If there's one thing the Republican presidential primaries keep proving, it's that Republican voters don't like their candidates. On the other side of the contest, you have progressives furious with President Obama signing indefinite detention into law, fearful that he'll strike a weak deal with Wall Street over foreclosure and mortgage fraud, and frustrated with the squandered opportunities of his Presidency. Across America, Congress has record low approval ratings, and the impact of corporate money on campaigns increases.
So, in those circumstances, want to run for office?
The answer from many progressives who have heeded the call of The Candidate Project and its "2,012 for 2012" campaign has been a resounding "Yes." Far from seeing a run for elected office as an invitation to frustration or a step into a reviled profession, thousands of regular Americans are seeing it as an extension of their political engagement. Over 7,000 have now pledged to run—not just for Senate or House, the races that get all the attention, but for the local offices, where a few thousand dollars and a determined team of supporters can still make a difference.
The Candidate Project (of which I have been a team-member for the past three months) has a simple premise: local offices can promote progressive values if they are held by progressives. It's not a ground-breaking assertion: the Christian Coalition, American Majority and the Tea Party have proved this for the right, using often uncompetitive and non-partisan races to elect right-wingers who have built a conservative movement of ideas, legislation, and elected officials from the bottom up.
Now, progressives are doing the same. Organizations like MoveOn, Rebuild The Dream, Color of Change and CREDO—which activate members on-line—are urging their activists to become candidates. And the Candidate Project—through online resources, a roadmap of trainings and informal networking opportunities—is showing them ways to run better campaigns.
This idea is catching fire among progressives. In the Huffington Post on Monday, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand discussed "Off the Sidelines," an effort to encourage more female candidates, which joins groups like Women's Campaign Forum, Emily's List and Emerge America in this important push. Democracy for America and Progressive Majority have a track record of recruiting top notch candidates, and groups like Camp Wellstone have provided terrific trainings.
At a time when candidates are daily raked over the coals for their tax returns and family lives—not to mention their political views—it might seem wiser to stay out of politics. Thankfully, these organizations disagree, as do 7,000 of their members who have pledged to run.
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about politics. At Occupy Wall Street, you'll hear the condemnations of two parties that are funded by the same set of corporate donors, about rival candidates that blur together on key issues. But the answer isn't to bow out of electoral engagement completely. It's to find candidates who do truly represent your values.
It might be hard to find that enthusiasm for presidential candidates or even House or Senate aspirants. So look local. Find the City Council candidate who has never taken money that has compromised her position. Find the School Board hopeful who hasn't disappointed you. Find the good person running to make decisions about zoning rules, utilities, neighborhood planning—the person whose race needs you, and whose success your help can determine.
While the big races make the headlines, these local races make a difference. And if we can recruit progressives to spend their time and money and risk their sanity to run for each and every one of them, we can also put aside our disillusionment and cynicism and give our all. We can complain about the choices, or we can make a better choice and show that good ideas and good people can still win.