The 2018 midterm elections saw mixed results for progressives. Democrats took the House of Representatives, which will include a crop of new members who ran on issues like Medicare for All, marijuana legalization and urgent climate action. Democratic socialists also had a big night, winning elections up and down the ballot.
Yet progressive gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum and Ben Jealous lost, the outcome of Stacey Abrams’ historic bid for Georgia governor remains up in the air, and Republicans increased their majority in the Senate. While several insurgent left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley cruised to victory, others like Jess King and Randy Bryce suffered defeats.
So what lessons should progressives learn from Tuesday’s elections? We asked eight important thinkers on the left for their strategic takeaways from the midterms.
Nina Turner, President of Our Revolution
The 2018 elections – both primary and general – mark a remarkable new beginning for the progressive movement. Around the country, we saw hundreds of people inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders run for office at every level. While many of them did not win this time, they softened the soil for future progressive victories, much like Sen. Sanders’ early runs.
For our part at Our Revolution, we are very proud of our nearly 200 endorsed candidates and over 40 ballot measures. Our candidates reflected the communities where we see a future progressive electorate. Over half were women and/or people of color. Many were first-time candidates and one out of eight had been a Bernie Sanders 2016 delegate. Nurturing and training these candidates for future elections is a critical role that Our Revolution will continue to undertake with our allies.
Reflecting on the midterms, we see that the campaigns we backed have already made history and will continue to do so. Candidates like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Deb Haaland is one of the first Indigenous women elected to Congress. And in addition to sweeping in a diverse group of candidates to Congress, we’ve also helped change the electorate in Florida by expanding ballot access to 1.5 million people who have already paid their debt to society.
No matter what the final election results, we believe that the candidates we endorsed have helped to activate millions of voters and advanced the interests of working people. As we await potential recounts and runoffs in Florida and Georgia, we must take stock of the racism and voter suppression surrounding these elections and seriously consider who we are as a country.
Maria Svart, National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America
On balance, we are in a slightly stronger position than before the election, after some great victories and some heartbreaking defeats. I see three key lessons.
Collaborating with white nationalists and neofascists is unacceptable, for both moral and strategic reasons. Our work, as always, is building a coalition of poor and working class people of all colors, made possible because the capitalists are waging ever more open class warfare. Yet this task is made difficult in a country built on stolen land and slave labor, where there is little effective Democratic response to blatant Republican voter suppression or organization of white working class women in their own economic interest.
Republicans read the tea leaves and understood that health care was the biggest issue for voters, borne out by the exit polls, so they ran claiming they would protect it. Voters in Idaho, Montana and Utah overrode their Republican state leadership and expanded Medicaid
Democrats need to not only double down on Medicare for All, they need to make it their signature issue and clarify that we’re talking about the real Medicare for All, not watered down copycat plans that maintain a role for the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries. Yet because that is precisely who funds Wall Street Democrats, it will be up to the grassroots to create the political conditions necessary on the ground to make that happen, by organizing our neighbors.
We must lead with hope. In the now Democratic-controlled House, democratic socialist women of color Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib will be critical new voices joining Bernie Sanders in the Senate raising a visionary alternative to both Trumpism and neoliberal bipartisanship.
Unions, in the midst of a massive strike wave, must rise to the occasion as the single most effective mass vehicle for raising expectations and building organized multi-racial working-class solidarity and power, in and outside the formal political system.
And Democratic Socialists of America chapters in all 50 states will systematically organize their communities – rural, suburban and urban. Together, we have a world to win.
Rick Perlstein, historian and author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
The reporting of the election returns coming on Tuesday was surreally and tragically incomplete. We hung on every word in down-to-the-wire races. In Florida, the governor and Senate races were supposedly decided by something like 51,000 votes and 20,000 votes out about eight million cast. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams is asking for a recount after coming 1.6 percentage points short.
Did you hear a single word on TV late last night, however, about the black precincts in Georgia where officials didn’t supply power cords for the voting machines? The batteries died, and people had to wait for hours to vote.
You and I know that the guy running the election in Georgia, Brian Kemp, was also the Republican running for governor in Georgia. Not including an ongoing tabulation of how many votes were being suppressed along with how many were cast is derelict.
So what is the lesson for progressives? The same one I proposed back in 2006, when it was already apparent that the Republican’s long-term strategy was holding control of government whether they had a majority of the voters or not. That year, among the cheating tactics were voters being deluged with fake robocalls, homeless men hired to distribute flyers intended to trick black voters into thinking the Republican candidate was actually the Democrat, a campaign office sabotaged by a skunk, and calls placed from the “Virginia Elections Commission” alerting recipients “you will not be allowed to cast your vote on Tuesday. If you do show up, you will be charged criminally.”
Twelve years ago, I wrote: “From now on there should be no excuse: anticipating such inevitabilities has to be made an active part of Democratic strategizing.” Start now, because we sure as hell didn’t start then.
Barbara Ransby, Distinguished Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century
We should have gone into this election with two understandings. One is that no victory and no defeat is ever absolute. The second is that electoral politics is only one arena of struggle. It matters, but not as much as we often think.
Progressives sometimes move opportunistically to the right once in office. And right-wingers can change their tunes if there is enough pressure from the street. Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams may not have won their elections, but in trying to get them elected hundreds of thousands of people were energized and set in motion. Movement organizers now need to give them something to do. At the same time, progressives and radicals need to agree on an agenda for the new Democratic majority in the House. That task cannot be left to the politicians. An anti-racist, pro-working class, intersectional feminist analysis has to inform that agenda.
Moreover, key ballot initiatives were won yesterday, most significantly, Proposition 4 in Florida which enfranchised 1.5 million formerly incarcerated citizens with felony convictions, disproportionately poor people and people of color. This is a potential game changer for future elections.
Even though some of the more high profile progressives running for office did not win, there is much work to do to build on the momentum of their campaigns, which is what we should do after any election if we have a “vote PLUS” strategy: Activate databases to invite volunteers into a larger political conversations; plan marches, vigils, direct action tactics that keep up the pressure on both Democrats and Republicans around key issues; re-activate a hearts and minds media campaign to win, defeat or neutralize the underlying racist, elitist, misogynist and xenophobic ideas that feed Trumpism’s reactionary, white nationalist agenda.
The first phase of struggle is the battle of ideas—legislation and elections are metrics that tell us whether we are winning or losing.
Bill Fletcher Jr., racial justice, labor and international activist and author of They’re Bankrupting Us! And 20 Other Myths about Unions & Solidarity Divided
There are five key takeaways from Tuesday’s results:
1: The Republicans have consolidated as President Trump’s party and they are not splitting off. Progressives should not expect any great schisms.
2: Voter suppression is alive and well and appears to have played out in Texas, Georgia and Florida, along with several other states. The active voter suppression was accompanied by racist and xenophobic propaganda at a new scale.
3: Despite the predictable losses in the Senate, Democrats actually did very well, making gains among the poor, women and suburban voters. And many of the newly elected officials seem to illustrate a transitioning Democratic Party.
4: Progressives will need to build independent political organizations that function inside and outside of the Democratic Party in order to sustain the momentum gained from this election and the movement organizing that made it possible.
5: Neofascists are no longer hiding their colors and have used the Trump movement as their “united front” within which they operate and where they seek a certain type of legitimacy. We on the Left must respond with a broad front against right-wing populism that both offers a political and economic alternative while not shying away from directly addressing racism, sexism, religious intolerance and xenophobia.
Ai-jen Poo, senior advisor to Care in Action, the policy and advocacy home for more than two million U.S. domestic workers
The midterm elections – and the months upon months of organizing leading up to it – have absolutely and unequivocally transformed the political landscape for the nation. The Democrats taking back the House is the first step towards building a multiracial democracy that works for everyone. And in Georgia, domestic workers part of Care in Action supported a bold, progressive Black woman for governor, Stacey Abrams, who flipped traditional electoral politics on its head.
Regardless of the result, what we learned is that people are not only ready for change, but that the voters who are normally pushed to the margins are fueling the future of the progressive agenda. Black working women – and Black domestic workers – are writing the blueprint for our future literally from the bottom up.
Domestic workers clocked in countless time and miles to make sure that voters of color were contacted and engaged. The results were incredible. At least 250,000 voters were mobilized, and early voter turnout what 121.2 percent higher than in 2014. With more than 578 canvassers on the ground, Care in Action made 506,315 voter contacts up until the very last moment that polling stations closed.
What happened in Georgia is more than outstanding – it’s our movement’s roadmap for 2020. And we are still fighting to bring Stacey Abrams to the finish line as remaining provisional ballots continue to be counted.
Low-wage women of color and their leadership powered the blue wave that led to this incredible moment. And this election is just the beginning.
Larry Cohen, Board Chair of Our Revolution and past president of the Communications Workers of America
First, we need to celebrate the resistance—now a political movement—led by women and Black, Brown and White working-class voters, and the new House Democratic majority. But our vision of what is possible means governing more than protesting. We realize that while fighting to protect the Affordable Care Act is important, it is not sufficient. What we need is Medicare for All. We realize we need decent work for all and organizing rights at work as well as a living wage. Overwhelming referendum victories in Florida for “Restoration of Rights” or in Maryland for same-day voter registration show that we can win on issues of democracy. And we realize that the rules matter more than the candidates if we believe that we can win and govern.
We also realize that ours is the only democracy in the world where we overwhelmingly win the representative Congress but don’t govern, because the Senate, elected by a small state minority, can easily block the House agenda, and the President (elected by a minority) and Supreme Court can block them both.
If we believe that we can win and govern at the local, state and federal levels, we need to fight for a real democracy at every level of government and continue the reform efforts in the Democratic Party itself so that the popular vote is what counts in every election. This must include offsetting big money in the party nominating process, as well as in general elections.
Yes, today we celebrate, but tomorrow we focus again on building sustainable political organization inside and outside the Democratic Party, and step by step building a 21st-century democracy that allows us to govern and focus on the issues and vision that make our lives more meaningful as we move forward.
Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, and the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
The electoral victories that broke the Republican hold on the House of Representative have pierced the perceptions of Trumpism as all powerful and impenetrable. This includes all kinds of progressive referenda, left candidates in state races, and most dramatically, the restoration of voting rights for (most of) the formerly incarcerated in Florida. There were significant victories in the Midwest, where Trump secured his electoral outcome in 2016. These are important repudiations of the white supremacy emanating for the White House. It was also a confirmation of the audience that exists for actual Left politics, not watered down centrism.
Conservative and centrist Democrats found that voters won’t waste their time with cheap knockoffs. The only chance we have to bury the Trump nightmare is a radical political agenda that provides an actual and real alternative to the status quo.
The progressive current within the Democratic Party did not just run against Trump—they ran on Medicare for All, abolition of ICE and other political issues seen as progressive and not just maintenance of the status quo.
Where these politics failed to win, most spectacularly in Florida with Andrew Gillum and possibly with Stacey Abrams in Georgia, the naked racism, voter intimidation, voter suppression and outright theft should not be underestimated. The GOP’s long game of gerrymandering districts and using the courts to undermine easy access to voting will continue to come into play as their message shrinks to its bigoted and maniacal base.
The other truth coming out of the elections is that the need for struggle and organizing remain as important as they have ever been. In the effort to generate the mobilization of voters, that unfortunate narrative reducing nearly all of Black struggle and politics to voting was revived. Of course, securing the right to vote had been a central part of Black political movements since emancipation, but even activists and organizers within the Civil Rights Movement, understood their struggle to be about so much more.
To put it sharply, voting is not enough when the first words from Nancy Pelosi’s upon winning the House of Representatives are her intentions to “reach across the aisle” in hope of attaining “bipartisanship.” It confirms how out of touch the existing Democratic Party leadership is, how little they have learned from 2016 and that struggle remains absolutely critical to making them take the agenda of poor and working-class people in this country seriously. They will not do it on their own.
The growth of the hard right is real. The threat of fascism is real. Climate collapse is real. These all require a qualitative transformation in our political expectations and demands. We have to think big; we have to organize bigger. It requires more than getting out the vote. Now the hard work continues.
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