" This outlook — so central to the mission of Litman's organization — echoes what David Pepper told me in a recent interview: "Democracy must be protected in every state, every year, in every office that has some lever over democracy." 

And democracy itself is the basic issue, as political scientist Mark Copelovitch noted recently. "On every issue, the median voter doesn't want the policies the GOP is selling," he tweeted, offering supporting data. "Eventually, your positions get so extreme that the one option left is restricting democracy. We're there now."

The Democratic establishment may still be struggling with denial about the seriousness of the attack on American democracy, but Run for Something, Litman's group, absolutely isn't. Our democracy is hanging by a thread, and the urgency of their work shows it. Run for Something has always been focused first and foremost on local and state legislative races, where the battle to preserve our democracy is most intense, and on the long-term goal of building political power where others have not. They primarily seek to elevate and support progressive candidates under age 40, especially those from under-represented groups. In terms of geography, Run for Something supports promising candidates wherever they happen to be, departing from the Democratic Party's typical narrow focus on identifying "electable" (i.e., moderate or centrist) contenders in swing states and swing districts. 

In Its recently-posted 2022 strategic plan, the group's focus on protecting democracy has only intensified. RFS notes its 2021 focus on school board and election administration races and adds, "We're working to recruit and support candidates for local election administration roles in key districts across the country because these are the positions that will determine whether or not democracy survives past 2024." 

Anyone who wants to join that fight should be energized by what Run For Something is doing. I recently spoke with Amanda Litman about the group's history, values and strategies, as well as how it actually functions on the ground. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So what specifically does Run for Something do?

Run for Something recruits and supports young, diverse progressives who are running for local office all across the country. 

Who do you reach out to — and who reaches out to you?

We specifically are looking for people 40 years old or younger who are running for things like city councils, school board, library board, state legislature — the real building blocks of democracy.

You don't endorse everyone who vaguely matches those criteria, do you? It's a long process, and the term "progressive" is amorphous. What specifically are you looking for? 

We make sure we're engaging with people who share our values. We define progressive really broadly, because we work in so many states and with so many kinds of offices. We're looking for people who are pro-choice, pro-equality, pro-tolerance. 

Run for Something started in January 2017, around the same time as the Women's March, Indivisible, Swing Left and Flippable — a moment when a lot of people recognized a need to do things differently. What was the motivation in common with those other organizations, and what was distinctive? And how has that developed since then?

All those groups started around 2017 or 2018, and many of them were created in response to [the election of] Trump. For us, that was not really the goal. We weren't a "resistance" group. We were trying to build democratic infrastructure and trying to meet people who are looking for a way to fight back, an entry point into elected office. But only 3% of the people who sign up with us and actually get on the ballot mention Trump as the reason they're running.  It was the water people were swimming in, but it wasn't the bait.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

I think now, a lot of the groups  focused on the federal level — I would find it very difficult if I were doing federal work. But it seems clear that locally, the work around state legislatures, city councils, school boards and library boards is a way you can both make meaningful progress and help stop the absolute worst. 

In your 2022 strategic plan you write, "Our work is long-term and strategic; we don't pivot from cycle to cycle. Instead, we're always deepening our efforts, refining our program, and prioritizing as the moment requires." Talk about how you conceive of that long-term strategic work, and how that has evolved.

So we think about time horizons in terms of success: We expected most first-time candidates we worked with to lose. It's really hard to run for office the first time out. That 42% or so of the folks we work with do win is great, and we're proud of that. But we think about this in terms of long-term power-building — for someone to run and win, or run and lose, is a way for them to galvanize a community.

RELATED: Democracy vs. fascism: What do those words mean — and do they describe this moment?

We also think about this in terms of geography—we're willing to engage in races where most people aren't. You know, that's often a controversial thing, but we think it matters to give Democrats in Kansas or Montana or Idaho or wherever they are a chance to make their voice heard. We know that campaigns are a way to build political power. Even if they lose, it brings new people into the fold, they update data, they engage in the issues. And as we think more long-term, the people we work with now, in their first race for city council or  school board, could one day be members of Congress or governors or president. So that's how we think about the long tail of our work. 

That sounds very similar to the perspective David Pepper offers in his book "Laboratories of Autocracy." He talks about the importance of fighting for democracy everywhere and of having a long-term perspective. People who run in unwinnable races are the real heroes, he says, because they reach people who wouldn't be reached otherwise and make future victories possible. But at the same time, you have limited resources, and winning now is important to encourage people and create momentum. How do you deal with that tension? 

I think there's always tension between the problems and the urgency of the moment and the long-term vision, but we have tried to balance the two and name the tension, broaden the tension, try to take advantage. We note that sometimes those come into conflict, but also that we're working with our values here. Sometimes you make short-term sacrifices to benefit the long-term vision. 

RELATED: How the states have become "Laboratories of Autocracy" — and why it's worse than you think

Pepper characterizes the two parties as having very different approaches to politics. Democrats view it as a battle over elections, assuming that democracy itself is intact and stable, while Republicans are battling against democracy itself. So that leads Democrats to focus more on swing states and districts, while Republicans are fighting democracy everywhere continuously, which gives them a significant advantage.  It seems to me that Run for Something doesn't necessarily share that assumption that democracy itself is intact and stable, so you're more capable of seeing the battle clearly.

I think that's absolutely right.  Democracy is in danger. We see this in the fights for school boards, in the fights for local election administrators, in the fights for secretaries of state. If you control what kids learn, if you control how people can engage with government, if you control the experiences they have with government, you get a chance to determine the kinds of citizens they grow up to be. 

Along the same lines, your 2022 strategic plan says, "Democrats don't have a branding problem. The government has a branding problem. Democrats are the party of government, and right now, people hate government. We have to elect good people who actually produce results, talk about those results non-stop, and restore some faith in this system." Can you cite some examples of what that looks like in practice?

Yes. I think it's really hard to imagine this on the federal level, because of Congress, but on the local level you've seen some really meaningful stuff. So the Berkeley City Council, for example, ended single-family zoning for housing and got the police out of traffic enforcement. The folks who led that include Run for Something alumni Rigel Robinson and Terry Taplin.

In Florida, Anna Eskamani, a state representative outside of Orlando, has been helping folks navigate the broken unemployment system, making sure that 50,000 Floridians get access to the benefits they deserve. She's doing town halls and Twitter chats, and answering DMs late into the night. She's going door-to-door, she and her team are deeply engaging with folks, not just about government services, but making sure they know that she is fighting for them. We're seeing this over and over again. 

In Harris County, Texas, Lina Hidalgo, the county judge, has changed the way the county budgets, ended cash bail and re-organized the way they do flood relief, disaster relief. That makes people's lives better. And she is one of the first executives in Harris County [with 4.7 million residents, the third most-populous county in the nation] to hold bilingual press conferences. It's about how information is managed, which is really important if you want to communicate with voters where they are on the issues they care about, both about what you're doing and about making sure their government experience — whether it's at the library, at the DMV or at City Hall, or getting their license at the county clerk when they're getting married — is seamless and enjoyable. 

Those are great examples. To what extent do you share those examples with others in your network, so there's a collective learning experience?

It's a big part of what we do. Every person we endorse in 2022 — and this has been true for three or four years — gets connected to someone we endorsed in a previous cycle. So the college student who ran in 2018 will get connected to the college student who ran in 2020, who will then get connected to the college student who's running in 2022. We also connect people across the types of positions, so that we have a cohort of school board members and a cohort of county executives. We're able to play matchmaker in that regard. 

You've always had a local focus. But you're intensifying that this year, according to your strategic plan, with a particular focus on school boards and election officials. What past lessons and achievements on the local level stand out for you, and how do you bring more attention to these races, which have traditionally been neglected?

For us, these positions are everything. For us, these positions are foundational to democracy. What kids learn determines what kind of citizens they grow up to be, what kind of elections are actually run determines how citizens can participate. It really matters to have good people in these offices. 

We know that, in no small part, because the other side is putting so much time and money into recruiting and supporting candidates for those positions. Steve Bannon is going on his podcast every day and asking people to run for local office. In the top of the QAnon forum, you see "run for office, run for city council, show up at your school board meeting." Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are dedicating their efforts and refocusing their priorities on local positions. That's because they know that's how you can win — and just a little bit goes a long way. Then you get to control structures and how people can engage, and you get to limit who can engage. And all of a sudden — or not all of a sudden, over the course of decades — you have long-term sustainable power, for better or for worse.  

So for us, these positions are the heart and soul of democracy, and we want to make sure we are fielding as many good candidates as possible, while we still have a chance. 

When it comes to these races, conservatives have ready-made narratives to draw on, so there's an imbalance for our side, along with the problem of dealing with the confounding flow of disinformation. What resources do you share with the people you're supporting to help them push back?

We are not focused on solving the media ecosystem problem. What we're trying to do is make sure that candidates we're working with are empowered to knock on as many doors and connect with as many voters one-on-one as possible, because we know that the disinformation is less effective and the lies don't stick when you know the person. Like, obviously Jane Does is not a lizard person — she comes to my house, I know her. I see her in the grocery store. That kind of personal relationship between candidate and voter can help defend against disinformation. We have to make sure that the candidates are doing so in every possible race, we need to do that door-knocking and contacting as efficiently as possible. 

So what is the process like for people who approach you as prospective candidates? Your strategic reports says you had recruited more than 90,000 people to consider running for office, as of the end of last year. Most of those people don't end up running, so what do they get out of the process? And what do you get?

So we are now up to 106,000 young people who are in our pipeline. You sign up on our website, you need to tell us about running for office and you join a conference call where we answer your basic questions about running. We then have a one-on-one with one of our volunteers, who are trained to answer a basic number of questions, as well as to learn a bit more about you, the potential candidate. You're then admitted to the Run for Something program.  Every day, you're going to get emails and text messages and updates sharing things like how to file and get on the ballot, new trainings that we and our partners are running, opportunities to apply for an endorsement, materials on how to set up a campaign plan, how to write a budget and how to set your win number. 

Once you've officially gotten on the ballot, you can apply for our endorsement. There's an additional application: We want to see that plan, we want to see a budget, we want to know how you're going to get from A to Z. We do rigorous background checks. We want to make sure that what you're telling us and what you're telling voters are the same. And then we do a review with someone on the ground in that state to give us some political confidence. Every person who applies for endorsement goes through a review and then we make some decisions. 

What happens once they're actually endorsed?

Endorsed candidates get to work one-on-one with our regional staff, who will help figure out what they need. Maybe they need to have the state party answer their emails. Maybe they need training, maybe they need someone to run a funder pitch past, maybe they need a boost of confidence before a forum. We track our endorsed candidates through Election Day, and connect them with previous endorsed candidates to get mentorship. We recommend them to the press and other organizations for potential endorsements, and to help raise money and get volunteers. And then endorsed candidates are who we consider our alumni. It's a soup-to-nuts experience. 

What about the role of active volunteers? Are you recruiting, and if so, what's involved? 

If you go to our website you can sign up to volunteer. The best, most important thing we need is more people to help us stream through the pipeline. No special experience is needed. We'll tell you how to interview for information, and coach you on that conversation. It's really a joyful volunteer experience. We also have a way for you to volunteer if you have special skills and want to use them to support a candidate. You can apply to join our mentorship database. If candidates need a website developer, a content creator or a public policy expert, if they submit a specific question, we'll reach out and see if you're available to help them. 

What new wrinkles have you introduced for this election cycle? 

Basically we're deepening the way we run our program, trying to be more thoughtful. We're especially thinking about programs for folks who're often underrepresented in government, so that means women of color, Black women specifically, Native American candidates, Latinx candidates, people with disabilities, candidates who are neurodiverse, rural candidates. We're trying to make sure we are as expansive as possible, and providing the support that people need, not just what makes us feel good. 

It stood out for me that Kansas is one of your top-tier states, because Democrats' lack of outreach to rural voters and rural states is something I've written about. I interviewed Jane Kleeb about her book "Harvest the Vote," for example. So tell me what you're doing in Kansas, and what can be learned from what's happening there? 

RELATED: Democrats can reclaim rural America — and Jane Kleeb wants to show them how

Kansas has a Democratic governor, which I think people forget. So it's possible for a Democrat to win statewide in Kansas. We've seen a ton of organic interest out of that, and it's been a place where we know — especially around the suburbs — that there are exciting, interesting young Democrats who want to get engaged and want to be heard. 

I think Kansas is a really good example of a state where the Republicans went too far, and people pushed back. That's how we got Laura Kelly elected governor [in 2018], and without a ton of infrastructure. So we are trying to make sure we're working with folks on the ground, that we're working with our candidates and our alumni there, trying to support them. Over time, and we don't expect to do this overnight, but maybe over the course of the next 15 years — if democracy survives long enough — we can make Kansas the kind of place where we can win. 

That reminds me of the "50-state strategy" Howard Dean tried to pursue when he was Democratic Party chair. How do you see the party organization now, and how can it be improved? 

Right now the Democratic Party is deeply oriented around a presidential battleground structure. It's a big problem, for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have a Democratic governor in Kansas and a Democratic senator in Montana, but without the kind of infrastructure to support them we know that the "top of the ticket" isn't going to engage as meaningfully. That really hurts those candidates' chances. 

Even in the presidential battleground states — think about a state like Pennsylvania — the places where Joe Biden really ran up the score versus the places where we needed to flip state legislative seats weren't necessarily the same. Those maps didn't overlap strategically, and counting on the top of the ticket to do all the work for everyone else really harms everyone. The president's job and a House member's job and the governor's job is to win. Their job is not to bring everyone else along with them. We shouldn't fault them for that, but as a party, and as donors and activists and operatives, we need to think expansively and make sure that we're working as a whole. 

You've actually demonstrated the "reverse coattails" effect — the ability of down-ballot local candidates to help the whole ticket. Talk about that.

We did some research, and we've done it now twice in different iterations, to prove out our theory that competing locally helps support folks nationally. We found that in a district where Democrats had not previously competed, simply tabling a full slate of Democrats for state legislature increased turnout and performance at the top of the ticket by anywhere from 0.6% to 1.3%. That's really meaningful, especially when you look at margins of victory in some of these battleground states. 

In your Teen Vogue op-ed, you wrote that there are many reasons young people aren't rising to the top of the political system, including structural barriers that can only be solved within government. But you argue that some can be solved through activism as well. 

A lot of state parties don't consider young people to be viable candidates because they don't have enough access to wealth. That's especially true for young women of color, which unfortunately makes sense. Young people do not have enough access to wealth. They're a poorer generation. Parties are operating from a place of scarcity, so they're trying to make sure that they take what they consider to be safe bets. 

We also know that a lot of these positions are not not well-paid, if paid at all. It's really hard to do if you have young kids or you don't have a full-time job. It's hard to do without the support structures older folks might have. That doesn't mean it's impossible, it just means it's harder. That's one of the reasons we build community among our candidates, because we know otherwise it gets really lonely. 

What's the biggest challenge that you see in the year ahead, for Run for Something specifically and for Democrats and progressives as a whole? 

Not getting distracted by the flashy things. The biggest challenge for Democratic funders, activists and operatives is keeping our eyeS on the prize. It's going to be really hard, knowing that some of the Senate races are going to draw a lot of attention and some of these congressional races are going to suck up all the oxygen. But where the real fights are that matter is in ensuring that we are holding on and stanching the bleeding. 

I also think we sometimes get lost in our head about the idea that "Democrats need a single message!" "Democrats need a bumper-sticker slogan!" I think that misunderstands how people consume information. Messenger and message are not two distinct things. What someone says and who is doing the saying are equally important. In fact, the "who" is maybe more important than the "what," because it comes with all the preconceived notions of who they are: Do they like me? "Do they care about me? Do they understand me? 

When Joe Biden says something and AOC says the exact same words, it's received very differently. I want Democrats to focus on how we can localize these fights. How can we not get distracted by things that go viral on Twitter or the need for a bumper-sticker slogan, and really fix our shit at home. 

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

I would say the question I'm getting the most recently is, "How do I stay optimistic? Am I optimistic at all?" I have to say yes. I think that democracy is at a breaking point. If we can get through the next couple of years, the next three years, then the next five years after that are going to be unbelievably good. 

I think the leadership we are cultivating, the talent that is rising, the folks who are taking charge of the cities and counties and state legislatures now are going to be amazing national leaders who are willing to take on tough fights and who know how to win them. We just have to get there. We have to go through some rough years, and then make it out on the other side. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amanda Litman Democracy Democrats Elections Interview Progressives Run For Something