Bringing Academics into the Grassroots Game

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

Progressives were not at all ready to fight the battles we needed to fight during President Barack Obama’s first term in the state and local arenas. That’s why my colleagues and I are building the Scholars Strategy Network with a national membership and also including regional networks outside Washington and the usual liberal academic enclaves—for example, in places like New Mexico, where we’ve organized events on what progressives can do to shape the implementation of the new health-reform infrastructure. The purpose of the network is to build bridges between scholars in colleges and universities who research policy and social issues and the activists, journalists, and policymakers who might find their work relevant. We help scholars take part in policy discussions in the states and local districts as well as nationally. I think academics have been partly to blame for losing touch with policy debates. Hyper-specialization has grown up in academia; everyone talks in jargon. (In Washington, everyone speaks in acronyms.) But there’s a wealth of scholars who value effective government and who want to build a more democratic nation in the tradition of progressives like Jane Addams.

We had to find a written vehicle for academics that didn’t compete with but supplemented their scholarly work and that could be of ready use to the activists and policymakers. We settled on the two-page issues brief, a readable document that translates ideas and key research findings into vivid English. Nobody gets into the group without first writing a two-page brief. We have briefs on everything from jobs and taxes to immigration, women’s issues, and ways to improve elections and build social movements.

We don’t align the network with any candidate or party, but we are not afraid to be clear about pressing issues. For example, in July, we knew the Paul Ryan budget would matter, so we wrote a dozen briefs about it before Mitt Romney announced Ryan as his vice-presidential pick. We turned to regional newspapers to offer op-eds based on our briefs. We had a piece on Medicare vouchers in The Tampa Tribune when Ryan was in town the week before the Republicans arrived for their convention, and we have had op-eds on election-related issues in the Detroit Free Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Bangor Daily News. We aim to build a network that’s engaged with what’s going on with legislation in Washington and state capitals but that also creates some push for what’s beyond the immediately possible.