Electing progressive politicians is important. But we need to hold them accountable to get the change we need.
The Democratic performance in the Midterms last night was impressive. Although they lost a few Senate seats due to an overwhelmingly unfavorable electoral map, low approval ratings for President Trump and exceptionally high voter turnout among young adults and women allowed the Democrats to steal the House from the GOP — a pickup of over 30 seats.
But here’s a vital question that we should all be asking: will the Democrats’ electoral gains actually translate to real progressive change?
Moderation Among Senate Democrats
West Virginia’s Joe Manchin won a key victory in a close Senate election last night, edging out his GOP opponent by three points in a red state.
Manchin, however, is also one of our nation’s biggest roadblocks to enacting progressive legislation.
Although Manchin is certainly preferable to his Republican opponent, former attorney general Patrick Morrisey, the senator has voted with Trump over 60% of the time, nearly three times as often as the average Democrat.
While Manchin certainly occupies the right-most wing of the Democratic Party, some of the most prominent senators in the Party — including Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein—also have a long history of opposing key progressive initiatives.
In June, as a direct result, 85% of Senate Democrats and three-quarters of House Democrats voted in favor of a gargantuan $717 billion military spending bill — a hike in defense spending so drastic that even Trump argued for a lower tab.
Furthermore, only 16 Senate Democrats voiced support for Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill when it was proposed last year—surely a significant improvement from years past, but nowhere near the majority required for passage. This comes in spite of polls consistently showing an approval rating of 60 to 70 percent for Single Payer.
The disdain for many progressive policies among Congressional Democrats isn’t going away anytime soon, largely due to the lack of term limits for conservative Democratic incumbents and the strong influence of corporate PAC contributions in both parties.
What’s the result?
The result is that politicians on both sides of the aisle — when not held accountable — do a statistically poor job of representing their constituents.
According to an analysis by Larry Jacobs and Robert Shapiro, American Congressmen rarely change their beliefs to represent the interests of their constituents. Rather, they use crafted language to “sail against public opinion and then to openly defend their undemocratic actions.”
Furthermore, a study by Princeton University found that although the U.S. government regularly honors the political views of special interests and elites, it almost never enacts legislation to represent the preferences of average Americans.
At the end of the day, even though Americans regularly poll in favor of progressive policies like Single Payer, tuition-free college, and raising taxes on corporations, voting alone is simply not enough to enact them.
But there’s a catch.
On its own, the American government does a statistically poor job representing the general public, whether under Democratic or Republican leadership. But that can change if those in power are held accountable.
If every Congressman in the U.S. were pressured through acts of civil disobedience like boycotts, protests, and strikes — actions that forced representatives to cater to the demands of their constituents — the prospects of enacting such a platform would significantly increase.
The Case of FDR
To see a perfect example of grassroots organizing leading to progressive political gains, look no further than the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The standard consensus regarding New Deal history is that FDR was a progressive who, from his inauguration, believed that government jobs programs and bold left-wing reforms were the needed economic stimulus to help the U.S. recover from the Great Depression.
This claim undeniably has merit — FDR had been a liberal for his entire political career — but it’s an incomplete picture.
On the campaign trail in 1932, Roosevelt espoused largely traditional economic views, calling to balance the budget (conflicting with the high-cost New Deal reforms he’d later endorse) and campaigning on a largely fiscally conservative platform. Despite widespread calls to nationalize the banking industry, FDR initially set out to strengthen the banks.
As the Democratic nominee in the 1932 presidential election, FDR didn’t call for agricultural credits, emergency relief for the unemployed, or the government enforcement of the right of unions to organize — policies he’d later come to implement.
But organized labor changed that. General strikes erupted in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo in 1934, with workers from nearly every trade refusing to go to work. Rent strikes formed to physically block eviction attempts, and farmers even poured out their milk to prevent foreclosures.
Largely as a result, FDR flipped his positions on each of these three issues, enacting the Farm Credit Act (1933), the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (1935), and the National Labor Relations Act (1935).
“FDR became a great president because the mass protests among the unemployed, the aged, farmers and workers forced him to make choices he would otherwise have avoided,” writes Professor Frances Fox Piven.
In the end, it was largely grassroots turmoil that directly led to FDR’s New Deal reforms. It wasn’t always nice, it wasn’t always pretty, and it often threatened the status quo and the pocketbooks of elites. But it was exactly for these reasons that it worked.
By combining a progressive president and Congress with a labor movement that effectively utilized its political leverage, the New Deal was made possible.
A Fighting Chance
I want to be perfectly clear: grassroots movements aren’t easy to organize, and the chances of success are often slim — especially given the historic weakness of American labor unions.
That said, there are strong signs that grassroots acts of civil disobedience are on the rise.
The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike was highly effective, granting a 17.6% raise to Chicago educators. Earlier this year, the 2018 West Virginia teachers strike defeated a proposed charter school expansion and killed a bill aiming to weaken unions. Teachers strikes also broke out in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, none of which are considered bastions of liberalism.
Public Opinion Leans Progressive
Furthermore, polling data indicates that, although we might not understand all the details, the American people believe that the political system tends to unfairly favor the interests of the wealthy over those of the poor.
- Two thirds of Americans believe that our nation’s wealth is distributed in an unfair manner. The same fraction of people also say that large corporations pay too little in taxes.
- The average American has similar political views to Bernie Sanders on an issue-by-issue basis, including support for increased infrastructure spending, raising the minimum wage, and boosting taxes on the wealthy.
- And what two factors do Americans blame most for the flaws in American democracy? “Money in politics” and “wealthy political donors” — not immigrants, not liberals, and not social programs.
This polling data is vitally important. Not only should it make us more confident in the abilities of populists — specifically, progressive populists — to win elections across the nation, but it also means that the people want a government that represents citizens more and special interests less.
This affinity for progressive populism among average Americans can go a long way, and it makes the prospects of a grassroots movement much more optimistic.
Where do we start?
Running up to the Midterms, I heard phrases like this many times:
“You don’t like something our government is doing? Vote.”
“Don’t boo — vote.”
“How do we get change? We vote.”
There’s certainly merit to these statements. Voting has immense political power, and leading a grassroots movement with a Democratic president and Congress would be much more effective, legislatively, than leading one with a government controlled by the GOP.
But it is essential that whenever we are discussing the importance of voting, we also recognize that democracy requires more than electoral politics alone.
In the future, perhaps we should say this instead:
“How do we get change? We vote. And then we hold our representatives accountable.”