Back in Business: Writing the Progressive Playbook for 2019

As I renew my attempt to start consistently making use of the blog again, I wanted to begin the new year with a broad overview of sorts. Initially I debated the idea of centering this piece on whether “2019 will be 1939”, alluding to the tumultuous geopolitical climate and some of the parallels to today. An idea worth exploring, to be sure, but one I think I’ll address in a more nuanced way down the road. For now, I’d like to look back on the last year in domestic U.S. politics, what electoral and strategic victories were scored (namely for the Left), and what challenges are in store for this year if the Left is going to make these victories count.

2018 Midterm Elections

November 6th, to the fanfare of pundits on both the (center) left and right, was predicted to be “The Blue Wave”. While not the landslide some were anticipating, it brought the House, some governorships, and a handful of state legislatures firmly under the control of the Democratic Party. The victories of many genuine progressives and, dare I say, democratic socialists cannot be underestimated. Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Ihlan Omar (MN-5), Ayana Pressely (MA-7), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), among many others proved to be huge gains towards representation in a variety of ways. While there weren’t many progressive newcomers welcomed into the Senate, we can still expect much in the way of policy out of Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Chris Murphy, and Jeff Merkley, to name a few. Lastly, it cannot be under emphasized how refreshing it is to simply have Republicans vacate key seats, regardless of who their challenger was; Chris Kobach in Kansas, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Bruce Rauner in Illinois, and so on.

There should be a fine line, however, between recognizing the notable gains of the Democratic Party and what they mean of the overall voter base. Matt Karp wrote in the aftermath of the elections that, “Democrats key victories were owed to (…) white college graduates in the suburbs” highlighting that “The geographic diversity of these victories should not disguise their economic homogeneity”. Despite the short-term gains made by pivoting towards the suburbs, their long-term feasibility does not bode well for those on the Left. There is still much to be gained by running more progressive campaigns in the more economically-distressed areas of the country, as the party struggles to define its policies on deep-seated inequalities.

The dynamic between the coastal elites and the heartland of flyover states has not been dismantled in this latest election cycle, and congressional Democrats need to reformulate their strategy if they hope to capture a plurality of this key base. This is as much about emancipating the working class through a platform that is more representative of their needs as it is about listening to the call of the voters themselves. Even a casual glance at various ballot initiatives and referendums reflects this sentiment. Anti-Gerrymandering initiatives were passed in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah; Medicaid was expanded in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah; Affordable Housing and Rent Control scored major victories in cities like Chicago and Austin. While only a sample size of the many other progressively-minded ballot initiatives, it reveals that even in traditionally Republican-held states, voters are combating the institutionalized barriers that have tried to stifle their vote, cut back access to healthcare, and gentrified their cities. In the interests of their more prosperous constituency, the Democratic party is ceding away these opportunities to recapture a true ‘Blue Wave’, leaving the door open for fake populists and demagogues to remain competitive in 2020.

The Teacher’s Strikes

The wave of educational workers’ strikes that characterized much of the first half of the year also yield many lessons that shouldn’t be forgotten. But for those unfamiliar, the strikes took place primarily in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Georgia, as well as more localized strikes in Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia, all sharing many core features. Namely, the budget cuts, low wages/salaries, low per pupil spending, as well in many states, Right-to-work laws, school choice and voucher systems, all culminated in a boiling pot of austerity measures that was met with fierce backlash in these traditionally Republican-held states. The most prominent example of success proved to be West Virginia, where strikes were held statewide, marches on the state capitol were organized, and coupled with some highly publicized confrontations with the governor all of this yielded significant benefits. While the teachers didn’t have all of their demands met, they were able to secure a 5% pay raise, and their small victory galvanized other workers nationwide to stage their own protests. Tactics such as these, especially emerging from the rank-and-file union members, might prove a crucial step towards a resurgence in labor movements that arguably hasn’t been seen in 20 years.

But the horizon for labor must be viewed with trepidation, especially in light of the Supreme Court decision on Janus v. AFSCME, a case that on its surface determined union fees collected from non-union members in the public sector violated the First Amendment. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan emphasized the way in which this implicates worker choice in workplace governance, saying the First Amendment has been weaponized so that “judges, now and in the future, (can) intervene in economic and regulatory policy”. The likelihood for judges with an anti-labor bent to use this as precedent in further curtailing the power of public sector unions cannot be ignored. In light of this, labor activists must not narrow the scope of their solidarity by excluding ‘free riders’. As Chris Brooks notes, this model proved devastating to public employees in Tennessee, who became increasingly divided and weakened, unable to collectively bargain under such a small banner. This only proves the urgency for public sector workers, and their private sector counterparts in solidarity, to increasingly mobilize, even if the books are stacked against them.

The Road Ahead

I hope this piece leaves you a sense of optimism on what is possible, but clear-eyed and resolved on what must be done in 2019. Far from an in-depth review of 2018, this cursory glance at the current political climate leaves many gaps I intend to cover in the future. One thing is clear though; For this year, and many years after, the Left needs to capitalize on the gains it has made and entrench them. Concurrent with electoral politics, labor movements fighting for a better standard of living in the most red of states have proven their merits. If such tactics, imbued with progressive ideals, can exist in areas ripe with voter suppression, then the need to run candidates that match this vigor is mandatory. Many of these candidates did not come to Washington to move back to the center, compromising with their esteemed colleagues on ‘sensible proposals’; indeed, many progressives members of Congress are not afraid to show their bona fides at the time of this writing. And it is perhaps our last hope that this energetic and unapologetic approach to politics, the kind of understanding of power and how to leverage it that has made the Republican party so successful, is what the Democratic party needs to stay true to its mandate as the party of the people.

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