Takeaways from the 2017 Elections

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.

One important conclusion from Carter’s win is that democrats and progressives do not actually need corporate support in many cases and can separate themselves from corporate interests. Bernie Sanders did exactly that in 2016, but it was possible to argue that his campaign was unique in terms of the energy it generated and the number of people who volunteered and made modest contributions. Carter’s victory and that of many other progressives nation-wide showed that the energy of Bernie’s revolution has not dissipated and can be activated by progressive candidates running innovative campaigns.

Zooming out, Jimmy Tobias (“The Secret to Progressives’ Electoral Success?”) reviews election results in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New Mexico. In all of the cases he mentions, the formula for victory was a combination of progressive campaign issues, grassroots organizing, and a lot of hard work by committed activists to get out the vote. In some places progressives even surprised themselves, sweeping city council and school board elections in conservative jurisdictions and winning by large margins in others.

In Philadelphia, strong progressive reformist candidate Larry Krasner grabbed 75 percent of the vote in a campaign where he opposed the death penalty, cash bail, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of addiction. Here’s Krasner’s analysis:

“The mainstream Democratic Party—and I am Democrat—really needs to wrap its loving arms around progressives,” he adds. “Republicans should be shaking in their boots because it is clear that for a long time there has been a big group of voters that would not get out to vote because they weren’t excited by their options.”

What are the implications? As Krasner suggested, the centrism of Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama to a large extent, is being eclipsed by grassroots activism on the progressive left.  Tobias writes that power is building from below and it won’t stop.

You build political power by beginning at the bottom.

That’s one of the hopeful lessons of the elections on Tuesday that saw progressives, socialists, and other leftists sweep into office at the local and state level all over the country. It was an election in which the progressive “farm team,” the “pipeline”—whatever metaphor you please—became bigger and better and stronger.

This farm team has been weak on the left for decades; in some places, it has barely existed. But on November 7, as voters headed to the polls during what might traditionally have been dismissed as a low-stakes year, they not only staged the first electoral repudiation of Donald Trump, but they also seeded the local soil with promising talent.

Some additional takeaways. Although last week’s election may appear to be unusual as it was an off-off year with no national seats up for grabs, there is now plenty of evidence that strong progressives can win in many places, some very unexpected places actually. In part, this is due to the fact that, as Krasner mentioned, the progressive base is much wider than conventional wisdom holds. A recent survey indicates that significant majorities of Americans are quite progressive on many economic issues. It is long past time for democratic “strategists” to recognize this reality and to see the grassroots as a strength.

At the same time, on basic bread and butter issues, including tax fairness, employment, and healthcare, many conservative populists–or “white working class” (choose your term)–agree with progressives. For now, this is a hypothesis, but it stands to reason that a significant number of people, who voted Trump in 2016 went for Lee Carter in 2017.  Is this the formula for appealing to the white working class? I think the answer is yes, but note that all of these progressive campaigns were not designing specific appeals to the white working class. They were just following the progressive playbook to promote the interests of average working people and the middle class against the small number of elites and their corporate allies that control an overwhelming amount of the wealth in this society. This appears to have been the winning formula in 2017 and there is every indication it will continue to be good electoral politics in 2018 and beyond.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Donald Trump hardly appears in this analysis, in contrast with the mainstream media, which continues to be obsessed with the presidential angle. No doubt, Trump was on the ballot as they are wont to say, at least implicitly, but the winning progressive candidates whose election stories appear in these two articles based their campaigns on local and state issues.

This is an important point in Tobias’s article that should be learned by democrats up and down the ballot in 2018. Many people were motivated to activism by the Trump presidency and many no doubt turned out to cast a symbolic vote against Trump and the broader republican agenda. But these people did not need to be reminded about the president, so there was no need to focus on Trump in the campaigns.  

Trump’s presence is a dead weight for all or nearly all republican candidates and needs no embellishment. What this means for 2018 is that this dead weight need only be referred to occasionally by democratic candidates. Instead they should focus their appeals to voters on tax fairness, healthcare, racial justice, the environment, and other liberal and progressive issues where they have an immense advantage against republicans who voted to take away health insurance from millions of Americans and want to give the super rich huge tax breaks. Conversely, a campaign that takes on Trump directly will only muddy the other messages. The opportunity for democrats in 2018 and 2020 is to run against the republican agenda that favors the 1%. The anti-Trump vote will always be there and will need no additional encouragement.

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