Political Pragmatism, 2022

Common Good Governing began in 2017 with a dream. That is, literally, “a dream,” a bad dream that Lester Levine woke up with about a week after Trump won the Election of 2016. It was also just after Levine’s first grandchild was born. Having a grandson put Levine in a dark mood of worry about the future of America. Trump’s election was, as for other intellectuals, a shock and dismay for him. Levine, a retired professional in organizational change (“I’m a behaviorist,” specializing in how social signals change people’s collective behavior) thought about that dream. It must have something to do with how Americans vote, and about the future world that his grandson would inherit.

In the dream, he was in a foreign land that had just overthrown decades of dictatorship. In the vacuum that followed, the people were desperately looking for a democratic system that might protect them from the next dictator to emerge. They studied democratic systems around the world, going back to the Greeks, and found the most interesting to be America’s. The principles of the Founding Fathers seemed to be good: freedom of expression, the rule of law not men, an ideal of individual rights and fairness. And the system seemed resilient and sustainable, surviving and strengthening through partisan battles and a Civil War. But then, they discovered, something went wrong. Around the year 2000, the nation became increasingly divided by its party loyalties. It seemed the system was breaking down, as it did for other humane systems in the past. Then he woke up.

Sitting with me at an outdoor Caribou Coffee table in Chapel Hill in the gloom of a late gray afternoon in December, Levine described how his quiet little movement developed from there. He learned that an organization had been started in 1948 that seemed to want what he wanted – elected representatives who worked for good governing (“Goo-Goos” was the dismissive name for such reformers in the Progressive Era) instead of hack politicians. The National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) was started by Eleanor Roosevelt and some Democratic allies. Today, with an office in Washington DC, it makes available detailed analysis of voting behavior to promote election of progressive Democratic candidates. Levine drew on parts of this organization’s mission, but not the part favoring “progressive Democratic” candidates. He wanted an approach that favored pragmatic problem-solving candidates. Of course they were likely to belong to a party, and probably the Democratic Party. But Levine was looking for values and principles higher than party.

He began putting together CommonGoodGoverning (CGG). He avoided the internet, so you can’t Google it. (We began our talk over hot tea as a couple of over-70 geezers kvetching about how kids are being damaged by their social media trance; Levine’s now-7-year-old grandson is a particularly bitter case for him.) CGG has a PowerPoint (he calls it “our deck”) he’ll send you by email on request, and a newsletter he emails monthly to 1,610 interested subscribers. It’s the most non-aggressive political email I’ve ever seen, never asking for donations and happy to be unsubscribed-to. “Hopeful American Democracy Fixers,” he writes in each newsletter from the top. “If you don’t want any more monthly updates, just hit reply and say ‘no more.’” One of the striking tactics of CGG is how it operates below the radar.  Levine asked me not to use his name if I wrote something for a publication. (I don’t consider this measly blog a meaningful publication). Why? “I don’t have time” to be bothered by the attention. His secret goal is for CGG to be discovered in six or eight years when a few unlikely candidates explain their surprising wins to a Washington Post reporter by mentioning the support they got from CommonGoodGoverning. But he won’t seek that publicity.

Here’s what CGG has done for every two-year election, starting in 2018. First, it looked for fresh candidates running for open seats who met its criteria. According to the PowerPoint deck, they must be:

  • Anchored by principles that a majority of American voters agree on, not issues, policies or ideologies
  • Focused on problems that a majority of American voters, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, are concerned about (e.g. healthcare costs, veteran services, immigration, responding to climate change, etc.)
  • Seeking to replace politicians with public servants/servant leaders

CGG then narrowed the number of these candidates down to a few dozen, who were approached with offers to help (not endorse or donate to). Those who responded were interviewed and chosen for support.

Two years ago, Levine called me up when he read an op-ed I had in the Roanoke Times about my experience teaching for a term at a North Carolina community college. (I was a tenured associate professor at a top liberal arts college in Virginia on leave for the fall). I was intrigued by his project. This year, I volunteered to help. Here’s what CGG volunteers do:

  • Research on voter opportunities specific to their district
  • Research on “truthful” opposition research
  • Active brainstorming on specific campaign challenges
    • Ongoing sharing of lessons learned from past/current campaigns

They don’t donate money, and they don’t leave home. Levine said members of CGG from outside the Chapel Hill area have never come to meet him as I did, at least not since the pandemic.

My assignment for the ’22 campaign was to find minority “potential influencers” in certain small towns and counties. I sent the information to Levine to send to the campaigns for four of their seven chosen candidates for the general election. This was to operationalize Levine’s behaviorist theory that peer-to-peer networking is the most powerful way to win votes. Being a former journalist, I enjoyed the assignment, using the internet to compile names and contacts (emails or phone numbers) of up to a dozen locals (chairs of library boards, arts councils, Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and such) in targeted areas of four congressional districts: Colorado’s 3rd, Arizona’s 2nd, Iowa’s 2nd and New Jersey’s 2nd. This, after I had failed to be any help for CGG’s candidate Katie Dean, a working-class auto-repair owner in western North Carolina who lost the Democratic primary to a more liberal candidate. I also liked this other candidate, but as a Brown- and Harvard-educated minister in a same-sex marriage, Jasmine Beach-Farrara predictably lost to the Republican in Mark Meadow’s conservative district by 9.5 percentage points.

This year, CGG had fewer candidates than in the two previous elections. For the primary, it had a different group of seven candidates. All but one of those lost (including two Republicans). For the general election, all seven CGG candidates lost, some by a mile. But one came very close, and I was glad it was the one I helped on the western slope of the Rockies in Colorado. Gun-toting Republican Lauren Boebert of Rifle, Colorado, squeaked by with about a 500-vote margin.

In his after-action newsletter, Levin blamed gerrymandering and the fact that four of the seven CGG candidates were running against incumbents this year, the first time CGG had backed challengers to incumbents. That was discouraging, but he signed off as always on his newsletter, “Onward.”

Common Good Governing has already helped elect six members of Congress. Four of them joined a bipartisan Problem-Solvers Caucus that is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican.  

This goo-goo approach may seem naïve or over-matched by the grim options of mass violence or mass cynicism. But with a narrow Republican takeover in the House, and an equally narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, it’s a serious alternative to a serious problem. George Packer put it this way in his article in the Atlantic last December, “Are We Doomed?”

There is a third scenario, though, beyond mass violence or mass cynicism: a civic movement to save democracy. In an age of extreme polarization, it would take the form of a broad alliance of the left and the center-right. This democratic coalition would have to imagine America’s political suicide without distractions or illusions. And it would have to take precedence over everything else in politics.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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