A country reeling from one disaster has dodged another. While President Obama’s re-election inspires varying degrees of hope among progressives, it has evoked one common sentiment: relief. Democracy may not be reborn, but a living symbol of plutocracy was defeated by the voters on November 6.
It’s worth remembering, before Mitt Romney settles into a comfortable 1 percent retirement from politics, that his victory would have imperiled the security of all but those insulated by extreme wealth from concerns like being able to find safe, warm housing in the wake of a hurricane. A Romney/Ryan win would have been viewed as a validation of a radical individualist worldview that runs counter to every value progressives hold dear. It would have collapsed the space the left needs to gain strength, and it would have empowered social forces—from the religious right to the Tea Party voter-suppression machine to Wall Street and corporate elites—that form an intractable bloc of opposition to progress for all those struggling for equality and opportunity in today’s United States.
This right-wing coalition was defeated at the polls by a “rising American electorate,” a coalition of women, African-Americans, Latinos, the young and unionized blue-collar workers in Midwestern battleground states. These voters not only provided Obama with his margin of victory but carried several stalwart progressives in high-profile Senate races to exhilarating wins: Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who emerged as a champion in the fight to regulate the financial sector, took Scott Brown’s seat despite a furious effort by Wall Streeters to stop her; Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who despite a deluge of negative Super PAC ads, costing upward of $31 million, overcame his Republican rival with his populist labor-based campaign; and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who prevented a vulnerable Democratic seat from being snatched by former Governor Tommy Thompson and will become the first out gay or lesbian to serve in the Senate, where she will join the ranks of a record number of women senators. Thank you, voters, for that fitting response to the Republican war on women.
As a result of outcomes like these, the new Democratic majority in the Senate is not only slightly larger but decidedly more progressive than the one it will replace. Some of the Democratic victories resulted from the missteps of right-wing Republicans: Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill was surely aided by Republican Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” comment, as Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly was buoyed (despite his own anti-choice stance) by the outrageous remarks of Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock. But other winners, such as Connecticut’s Chris Murphy and Virginia’s Tim Kaine, simply won hard-fought races against enormously well-funded Republicans.
The Senate’s newly invigorated progressive caucus provides majority leader Harry Reid with an opening to respond to pressure for reform of Senate rules, ending filibuster abuses and making the Democratic majority a functional force that can hold its own in negotiations—over everything from Social Security’s future to ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich—with a House that will remain in Republican hands. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi will have a harder time of it, but she has a fighting caucus, strengthened by the additions of newcomers like Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, New Hampshire’s Ann McLane Kuster and Florida’s Alan Grayson. Democrats would do well to take a cue from Grayson, who lost his seat by eighteen points in 2010 but stormed back in 2012 with a promise to serve as “a congressman who’s going to fight for full employment, a congressman who’s going to fight for universal healthcare, a congressman who will protect Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, a congressman who will fight for health benefits and paid sick leave and paid vacations and the things that we need to be decent human beings in our lives, a congressman who will fight for progressive taxation and make sure that even the filthy rich have to pay their fair share, a congressman who will fight for clean money and clean elections…. a congressman who will fight for justice, equality and peace.”
For those like Grayson who care about getting big money out of our polluted political system, there’s a reform push to watch in Fair Elections Now legislation, introduced in both the Senate and the House, that will have the likely support not only of the usual Democratic suspects but of independent Angus King, who has endorsed Maine’s Fair Elections–style system.
It was heartening to hear the president note in his victory speech that our electoral system is in need of repair. But grassroots activists know by now that counting on the president’s sympathy is not the most effective strategy. Desperately needed change on clean money and other fronts—like the immigration reform that Obama promised but failed to deliver in his first term—will come through independent movements, fusing grassroots mobilization and progressive electoral power, which the White House and Congress cannot afford to ignore.
The challenge for progressive movements begins not in January, when the president is sworn in again and the next Congress convenes, but now. Thanks to the debt ceiling deal, the nation faces a “fiscal cliff” at the end of this year that could trigger devastating cuts to social programs while risking a slide back into recession. In the absence of a massive popular mobilization, only those government programs and agencies with richly funded Washington lobbies are likely to emerge unscathed from a panicked lame duck Congress.
Unfortunately, as Robert Borosage wrote bluntly in these pages just weeks ago, “in the fundamental struggle over the ‘dark politics of austerity,’ a re-elected President Obama will likely lead the wrong side.” The president still displays an interest in a “grand bargain” that will end up dealing out the most pain to the people Romney disparaged as the “47 percent”—in reality the majority of Americans who rely on government programs and services to make ends meet. Progressives therefore can’t afford to lose a day in fighting for our own independent agenda. We need to put the jobs crisis first, shifting the frame of national discussion away from deficit fearmongering and toward the investments in education and infrastructure that will truly protect our country’s future.
The devastation nature has visited on the East Coast has clarified our situation and given us a glimpse of an alternative path. Perhaps the ferocious winds of Sandy will sway the country toward a renewed appreciation of government and public employees, toward the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure (while creating lots of good jobs), toward taking climate change seriously at long last. The president at least acknowledged the need to act on global warming on election night, after a campaign in which he raised the issue all too rarely. Perhaps the hurricane will also make a powerful case against austerity where Obama has failed to do so.
We are glad the 1 percent were rebuffed at the polls. We are glad the racist minority that still poisons this country’s politics failed to get their way. We are glad that progressive politics—small-dollar donors, early voting, an expanded and diverse electorate—made the difference. We are ready to help—or to push—President Obama to have a successful second term. Whatever intransigence he meets in Congress, there’s much that President Obama can do with his executive power—on immigration, as we’ve seen, on ratcheting down the drug war, and even on carbon emissions and climate.
But we don’t need tweaks; we need deep structural change. It’s up to the organized people who defeated organized money at the polls in this election to make that happen.