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Making meaning of the elections and navigating what comes next

Alexandra Rojas celebrates with her campaign team on the night of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory. (WNV/Corey Abraham Torpie)

We have officially made it beyond 2018 midterm election day in the United States — well, mostly. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is in a critical fight to challenge voter suppression in Georgia, a recount looks likely in Florida and other races remain too close to call. As we stay engaged to make sure all the votes are counted, we also begin to shift toward reflection, recalibration and recommitment.

What have you felt in your body this week? I’ve been anxious, energetic and scrambling to do all the things I could to make a progressive impact this election, overriding the exhaustion. Last month, I shared the perspective of organizers with the Sunrise Movement on electoral versus movement strategy, who argued that we shouldn’t lean on elections as the solution for the change we need. However, they said we have a responsibility to reduce harm with our votes — especially in the wake of escalating white nationalism — which has felt heavy and urgent.

For my recently released Healing Justice podcast episode (which you can listen to in full on RadioPublic, Apple Podcasts or Spotify), I spoke with friends I deeply admire — including Maurice Mitchell, Barbara Dudley and Alexandra Rojas — to help digest what happened this election and navigate what comes next.

Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party and a leader in the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Dudley has over 50 years of activism experience, working with the National Lawyers Guild, Greenpeace and the AFL-CIO. She also co-founded the Working Families Party. And Rojas is the executive director of Justice Democrats and a Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign alum, who helped recruit Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for office.

With the world drowning in spin and hot-takes, we came together to hold a different kind of vulnerable, real-talk space to process our wins and losses and work to understand what comes next for our movements.

What was important about this election cycle?

Alexandra Rojas: The biggest victory of the night belongs to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern American history. We proved that America can still be a country where a working-class woman of color can defeat a 10-term Wall Street-backed incumbent.

We have a Congress that is majority men, majority millionaires, and doesn’t reflect the diversity of America. But we made great strides on that this week. The only way that we gain power in the halls of Congress is by continuing to run. Getting new people involved, and putting new working-class leaders in people’s faces will make this the new norm.

Barbara Dudley: After a lifetime of disdaining electoral politics, I realized that my generation of left activists had abandoned the arena to the right wing, which had taken full advantage. So it’s been time to jump in. If one election cycle can create an economic crisis, the next can turn it around.

Is this political moment as unique and devastating as it feels? How do we place ourselves in a longer understanding of history?

Barbara Dudley: I was born right after World War II in early 1946. I am one of the first of the Baby Boomers. My freshman year in college was the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I don’t necessarily think this political cycle is that unique. Donald Trump, yes, is a unique character. But the sort of political trajectory that we’re on was fairly predictable. For myself, I trace it back to the economic changes that the Reagan administration, the Democratic Leadership Council, and the Clinton administration brought about. The underlying set of neoliberal economics of the trade deals made it pretty inevitable that we were going to end up in this completely economically unequal place.

I think that led to the kinds of splits that we see now, the kind of anger and rebellion. The fact that that you’re seeing exactly the same dynamics in Europe should be a clue to us that this is not unique — that there’s something going on in the global economy and the global environment.

Maurice Mitchell: The Trump movement represents a white nationalist, populist politic. It seeks to win elections and drive its very radical agenda by dividing us — across gender lines, across race, across cultural lines. They use our country’s history, and the racism that’s deeply embedded in our DNA, divisions, and fears in order to advance a corporate agenda.

Multiracial populism — the movement we’re building — is the opposite of that. Our differences cause curiosities, where we seek to understand one another. We recognize that as working-class people, despite real differences, there are so many things that connect us — there are so many good reasons for us to be in solidarity. In fact, the only way that we could overcome our challenges is through solidarity.

What would you say to people who are feeling discouraged and exhausted this week?

Alexandra Rojas: I may be only 23 years old, but I know what it was like growing up during the recession. I know what it’s like to see my parents struggle. I understand the threat of climate change, and I think we only have so much time to make some really drastic changes. We have to believe in more candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — because there is simply no time left to wait for our leadership to get it.

Maurice Mitchell: It’s okay to feel disappointed, and sad, and anxious. But, you have to allow yourself to feel those things and then let them pass. We must understand that when it comes to deep despair and cynicism — those are projects of the right. It’s our job as organizers to frame our movement in broad enough terms that our people don’t get immobilized by momentary losses. It is our political duty to challenge cynicism and despair.

So where do we focus next?

Alexandra Rojas: In this time after the election, I’m going to be allowing myself to shut my phone off, only look a little bit at the news, and take some days to just breathe. I’m also gathering soon with 20 of my friends from the Bernie campaign in Arizona. It is so important that we take time to reflect — rest is not enough. I’ve been journaling and will be reflecting a lot as we figure out our next moves.

Barbara Dudley: We have to engage people year round… not just during the election cycle.

There is an incredible opportunity right now. There’s going to be a transition. It could move toward fascism, but it also could go toward a new global justice movement and a new economy in the United States. Don’t just go protest, don’t just know what you’re against — but also work hard to know what you are for. You turn defeat into victory by deciding what has to change, and then being methodical about it.

Thank you to Jillian White, Waleed Shahid, Maurice Mitchell, Barbara Dudley, Parke Ballantine, and Alexandra Rojas for your input and contributions to this article.