Last June, after Democratic candidates had lost four straight special Congressional elections (Rob Quist in Montana, James Thompson in Kansas, Archie Parnell in South Carolina, and Jon Ossoff in Georgia), America’s purveyors of conventional political wisdom simultaneously jumped to the conclusion that the policies and message of Democrats were just too progressive for our nation of moderate-right voters. The Washington cognoscenti expressed dismay that, despite Trump’s dismal public approval ratings and the nationwide surge of “Resist!” campaigns, the hapless Democratic Party was still unable to score any electoral victories. “Why Do Democrats Keep Losing in 2017?” queried a June headline in The Atlantic. “Democrats just went 0-4. When will they win?” asked a cynical CNN reporter. “It is a bit surprising that Democrats haven’t managed a single victory yet,” declared a University of Wisconsin election expert. “Panic is setting in on the left,” exclaimed a Vox.com headline.
This is the mouse hole to watch, for it’s where ordinary people–fed up with the corporate-rigged, business-as-usual politics and policies of both major parties–are actively rebuilding democracy and beginning to produce real change. It’s a nationwide rebellion made up of spontaneous local rebellions, each sparked by various specific grievances with America’s ruling royalists. Linking these uprisings together is a shared determination to restore our nation’s unifying ethic of the Common Good, a principle that my old daddy used to express this way: Everybody does better when everybody does better.
This burgeoning movement is not merely about protesting or lobbying the government–it intends to become the government. It’s a new politics embracing a three-front strategy I call R-I-P:
1. Resist the Trumpeteers and corporatists of all parties who’re imposing plutocratic rule over us commoners.
2. Insist on enacting a positive, aggressively progressive people’s agenda.
3. Persist in organizing from the ground up to sustain both “little-d” democratic politics and “everybody” policies.
Most of the local groups have affiliations with resourceful, democratically structured national networks such as Our Revolution (OR), Working Families Party (WFP), Black Lives Matter (BLM), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), People’s Action, DREAMers, Progressive Democrats of America, Movement Voter Project, and Democracy for America. Having taken root and honed its skills, these independent but interconnected progressive groups are now shifting into 2018’s races for county, state, and Congressional offices. As they do, let’s reflect on some of the remarkable new candidates, momentous gains, and populist political lessons the movement produced in 2017.
STAND FOR SOMETHING. The most common characteristic of last year’s progressive, populist candidates is that they were genuinely of the people, not career pols who were next in line. And they were not simply running for office, but running for specific economic, social, and political changes to make America better for families and neighborhoods like theirs. They didn’t need campaign consultants to tell them what to say or not to say, for they were politicized by personally experiencing assorted assaults on their values and sense of justice. Politics is not a game to them–they know who they are, what they’re fighting against, and why. Most importantly, they know what and whom they’re for.
Consider Lee Carter. He’s one of 15 nontraditional, proudly progressive candidates who scored upset victories in Virginia’s legislative races last November. A 30-year-old, blue-collar, ex-Marine living in Manassas with his wife and daughter, he was shocked into running–literally. A couple years ago, while employed as a lighting control system installer, Carter was badly injured on the job when a wrongly wired panel jolted him with 245 volts. After the debilitating physical shock, he was soon shocked again to discover that America’s workers’ compensation system has been wired to reject workers’ claims, and that corporations routinely retaliate against injured employees who file for comp benefits.
In pain, out of work, and with no health insurance, Carter seethed –until he found solace in a political awakening triggered by Bernie Sanders’ presidential run. “I saw a perfect example [in Sanders] of how someone can run a grassroots campaign focused entirely on issues, as long as they have the personal integrity to step forward and say, ‘I’m not going to be part of this big money in politics problem.'” So this injured worker decided “right in the middle of the 2016 presidential primary” to run for the Virginia House of Delegates, going straight at the corporatists with a platform of pro-worker reforms so that “what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Noting that Sanders ran unabashedly as a “democratic socialist,” Carter read up on DSA, agreed with its vigorous advocacy for worker democracy, and became a dues-paying member, thus putting intellectual honesty above the conventional political wisdom that the S-word also stands for suicidal (especially in the South). Sure enough, the powerful 11-year incumbent Carter was running against–a big-money Republican who was the House whip–gleefully seized the opportunity. The right-winger mailed out an attack piece headlined “SOCIALISM” with cartoonish headshots of what he spun as a sextet of socialist/communist evil: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao … and Carter! Very subtle. But the old red-scare tactic didn’t faze Carter, who kept talking openly to voters about the values and experiences that shaped his beliefs and ideas for change. It turns out that most Virginians weren’t fazed by the bugaboo word either, instead appreciating his genuineness and his proposals to advance Virginia’s working-class majority.
While the state’s corporate-cozy Democratic Party basically abandoned Carter, many new, overtly progressive political players rushed in with people power and grassroots organizing tools to help counter his opponents’ special interest money. Two groups were especially helpful–DSA and Our Revolution (launched by Bernie Sanders after his 2016 presidential run to keep pushing for fundamental populist change, specifically by backing candidates like Carter). Both of these aggressively progressive organizations endorsed him (as did Bernie himself), and joined with such other close Carter allies as Forward Majority and Sister District Project to provide financial help and a lot of volunteer time, social media outreach, phone calls, text messages, etc.
While an electric shock ignited Carter’s political drive, it was his people’s campaign that shocked the business-as-usual establishment of his Manassas district. He won by nearly nine points. He says the first bill he’ll introduce will aim to protect workers who file injury compensation claims from retaliation by corporate employers.
THE ZEITGEIST IT IS A-CHANGING. Last year’s grassroots progressive runs for office laid to rest much of the Democratic Party’s orthodoxy about who is “electable,” and how it’s essential that candidates–in hopes of attracting moderate “swing” voters–run big-money campaigns on small-bore, middle-of-the-road issues. For example, meet these eight big-issue/low-dollar candidates who rejected party orthodox and won:
- Danica Roem–Virginia House of Delegates
- Andrea Jenkins–Minneapolis City Council
- Phillipe Cunningham–Minneapolis City Council
- Lisa Middleton–Palm Springs City Council
- Stephe Koontz–Doraville, GA City Council
- Raven Matherne–Stamford, CT City Council
- Tyler Titus–Erie, PA School Board
- Gerri Cannon–Somersworth, NH School Board
One thing these victors have in common is that each of them is openly transgender. Even two years ago, political pros assumed that transgender people were unelectable nearly everywhere. So these eight barrier busters show how rapidly attitudes are changing, even in this bigoted time of Trump. Roem’s win in Virginia was especially satisfying, for she defeated a Republican incumbent who has long been a vociferous demonizer of the LGBTQ community and a vituperative leader of the right wing’s demagogic crusade to pass anti-transgender “bathroom bills.”
The nationwide progressive offensive in 2017 produced other ground shifting results such as: (1) many victories by millennials (five elected to the State House in Virginia alone); (2) victories by immigrant candidates, including in Somerville (MA), Helena (MT), and Minneapolis; and (3) a rebellion in previously red suburbs. Victories like these are proliferating because immigrant populations are growing, Trumpism and GOP extremism are turning voters off, a rapid and relentless downsizing of the middle class is altering attitudes, and serious grassroots political organizing by OR, DSA, WFP, and other progressive groups is making a difference.
PLEASE, WOMEN, RUN! After a year of Donald Trump’s appalling excesses in office, combined with last year’s electoral successes by dozens of progressive female candidates, and the recent tsunami of “silence breakers” exposing men who are sexual predators, a huge positive shift can be seen at last on America’s political horizon: Unprecedented numbers of women are running or considering runs for public office in 2018. She Should Run, a non-partisan support group for women candidates, reports that since the 2016 elections, it’s been contacted by more than 15,000 potential women candidates from every part of America. Likewise, after Trump’s election, Emily’s List, the longtime PAC that supports pro-choice women seeking office, reported an “unprecedented” surge in interest by more than 20,000 potential candidates.
ORGANIZATION MATTERS. It’s one thing to jump into a political race, but if you want to win, it helps to have some structural support. For example, because DSA provided organizational essentials to people it endorsed last year, 15 working-class champions are now in office who likely would not have won otherwise. Similarly, Our Revolution provided tools and a network of savvy volunteers to help elect, against the odds, a new generation of progressive leaders across the country: In the 59 races OR targeted in November, 27 of their endorsed candidates won. In all, OR has already helped elect 120 Bernie-style populists committed to serve as ardent agents of change–not bad for a self-financed, volunteer-based movement that’s barely a year-and-a-half old.
These rebellious “little-d” democratic campaigns know that every vote counts. It’s volunteers’ hard, get-out-the-vote work that enables them to win tight races against the slick attack ad-based campaigns of their corporate-backed opponents. OR notes that eight of its November winners–from the mayor of Clarkston, Georgia, to a Cleveland city councilor–had margins of victory ranging from 909 votes to only 139. Without the grassroots movement, the establishment would still own those offices.
EVERY VOTE COUNTS. Sometimes a handful of votes can shift much more than one contest. After the election night tally in Virginia, Republicans claimed 51 seats in the state House and the Dems 49. But three elections were squeaky tight, with Repubs ahead by only 101 votes in one district, 82 in another and, as The Lowdown goes to press, a recount in a third race has determined that it ended in a TIE!
Thanks to grassroots progressives–and a lucky coin toss–Virginia Democrats could find themselves sharing control 50/50 with the Republicans. On election night a people’s movement staffer pointedly asked a Democratic legislative leader what they’d do if they did take charge. “We’ll listen to you,” he said. “What do you want us to do?” Now that’s a politics that matters!
THE SOUTH IS RISING AGAIN! In the past year, we’ve seen a burst of audacious political assertiveness coming out of Old Dixie, and I’m not talking about those Trumpeteering, tiki-torch-brandish-ing, tinhorn KKKers the media focuses on. The real story is that a fresh, “Reclaim the South” movement of young African-American populists is emerging, kindling long-suppressed hope in the racially scarred Deep South and offering the possibility of real economic and cultural progress.
Guess who’s mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s capitol city? Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a black, 34-year-old lawyer who was raised in Jackson in a family and community of longtime Black Power activists. Last June, backed by Our Revolution and Working Families Party, Lumumba was elected with 93 percent (!) of the vote, and he promptly pledged to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” By radical, he means aggressively innovative in develop-ing policies and programs focused directly on lifting up Jackson’s middle-class and poor residents, rather than adopting the failed trickle-down model of nearly every other city. For example, instead of giving away government subsidies to lure rich corporations, Lumumba is trying to make the city a national showcase of home-grown cooperative enterprises owned by the people themselves.
In August, the incumbent mayor of Birmingham, Alabama– an old-style, don’t-rock-the-boat African-American politico favored by the city’s power brokers–thought he was cruising to an easy re-election. Then wham!–an underdog populist challenge by 36-year-old African-American attorney Randall Woodfin stunned the city powers with a first-place showing that forced the mayor into an October runoff. Woodfin, a city prosecutor and school board member, went on to defeat Birmingham’s corporate and political establishment by winning the mayorship with 58 percent of the vote. He did it by proposing an all-out populist agenda, building a broad coalition of local progressive activists, and running a dogged ground game with the full support of OR, WFP, and other national groups. Our Revolution, for instance, deployed some 70 volunteers to help in the runoff and sent more than 11,000 text messages to voters urging support for Woodfin.
Likewise, other full-bore, African-American populists won big in races for local offices across the South, including:
- Khalid Kamau, a Black Lives Matter activist and national Democratic convention delegate for Sanders, won a South Fulton, Georgia council seat with 67 percent of the vote.
- Braxton Winston, a young community activist and battler against rampant inequalities in the enforcement of justice in Charlotte, NC, won a City Council seat.
- And La’Shadion Shemwell, a 30-year-old barber and Black Lives Matter proponent, pulled 57 percent of the vote in his extraordinary run for a City Council seat in McKinney, Texas. The suburban city on Dallas’s north side had long been considered a safe Republican bastion.
We can draw two big lessons from these wins in the “red” South: (1) progressives with a full-throated populist message (Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, corporate money out of politics, etc.) can win nearly anywhere; and (2) the assertion by establishment Dems (echoed by corporate media) that progressive populism is not a winner in communities of color is, in a word, bullshit.
These victories (and a multitude of similar wins across the country) not only lift the spirits of progressives everywhere but, significantly, have greatly elevated the skills of our progressive ground forces. Volunteer recruiters, campaign managers, social media teams, field coordinators, door knockers, schedulers, get-out-the-vote organizers, online fundraisers, and all the rest are now better at what they do than they were a year ago. Just as important, they’re part of a growing network able to teach others these essential campaign skills, thus expanding and refreshing the pool of talent as they gear up for this year’s full slate of elections.
And remember: Many of the candidates, staffers, and volunteers in campaigns that did not prevail in their elections last year are winners nonetheless. They introduced new populist ideas, new people and energy, and new grassroots ways of building people power in their communities. Win or lose, all who participated in 2017 advanced our emerging national movement, giving us strength for an even greater impact in 2018. We’re in this for the long haul.