Two articles at The Nation give progressives reasons to cheer about the 2017 elections and the prospects for 2018. In “Democratic Socialism Is Having a Very Good Year at the Ballot Box,” John Nichols writes about Lee Carter, a democratic socialist who defeated Jackson Miller, the incumbent Republican Whip in the House of Delegates by 9 points. Nichols writes that Carter’s win actually “unsettled” many of the state’s democrats because he ran against corporate interests as well as Dominion Energy, which is trying to run a natural gas pipeline across Virginia. Dominion Energy has supported many democrats in Virginia. What is even more encouraging is that Carter clearly won this race against a deep-pocketed conservative without support from the democratic party, at least the national apparatus of the DNC.
As the COP23 international climate conference opened in Bonn Monday, two new reports lend urgency to global climate change trends, particularly concerning the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. At the conference itself, the Washington Post reports on a paper about carbon dioxide emissions that poured cold water on the hope that these emissions had peaked and started to decline. After flatlining for three years, CO2 emissions in 2017 appear to be on the way to a 2 percent increase (give or take 1%), which would make this year’s emissions the largest on record.
Are liberals and progressives finally building grassroots organizations that can mobilize voters and win elections? The 2017 results strongly suggest the answer is yes.
In an important article back in January, political science professor Theda Skocpol argued that successful electoral performance is based to significant degree on strong local-level political institutions. She observed that the current democratic party is organizationally quite weak in comparison with the GOP. In the past, when unions were much stronger and more numerous than they are now, they had a continuous presence in many communities, particularly working class communities, all over the country. With stable memberships, full-time staff, and substantial resources, the unions could reliably turn out voters for democratic candidates up and down the ticket.
In his recent report, “Reversing Inequality: Unleashing the Transformative Potential of an Equitable Economy,” Chuck Collins explores the structural dimensions of inequality in the U.S. and proposes fundamental changes to “rewire” the economy. It’s a long article, but worth reading because it describes the systemic problems of the U.S. economy and recommends dramatic policies that progressives should be thinking about as they look ahead to 2018.
In a recent op-ed in the Roanoke Times, activist and organic farmer Anthony Flaccavento argues that Democrats must pay a lot more attention to rural America if they hope to rebuild the party. It is a startling proposition, if only because it rarely gets articulated, but one that should be a central part of a progressive agenda in 2018 and beyond. It also takes aim at the stale debate in democratic and progressive circles about whether the party should “lean to the center” to try to appeal to imagined swing voters, including the so-called “white working class,” or aim instead to “energize the base.”
To mark Labor Day, professors WIlliam E. Forbath and Brishen Rogers published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that labor law should be an important political objective in rejuvenating worker activism. Although labor unions overall are in a state of decline, there is significant activism pushing for raising minimum wages–for example Fight for $15–and related efforts to support workers. And in urban areas and some economic sectors, there are still a significant number of unionized workers, while at the same time workers in other industries are attempting to organize. This activity is important for unions of course, but it is also important for working people and the middle class in general because unions have always played crucial roles in progressive movements. That is why business elites and their allies in government have consistently worked to undermine them. Per Forbath and Rogers: “Without a rejuvenated labor movement, it’s almost inconceivable that breakthrough reforms will come to pass.”
The 2016 election cycle seems to have awakened a large number of Americans to the economic stagnation that afflicts much of the US working class, whether in former industrial centers of the Midwest, rural areas, or large cities. This stagnation amounts to a system crisis brought on by de-industrialization, automation, declining real wages, under employment, and growing work insecurity for many middle class Americans. These trends, which go back decades, have led to increasing inequality and diminishing opportunities as well as a politics of extremism. How can we get out of this trap?
One of our problems is that received wisdom–namely the idea that there is no alternative to unregulated markets in a globalized economy–has enjoyed a stranglehold on mainstream economic and political debate. But in the past year, most notably with the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, this monopoly of ideas has started to break down. Recent polling shows that fewer Americans than in the past–especially younger citizens–fear socialism while increasing numbers are critical of capitalism. Further evidence of this opening was seen in the debate about healthcare that accompanied the republican attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Whatever one thinks about Obamacare, it appears to have solidified the idea that affordable healthcare is a right, not something that Americans should only access through what is euphemistically called the “free market.”
For those paying attention to the debate about healthcare options, other countries’ systems are important reference points, because of their success compared with the US in keeping costs down while achieving universal coverage and much better health outcomes overall. But European countries–particularly the Scandinavian countries–are doing much better than the US in other spheres as well, including educational achievement, economic productivity, the maintenance of a vibrant middle class, and the minimization of poverty. How have they achieved this success? George Lakey’s book, Viking Economics, provides some answers.
We hear a lot about “southern heritage” these days, especially with regard to the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and notables that appear in cities and towns all over the country. Given that the vast majority of such monuments were erected several decades after the Civil War at the height of Jim Crow in the South, but also in the heyday of anti-black ordinances in the North, it is clear that this monument-building had aims other than the expression of southern culture. So here’s my question: why are these statues and the Confederacy they represent so important to southern heritage? Given several hundred years of history, why put so much emphasis on the four years of the Confederacy? Why does the removal of Robert E. Lee and other generals from our public squares present such a threat? Do southerners have nothing else to fall back on? Hardly.
For those who like statues and monuments, don’t we still have southerners like George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson? Let’s take it a bit further. What about the great inventors and craftsmen of the South? Do we not have Nashville and country music; New Orleans and jazz–foundations of southern culture beloved by millions around the globe? Lots to be proud of there. What about the unique sub-regional cultures in Appalachia and the Creole regions of Louisiana (and many other places)? How about food? My god, what would America be without southern cuisine of all types? What about the writers and poets, the musicians and novelists and storytellers; the farmers and those who toiled in the fields and factories. Lots to celebrate there and, as far as I can tell, no one wants to suppress any of it. Quite the contrary.
The failed attempts by the republicans in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have yielded some surprising results. The process itself spurred many Americans to pay close attention to health care policy and to republican shenanigans. In the end, instead of sneaking the legislation through quickly with minimal deliberation, conservative senators and representatives were confronted by firestorms of opposition at town hall meetings. Press coverage and continued protests have kept the issue alive.
Even more consequential, as a result of the awful bills put forward (and passed in the House), there has been a shift in public opinion toward the view that everyone has a right to affordable health insurance. Polling has found increasing support for single payer or Medicare for all laws. In addition, many governors, including republican governors, actively opposed the repeal legislation, because of what it would do to Medicaid and the prospect that large numbers of their constituents would lose insurance. And if we consider GOP claims about the legislation–dishonest as they were–that it would improve healthcare and reduce costs for everyone, it is clear they had no choice but to play this game on a field where healthcare for all was a basic ground rule.
With the election of Donald Trump and the ascendance of a radical republican party, it is a commonplace to assert that the United States is passing through a moment of great uncertainty and great peril. At the same time, there has been a flowering of progressive movements–going back several years in many cases–and political activism. But for many progressives it is not clear how activism translates into political change.
If you are wondering how the power of protest works, Francis Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America offers some answers. Despite the fact that this book was written in 2006–a lifetime ago given the current pace of dizzying events–Piven’s conceptual approach and historical analysis lend many helpful insights about how protest movements can affect political coalitions and electoral politics.