Progressive Voters are Driving Change in Our Politics 

Recently, Pres. Obama expressed his concern that today’s progressive voters are undermining the Democratic chances of taking on Trump in 2020. His statement reminded me of a NYT piece with the same premise, that the path to the White House will be a return to the careful messaging of the past that appeals to independent voters and to disenchanted Republicans.

The problem with that premise is that the moderate politics of the past did not turn into progress for everyone. It left working class Americans unemployed, middle-class families in NJ and across the US stuck in undervalued homes, their children in debt from expensive college loans and their parents sick with unaffordable health plans.  Furthermore, it left the machinery of deportation built by Pres Clinton unchallenged for Trump to swept in and tear immigrant families apart.

Yes, in a moment of compromise fueled by the progressive Obama coalition, it got us Obamacare increasing healthcare for millions of people.  But Obama’s signature accomplishment did not go far enough because it did not change the basic structure of our economic system; trickle-down corporate economic policies that were championed by Pres. Reagan, reinforced by Pres. Clinton, cemented by Pres. Bush and never challenged by Pres. Obama.

Today’s economic policy machinery benefits billionaires like Bezos of Amazon’s at the expense of everyday working and middle-class Americans. Large corporations and billionaires get tax-breaks, while working families get lower wages, larger personal debts and must carry the burden of taking care of their parents and children while paying for tax breaks for the rich.

In a revisionist interpretation, however, centrist Democratic party leaders today are claiming that careful calculation of issues, and good moderate candidates, was the formula for success in 2018.

Women in the resistance however, have a different interpretation.  After Hillary’s loss, instead of dwelling on our crushed hopes of a first woman president, we did what we always do; we composed ourselves, looked at our children’s faces and decided right there and then that we had to fight for their future.

I know because I was there and spent almost every Sat morning of my summer of 2017 protesting with my children outside of Trump’s Golf Course. I was there in the Fall and Spring of 2018 when women activists from across age, economic and color spectrum, held vigils and protested outside Rep. Lance’s and Frelinghuysen’s congressional offices demanding they stand up for NJ, protect Obamacare, denounce the Muslim-travel ban and stop tearing immigrant families apart.

So, while the traditional Democratic leadership wondered why a moderate corporate supported competent woman couldn’t defeat Trump, progressive and voters of color all across NJ and the US knew exactly what happened and what we needed to do.  We needed to challenge the politics of usual and demand action on our progressive values.

From the start of our resistance, our goal was to engage young people and diverse voters, to mobilize them to protest, to register them to vote, to inspire them to run for office and to demand that our country’s politics reflect our values.

Those voters responded by taking action, large and small, on healthcare, on income inequality, on climate change, on student debt and on protection of immigrant children and their families.

In my county of Hunterdon our numbers of young and progressive voters increased. They wanted to volunteer, to run for office and challenge long-time politicians who were being complicit on the dismantling of our basic rights.

And from this flurry of energy grew a strategy; let’s use this new excitement to challenge incumbents who were no longer representing the interests of our local communities.

NJ’s independent voters dislike of President Trump’s Twitter antics was indeed a great base for all sort of candidates to start vetting their chances of defeating Republicans.  But it was the activists in the resistance, working outside the usual party-organizations, who got down to the business of mobilizing this coalition of voters.

And on election day, a new progressive voter coalition emerged; working and middle class families, women of color, young, African American, Latinos, Asians and naturalized immigrant voters came out in record numbers.

In the four NJ Congressional Districts where Republicans lost, the numbers were clear:

In CD-2, total voter turn-out increased over 50% from 2014 to 2018

In CD-3, total voter turn-out increased 65% from 2014 to 2018

In CD-7, total voter turn-out increased 83%, and

In CD-11, total voter turn-out increased 85%

Across these four Congressional districts, total voter turned out increased 71% from 2014 to 2018.

Overall, total votes for the four Democratic candidates rose 230% while for the three Republican candidates it barely grew by 30%.

Revisionist history aside, this increase was driven by a diverse coalition of voters who wanted to stop the excesses of the Trump’s administration.

And yes, this same coalition of voters today is no longer interested in going back to the incremental politics promised by the centrist Clinton/Obama wing of the party.

This coalition of voters believes that only bold action on critical issues like income inequality, climate change, reduction of student debt and immigration reform will bring back some balance of opportunity back to our country.

Bold action was taken by Pres. Bush and Obama to save Wall Street out of its financial crisis in 2008.  We need bold action today to lift main street working families out of their kitchen-counter financial crisis.

And we are looking for candidates who are bold and courageous enough to fight for the America we want our children to inherit; one where our politics are centered on our values.

So instead of chastising progressive voters, Democratic leaders should focus on organizing them.  And instead of telling them to focus on recapturing disenchanted Trump voters, they should try listening to their demands for a new vision and a plan on how their communities will be able to get good jobs, good schools, good jobs, and a healthy planet.

As Stacey Abrams so eloquently tells us, the best candidate for president, race and gender aside, will be the one who runs a race that reaches out to everyone in every state and keeps that diverse coalition of voters inspired and mobilized.

In order to inspire such a coalition, candidates for president should lean-into the wisdom of grassroots leaders.  Looking backwards to the Clinton and Obama years will only lead us to the mistakes of the past.

It is time to look forward and build an American worthy of our children’s future.

Patricia Campos Medina is a progressive labor and political activist.  Opinions written here are her own and do not reflect positions taken by organizations she works for or belongs to.  You can follow her on Twitter @pcamposmedina

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