The midterm elections were a wake-up call. Voters had given up on the Democratic party as irrelevant – not really on their side, so they didn't bother to show up at the polls. But there are end-of-year holiday season bright spots for progressives as we think about the coming year's fights.
People are becoming more active with protests over issues like low pay and police treatment. Locally people are putting core progressive policies like fighting pollution, raising the minimum wage and giving people sick days off into effect. And there are signs that the national Democrats are starting to "get it" that they have to demonstrate they are on the side of regular, working people.
People Becoming More Active
Madison, Wisc. and the Occupy movement were flare-ups of popular protest that focused the national discussion on inequality. There are signs that people are starting to become even more active. Black Friday saw the largest strikes ever against Walmart, with employees demanding a living wage. There were pickets and strikes at 1,600 stores in 49 states.
Then on December 5 fast-food workers struck in 190 cities. BusinessWeek reported, in "Fast-Food Strikes Hit Record Numbers, Span 190 Cities":
Fast-food workers went on strike Thursday in close to 200 cities, the most widespread walkouts the industry has seen to date. And for the first time, convenience and dollar store workers joined them.
BusinessWeek reports that "the protests have already spread further and accomplished more than most people thought possible when they emerged two years ago."
Also, across the country people marched in protest of police brutality. They are demanding to be treated with the full respect that all citizens deserve, regardless of their station in life. In November there were Black Friday marches across the country, protesting what happened in Ferguson, Mo. Thousands turned out in Boston and New York on Dec. 5, and on Dec. 13 more than 40,000 in Washington D.C. and 25,000 marched in New York. Thousands also marched in San Francisco and thousands more in Oakland – as well as other cities across the country.
Strikes and protests will likely continue and grow in the new year.
Progress In Cities And States
Progressives in cities and states are going around Congress and politicians they feel are not on their side, and are organizing and getting things done. During the spring local elections voters, cities and statehouses passed minimum wage increases in New Jersey, Connecticut, Minnesota, Chicago, Maryland, Hawaii, Seattle and other places.
In "“Distancing” From Democratic Policies Causes Democrats To Lose," I pointed to a few of the local bright spots in the November election. While people had given up on national Democrats to be on their side they were ready to put core progressive policies into effect:
Now we have election results showing that a lot of “base” Democrats (DHs) didn’t feel they had a reason to vote for those candidates. At the same time ballot initiatives calling for raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, providing sick pay to workers passed, while conservative ballot initiatives like “personhood” for fetuses failed.
Minimum wage increases are happening because people understand that it works and does not cost jobs. In "States That Raised Their #MinimumWage in 2014 Had Stronger Job Growth Than Those That Didn’t," Jeffrey Gianattasio at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) compared job growth with and without increases in the minimum and found “little to no evidence for the claim that raising the minimum wage threatens job creation efforts.”
People are not just going around Congress for economic gains; they are also pushing for and getting environmental gains. An example of the success of local environmental activism is fracking bans. Think Progress has the story of one such vote, in "Texans Vote To Ban Fracking":
On Tuesday, voters in Denton, Texas, banned fracking within the city limits by a large margin of 59 to 41. The first such restriction in energy-giant Texas, Denton has been a hotly contested site for the industry and one of eight locales with fracking bans on the ballot this election.
In California, San Benito and Mendocino counties voted to prohibit fracking. In Ohio, the town of Athens voted to ban fracking. Then last week the state of New York also banned fracking.
Voters Agree With Progressives
The fact is that voters agree with Democrats on most issues. When you word the questions fairly, people want government to fight for them, raise wages, provide a good retirement, protect the environment, make workplaces safe and other items on the progressive policy agenda. They want Social Security expanded. They want help for the less fortunate. They want fair trade agreements instead of job-killing, corporate-favoring trade deals. When you take the word "Obama" out of Obamacare, people even like the components of the new health plan. Visit PopulistMajority.org to see a roundup of public polls showing the ways the public agrees with progressive positions.
Richard V. Reeves, writing at Brookings in, "Progressives Lost the Election, but Their Ideas Are Winning," says that "state action" is making people lives better, even if the corporate/conservative propagandists are keeping people from knowing about it.
Progressives have every reason to be celebrating right now. Why? Because by and large, things aren't so bad as progressives claim, and the reason things aren't so bad is because progressive policies are working. Medicare and Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits, tax cuts favoring the working poor, expansion of health coverage, and so on—all of these policies are making Americans better off than they would otherwise be.
[. . .] The truth is this: Most Things Are Getting Better for Most People, Even If a Bit More Slowly Than in the Past, and There are Plenty of Things that Can, and Should, Be Better Still. (Not a great bumper sticker, I admit.)
Reeves says progressives should start touting their accomplishments to get people back on the side of government action,
For progressives, doom and gloom will be a self-defeating political strategy, since it adds steadily to the sense that government doesn’t work. This will be especially true in 2016 after occupying the White House for two terms. The subtext of downbeat progressive rhetoric is, by implication: "Yes, we have already done all these things (the Great Society, tax credits, welfare reform, food stamps), but honestly, nothing has really worked, look how terrible things are becoming."
What they should be saying instead is: "Look at all these government initiatives that have really worked to reduce poverty, improve workplaces, lessen inequality, weaken racism, boost women’s chances, and improve wellbeing. So let’s do more of it! What’s the next problem that we can help to solve?"
Democratic Politicians Finally, Finally Catching On
There are signs that both President Obama and the Democratic Party are moving out of their hunkered-down, defensive, corporate-favoring, constantly caving posture. After the 2010 wipeout pollster Stan Greenberg looked at the reasons Democrats didn't show up and vote and wrote, in "Why Voters Tune Out Democrats":
If they are to win trust, and votes, Democrats must show they are as determined as the Tea Party movement to change the rules of the game. ... In our recent Web survey of 2,000 respondents, voters respond strongly to Democratic messages on the economy only when a party leader declares, “We have to start by changing Washington. ... The middle class won’t catch a break until we confront the power of money and the lobbyists.”
[. . .] Perhaps now, with the debacle in Washington, liberals will become instinctively angry with this illegitimate government and build their politics from there.
Democrats didn't respond to the 2010 losses by showing voters they were on their side, and as a result 2014 was even worse than 2010. But the 2014 beating was so bad that even many formerly "centrist" Democrats are realizing that moving to the right and refusing to confront the 1 percent and their corporations was a mistake that left voters with nowhere to go.
The president has started acting like the 2008 candidate so many of us voted for, hoping he would bring change. That "hopey-changey thing" hadn't been working out so well until recently. For example, he used executive power to raise the wages for hundreds of thousands of government contractor employees. After backing off before the election, he used his executive power to help millions of immigrants and their families. There is every sign that he will stand up to the Republicans as they try to dismantle government and the things it does to make our lives better in the next two years. (Except on trade and corporate tax cuts; unfortunately it looks like he might side with the Republicans against his own party. Let's all get active and fix that.)
The recent "CRomnibus" budget fight was a sign that Democrats in the House and Senate are finally ready to stick together and fight. Led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose theme has become "Enough is Enough" of the Wall Street coddling, anti-regular-people, Washington centrist nonsense, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrats stood together trying to fight back the Wall Street-favoring provisions thrown into that budget.
But it isn't just Warren and Pelosi who are taking up the mantle of having a spine. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has laid out a great 12-point agenda for Democrats. In "Bernie Sanders Lays Down the Gauntlet," CAF's Robert Borosage writes:
Americans, of course, are notoriously skeptical about “big government” and government spending, largely because they assume, not without reason, that government serves the rich and various entrenched special interests. By being willing to take on Big Oil (with green energy), global corporations (with tax and trade reform) and Wall Street (by breaking up the big banks), Sanders shows clearly what side he is on.
Paul Waldman, writing at The American Prospect, in "Progressives Just Lost a Fight On the Budget. So Why Are They So Happy?" explains that Democrats are starting to move back to the left:
For the first time in this presidency, liberal Democrats feel as though something like a coherent bloc, outside of and sometimes in opposition to the White House, is beginning to form. Animated by a new sense of purpose, they're experiencing the flush of hope.
[. . .] All talk of "Dems in disarray" aside, there are reasons why all Democrats can be happy about a resurgent left that is willing to challenge the Obama administration. In contrast to what the Tea Party does to the Republicans, a newly coherent and organized left is unlikely to impede any of the party's practical goals, nor is it likely to damage the party's image. The policy ideas favored on the left tend to be pretty popular, and liberal lawmakers aren't pushing for anything destructive like government shutdowns.
In the cities and states, progressives are fighting and winning. As we go into the holiday break let this inspire you. We can win the next two years' fight.
This post originally appeared at Campaign for America's Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.