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Progressive group tries crowdsourcing the Democratic agenda

At a time when Democrats agree they need fresh thinking to attract voters, a progressive group is trying to crowdsource the next big idea.
Residents of the Park Slope section of the borough Brooklyn vote in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections in on Nov. 4, 2014 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Andrew Gombert/EPA)
Residents of the Park Slope section of the borough Brooklyn vote in the 2014 U.S. midterm elections in on Nov. 4, 2014 in New York, N.Y.

At a time when Democrats agree they need fresh thinking ideas to attract voters to the polls, a progressive group is trying to crowdsource the next big idea that will help Democrats in 2016 -- and help them remake the party in their own image. And party leaders are paying attention.

Every ideological insurgency needs new ideas to fuel it, and the nonprofit Progressive Change Institute is hoping its Big Ideas Project will be the ideas mill of ascendant populism. But in addition to soliciting input from the typical cadre of experts and lawmakers, the group is taking the unusual step of letting anybody with an Internet connection propose their own ideas, and putting everybody’s ideas up for a vote.

On the recently launched website of the Big Ideas Project, policy prescriptions from members of Congress and famous academics compete with those from “Ben,” whose novel idea to remake the Civil Rights Act is currently beating ones submitted by think tank founder Dean Baker and liberal Rep. Alan Grayson. 

Voting began at beginning of December and remains open until January 11.

The most popular ideas will be passed on to a group of Democratic lawmakers who have agreed to “seriously consider” turning the proposals into legislation. And it’s not just usual suspects of progressive lawmakers, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken, who have both signed on.

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In a sign of the willingness of party elders to hear new ideas after a midterm election loss many blamed on a tepid policy agenda, top Democrats in both the House and Senate have signed on to the plan. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and her counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid, have both signed on, as have some of their key lieutenants, like No. 3 Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer.

Also on the list are the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate campaign arms, Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Sen. John Tester, respectively. In those key posts, they’ll be responsible for recruiting and guiding Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2016, and helping to set the agenda.

Progressives have long complained that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and especially Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, too often sideline progressives in favor of more moderate (and presumably more electable) candidates, and then push the candidates to run timid campaigns.

The apparent buy-in from leaders is another sign of the growing influence of progressives, like Warren, in the party.

If there’s any silver lining for progressives in Democrats’ 2014 midterm election drubbing its that it created an opening for insurgent left to assert itself. “In chaos, lead,” is a motto of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the sister organization of the Progressive Change Institute, which is organized under a different section of the tax code.

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Just as the 2008 Democratic wave was needed to give birth to the tea party in the Republican, liberals hope to capitalize on the 2014 disaster to push the party in their direction. Most of the party’s moderates have been wiped out of Congress, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a new spot in Senate leadership.

There’s widespread agreement among Democratic operatives of all ideological stripes that its candidates failed to inspire voters to get to the polls in 2014, thanks in part to an unambitious agenda that offered only narrowly targeted benefits to individual segments of the population, instead of a broad vision for the future.

But there’s less consensus on what those ideas should be.

The Big Ideas Project is just one of many efforts to fix the party after 2014. The Democratic National Committee created an official panel to investigate what went wrong and make recommendations, but it will focus on electoral mechanics and messaging, steering clear of specific policy suggestions.

The value of the Big Ideas Project -- or any effort for the party to find new legislative ideas -- is limited by the fact that Democrats are now in the minority in both chambers of Congress. Most bills pushed by Democrats in the next two years will likely be more about messaging -- forcing Republicans to kill popular measures -- than actually legislating.

But the progressives are thinking long term, and realize that seeds of ideas need to be planted years or decades before they fully bloom. And if nothing else, the project serves as a useful barometer of what fires up committed Democratic base activists.

As of Monday afternoon, almost 500,000 votes had been cast on more than 1,800 ideas.

Most of the popular ideas are familiar in progressive circles. Electoral reform and rolling back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling is a favorite, as are calls to break up the big banks, and curb police abuses.

Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law Professor and popular campaign finance reform crusader, proposed an innovative way to fund elections through “democracy vouchers,” a form of public financing that still gives voters an influence on funding.

The most popular idea at the moment was one borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr., calling for a program to grant guaranteed employment for anyone needing a job. Nearly tied in votes with the jobs plan are ideas to expand Social Security benefits for seniors, and one to restore the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated retail and investment banking.

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Other top ideas call for single-payer health care and Grayson’s plan to open Medicare to any American who wants it. There are also several tax plans: Raising taxes on corporations, removing tax shelters, or preventing tax inversions, when companies move abroad to avoid U.S. taxes.

And in light of the events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere this year, several call for criminal justice reform. Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson submitted an idea to create federal incentives for states and counties to appoint special prosecutors in cases of police-involved killings, as opposed to the current grand jury system, which “has proven to be biased towards police officers,” according to Johnson.

Still more popular ideas call for massive infrastructure spending, to repair crumbling roads and bridges and to create jobs. Several submitters call for recreating something akin to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to create jobs. 

After voting is tallied in two weeks, the most popular ideas will be handed off to Congress.

It’ll take more than good idea to get something through the notoriously gridlocked Capitol, but the progressives are hoping to set the stage for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee -- and be ready if he (or she) comes into office in 2017 with more Democrats in Congress.