A New Kind of Campaign, Part 1

Politics is nasty. But what if it didn't have to be?

About four years ago, I was talking with a high school principal who had managed to turn around a failing school. I asked her how she did it, and she told me how it wasn’t any one thing she did. When she confronted the daily reality of leading this school, she felt an intense urgency to do absolutely everything in her power to help the kids. She personally counseled students and parents, broke up fights, hustled to recruit teachers, fought bureaucracies for resources, and everything in between.

At the time, I was talking to this principal because I was trying to recruit people to run for Congress as a part of Justice Democrats. I remember thinking, “This is exactly the kind of person we need in Congress.” So I wasn’t at all surprised that when I asked her if she would consider running for Congress, her answer was polite laughter followed by, “I’m flattered, but what would I possibly do that for?”

I wasn’t surprised because that’s the answer I had come to expect from almost every leader doing valuable work. When I asked her a bit more about what put her off about running for Congress, her answers were the same ones that I heard from most the best people I interviewed:

  1. I’m making a real difference right now in the lives of my students. In Congress, I’d just be one voice among many — how could I make any sort of a difference there?

  2. I can’t imagine doing something so focused on me as a person. I want to do good, but I don’t want to be a celebrity.

  3. Politics is so negative. I could never stomach having to run negative attacks on my opponent.

  4. Wouldn’t I need to go around begging people for money? I can do that when it’s for my students, but not when it’s for my campaign.

The Founding Fathers of America were a team of leaders with an aligned vision. But of course, they had to fight a war to get power. Could a new team do what they did, but through our democracy?

Since that interview with that high school principal, a lot has happened. Donald Trump became president, children got separated from their parents at the border, and a pandemic has left our economy in tatters. These extenuating circumstances did encourage a new generation of incredible leaders to step up and run for office despite their reservations. But I believe that for every Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there are hundreds if not thousands of incredible leaders — leaders who are capable, inspiring, brave, and exactly the people we need in charge right now — who don’t run for office because of the worries that high school principal had.

So what if I told you there might be a way to run a campaign that gets around every single one of those worries? Now, I have no illusion that what I’m about to say might sound a bit crazy and have no chance in hell of working. But hear me out.

Imagine that hundreds of capable leaders like the high school principal above decided to run for President and Congress. They wouldn’t just be high school principals of course — they would be factory workers, business leaders, doctors, nurses, teachers, and every other kind of person from every part of our society and economy that actually makes our country run. They would have experience, knowledge, and a proven track record of successfully executing big ideas. Perhaps most importantly, they would have a burning desire to actually fix the big problems facing this country, putting that above their own career or ego.

Now imagine that these leaders were running together as a team in a national campaign with a plan to tackle the big, systemic issues. They would be telling America: vote us all in, and Congressional gridlock is over. Vote us all in, and we WILL fix the biggest problems America is facing today.

So what exactly does a national campaign mean? It means the candidates would be appealing to all of America to make it clear that there is an option on the ballot for real change, but only if a majority of the team gets in. They would do media spots, rallies, and fundraising in groups. They wouldn’t be campaigning on the local symptoms to larger systemic issues — symptoms that Federal officeholders can rarely do much about anyway — but would be campaigning on the big fixes. They’d call for upgrading all our infrastructure, not just patching up the pothole on 9th street.

So how let’s revisit the worries above. Does this get around them?

  1. A national campaign would give these leaders a chance to make a big impact if elected — because if they went in as a team, they would have the political power to make a huge difference.

  2. Since they would be running as a team, no individual would need to be a big celebrity (though, I suspect, a subset may emerge as the leaders and faces of the team). A national campaign also gives the voters a believable option of change. Voters would know exactly what they would get if they voted in this new group of leaders who have a plan they already agree on.

  3. Since no one would be running a local campaign, there wouldn’t be a need to run individual attacks on local incumbents. It could be a campaign that almost entirely focused on the ideas and the vision, rather than personalities and conflict — the kind of election that I think we all wish to see.

  4. A national campaign like this could be run without calling big donors for money and possibly even without a big field campaign or spending lots of money on advertising. The campaign would rely on going big on mass media and digital media (the way Trump did in 2016, but of course without his negative tactics). And if it got big enough to get that kind of mass media, the small donor money would come in (the way Bernie Sanders’ presidential races raised money).

So, could it work?

Some of you are probably thinking that what I’m talking about sounds a lot like how many European countries run elections, and it certainly works there. But America has a different system that doesn’t make it easy for new parties to spring up and take power. In our system, I believe a campaign like this would need to rely on getting multiple moments in the national media spotlight to create a snowball effect that allows the whole thing to work.

Of course, I have no idea if this is actually possible. But over the past few years, I’ve seen some evidence that with the right elements, timing, and some luck, something like what I’m describing could take off. In the next few parts of this series, I’m going to go through some of that evidence, often drawing from my own experience, to answer some questions about this strategy to hopefully show you how a campaign like this could win. I’ll cover:

  1. Does capturing national mass media work to reach people and change minds?

  2. Can a campaign win by just capturing mass media (also, in this, I’ll go into: Where does digital media fit into this?)

  3. What are the elements of a strategy that could capture mass media on a prolonged basis (also, in this, I’ll try to answer: Why does it have to be hundreds of leaders and not just a few?)

  4. Even if the mass media is talking about you, how can you convince people to believe in a vision?

Also, if there is anything that I did not cover above, please leave a comment with what you’d like me to dive into and I’ll try to be sure to hit it!