The midterm election brings activists both good news and bad news, but one thing is certain: Reactivity lost.
Overall, it was a national referendum on Donald Trump, as he hoped it would be because he wants to be the center of everyone’s attention. Focusing on the terribleness of Trump did not win the day. Nationally, the Democrats’ gains were not impressive, either by the historic standards of off-year elections or by the standard of the amount of chaos and mayhem generated by someone so obviously ill-fitted to be president.
Toward the end of the campaign, even the national Democratic Party leadership began to “get it” and focused more on health care and infrastructure. They noticed, for example, that 29-year-old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset an entrenched incumbent in New York’s primary by emphasizing Medicare for All. Gretchen Whitmer was winning her governor bid in Michigan with her slogan “fix the damn roads.”
But it’s not just the Democrats who mostly were reactive, focusing on threat rather than offering a positive program that people really want. Many of us activists have been doing the same, framing the admittedly scary realities like climate change and violence against minorities as threats to be resisted rather than problems that we have solutions for.
Our choices matter
I didn’t realize how important our decisions on a grassroots level are until I got the chance some years back to run an electoral campaign myself. After building muscle through a city-wide organizing effort, we convinced the Philadelphia City Council to place a referendum question on the ballot: Should federal money be shifted from military spending to schools, health care, infrastructure, housing? That was in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan was busy looting programs for human needs in order to fund missiles and bombs.
We asked Paul Tully, an electoral campaign professional who had directed campaigns for the Kennedys and other national politicians, to help us design our referendum campaign. He started our strategy retreat with a surprise.
“Even though my work is with big league politicians,” he said, “I want to acknowledge that you are the ones that shape my work. You identify the issues that people care about. People in my field track the work you do, and then choose what issues our candidates should run on.”
Our campaign won a 76 percent “yes” vote to transfer money out of the military into “jobs with peace” — in the midst of the Cold War, with a president that was using his pulpit to scare people with the specter of the evil Soviets about to crush us. We carried every ward; field organizer John Goldberg even advocated for our issue at an American Legion hall in a reactionary neighborhood.
This story is just a local snapshot of the national grassroots phenomenon that led Ronald Reagan — when he ran for re-election in 1984 — to run, and win, as a “peace” candidate. His change was cynical, but then that’s not new in electoral politics.
In this election, gun control was an issue seen in many congressional and governors’ races as referenda. The good news is that they often won.
Tully’s point is valid: Activists’ choices can influence institutional, larger-scale choices. If we’re reactive, pushing the fear button and emphasizing threat, we play into the hands of our fear-loving opponents.
We’ve been dishing out a lot of fear these last two years and, overall, the election shows that Donald Trump is better at that game than we are. He has the “bully pulpit” and lacks any integrity to restrain himself. We’re not going to win in the reactive fear contest.
And, in our heart of hearts, do we really want to go there?
Young adults left their bubble for the midterms
People around the country report a growing trend among activists on anti-oppression purity, on protection and safe spaces, on judging people based on whether they have adopted the latest identity lingo. I understand that some people hope that this is the path to liberation, even though what I observe is more emphasis on control of self and others rather than the experience of freedom.
The good news of this election is that so many millennials went outside their safe havens to engage in human-to-human interaction with the “other,” or “those who don’t necessarily already agree with me about everything.” The November 12 issue of The Nation includes the story of young organizers coming to a rural county in Pennsylvania to join local folks in organizing the new grassroots movement Lancaster Stands Up.
This strikes me as a win/win: empowerment for the activists by getting them outside their comfort zones and developing communication skills, resulting in actual growth of the movement.
There’s also inspiration to be found in the victories of the first female Muslims in the U.S. House of Representatives, including the first Somali. Meanwhile, New Mexico and Kansas sent the first indigenous congresswomen to the House. (Think for a moment about the reputation of those states among bi-coastal liberals!) They are models of minority women so empowered that they chose to work in two very unsafe spaces: an electoral campaign and Congress. They have no doubt experienced countless micro-aggressions and, based on results so far, they can handle the challenge.
The majority is on our side
This election provides more evidence that a majority of the U.S. population supports positions that progressives advocate.
The Senate misrepresents the sentiment of the nation by giving the same number of senators to, say, Wyoming (population 580,000) and California (40 million). If one person had one vote, the Senate vote results this year would be far different. This is one reason why federal government dynamics rarely represent what’s really happening on the ground. The House is a bit more representative, but widespread gerrymandering of House districts also mess with our conclusions.
In recent years, voter suppression has been a big initiative encouraged by the economic elite, directed toward those who are prone to take progressive stands. The example of Georgia gives us another reason why voting doesn’t reflect the actual balance of political opinion in the country.
Even more people would support us if we activists organized more direct action campaigns led with vision. The very process of envisioning calls us to a bigger picture than we might otherwise have.
In Iowa, I was confronted at the conclusion of a bookstore event that mentioned the fact that I live in Philadelphia. A woman thanked me with tears in her eyes, saying, “East Coast authors never come here to Iowa. We’re fly-over country.”
That could so easily have been me, I thought.
One vision for dissolving regional tensions is being forwarded by Solutionary Rail, which seeks to re-vitalize train transportation across the northern United States. By building solar-powered electrified passenger and freight traffic, small towns would see revival and the climate would get a boost. This is what “inclusivity” needs to be about: mounting campaigns that invite those whose rural hospitals are shutting down and whose Main Streets are full of vacant stores.
Instead of sneering or reducing them to identity stereotypes, we could try understanding why those folks are voting Republican, and then offer positive alternatives that include them.
This election also shows the wellspring of support for gun control. According to an NBC News exit poll, most voters said they supported stricter gun laws. A number of local gun control measures were passed.
The vision of improved Medicare for All has huge inclusive possibilities. Most of Trump’s support has come from middle- and upper-class people, but I’m struck by how many working-class Trump supporters have health issues in their families. Those are often issues that were not resolved by the Affordable Care Act but would be improved by Medicare for All.
As I see it, this election gives health activists a shove. The next two years offer a remarkable opportunity for the single payer movement to shift into direct action campaign mode and create a cross-class movement that includes Trump supporters.
Taking care of each other
The election reflects not only the drastic polarization in the United States, but also does nothing to close the gap. The polarization is linked to economic inequality, which will continue to grow in the coming years. That means more ugliness and more violence.
In order to stay strong and use the opportunities for change that open up along with polarization, we need culture workers like MaMuse who give us healing energy that bonds us. On election night, Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT, had twice the expected number in its general meeting and opened with the song by MaMuse, “We Shall Be Known.” The song concludes with this promise: “In this Great Turning, we shall learn to lead with love!”
Small farmers in Oregon, backed by a coalition of animal rights and climate activists, secured a big legislative victory over industrial factory farms, providing inspiration for wider action.
Once I decided that violence was not an option, I found the humanity in my fellow prisoners through the simple act of sharing food.
Political educator Harmony Goldberg discusses whether the ideological traditions of the left are helpful for practical organizing.