2018 promises to be a fateful year in the United States. If the Republicans can hold on to their majorities in Congress and maintain power in state legislatures, they will have weathered an intense storm created by the backlash to Donald Trump’s presidency and their own extremely narrow legislative agenda. On the other hand, if current projections of a Democratic wave hold true, there may be a chance for a new beginning and a reversal of the decades-long neoliberal agenda.
In a July, 2017 article (How the Left Can Win in the South) that popped up in my Facebook feed, Paul Blest offers some basic principles to help progressives build power in the South. He starts off by describing the struggles of the Bernie Sanders campaign during the 2016 democratic primary in which Hillary Clinton received twice as many votes as Sanders in the southern states.
E J Dionne had an excellent op ed (“Stop the sniping, Washington Democrats. Learn from the grass roots”) in the Washington Post earlier this week arguing that the ongoing conflict within the democratic party about whether to move to the left or stay in the center is not just harmful; it is irrelevant to what’s happening in the country. He observers that “old arguments feel comfortable, but they’re inadequate for the moment.” Sort of like a moth-eaten T-shirt.
Last week, I wrote about two new publications published to coincide with the COP23 in Bonn that highlight the lack of progress in reducing global CO2 emissions. Adding to the grim picture, Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic (“Democrats Are Shockingly Unprepared to Fight Climate Change”) investigates the state of play among the democrats in Washington, the only major political force in the US that would seem to have the potential to take on the republican environment-destroyers. It’s a longish article that provides much useful detail about the politics that frame democratic options and decision making. Meyer’s findings are as bleak as the articles I mentioned yesterday and point to the same conclusion: the change we need will not come from our political system without massive grassroots intervention. Let’s start with his argument.
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.
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 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.”
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.
We live in perilous and confusing times. On the one hand, the US government is dominated by a reactionary two-headed regime that is attempting to throw over 20 million citizens off of health insurance, while giving a huge tax break to the wealthiest 1 percent. On the other hand, the idea of universal healthcare appears to be catching on fast in progressive circles and possibly across the political spectrum in the United States. The Kaiser Family Foundation has noticed a shift in attitudes and even conservative commentators George Will and Charles Krauthammer have recently predicted that the US will eventually have a single payer system. Whatever the outcome of the current effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, universal health care will be on the agenda.
But, as we have seen countless times in the past several years, nothing is inevitable and everything is contested. There are extremely powerful forces that find universal healthcare abhorrent. In a “normal’ political system, a bill that had an approval rating of under 20% would have no chance of making it through Congress, but given the power of the insurance industries, the outsized influence of billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the right-wing media and blogosphere cheerleading for cruelty, this awful bill had a good chance of becoming law. The clear implication is that while universal healthcare is catching on as an idea among newly energized progressive groups, there is a very difficult and expensive fight ahead to make it a reality. If progressives are not prepared, they may lose the best chance in decades to pass a law that guarantees health care to all Americans.