The radically anti-middle class agenda had a very bad day Tuesday, as the people fighting for us 99 percent won some very big battles. Voters in Maine dumped a right-wing push to cut back on voting rights. Voters in Mississippi said no to the profoundly radical attempt to give every zygote personhood rights. Voters in Arizona recalled the author of the anti-immigrant, anti-Constitutional rights bill allowing police to stop any driver who looked like they might be an immigrant. Voters in Michigan recalled a far-right state legislator there. And voters in Ohio decisively stood up for the middle class and said no to radical anti-unionism. Northeast, Midwest, Deep South, Southwest: it was a good day to be an American if you value community, equality, democracy, and the middle class and those working to climb their way into it.
These were not partisan victories, as big numbers of independents and even a fair number of Republicans voted the right way in many of these elections. But they were movement victories that took old fashioned street-level organizing and great communications and messaging work. They showed what the progressive movement can do when we stand in solidarity with each other and work hard together to fight back. As my friend, the great organizer Gabe Gonzalez from the Center for Community Change (which was in the middle of organizing in the Arizona, Maine, and Ohio victories) said, “The reason for victory was pretty clear. We named the fight and we fought the fight. There was no middle ground, no attempt at triangulation or ‘reaching the middle’. We trusted the people to know when they were being screwed and we acted accordingly. So for us the lesson is simple, stand for real values, for real people, and have the fight.” That is the best summary of good politics and good messaging I have seen in a long time.
The troubling thing for Democrats is that while progressives were winning decisively on all of our highest priority fights around the country, the Democratic/Republican results were far more of a muddle. We did pretty well in holding on to the Kentucky governorship, and we didn’t need too much sweat keeping control of the New Jersey legislature, but we lost a legislative chamber in Mississippi and probably in Virginia as well. Local races around the country held no great trendline.
Voters from every region in this country affirmed progressive values and rejected conservative extremism, mostly by big margins, so why did Democratic candidates perform in such mediocre fashion? I will grant that in part Republicans had the advantage they pretty much always have, more barrels of corporate cash. And they are good at softening the edges of their extremist anti-middle class agenda for the purposes of electing candidates, who sound so reasonable and moderate on the campaign trail and then vote however the corporate lobbyists order them to once in office. But voters also don’t necessarily associate Democrats with the progressive issues they vote for. Will the 62 percent of Ohio’s voters who voted for middle-class economics yesterday associate President Obama with the fight for the middle class a year from now? I hope so, but Obama will have to prove himself to those voters by fighting hard for the middle class. Right now, voters have only a muddled sense of who is really on their side, and given their lack of faith in government and the fact that the economy has sucked under a Democratic President, they will trend Republican unless they understand deep in their gut that Democrats are fighting for them and against the wealthy special interests screwing up our political and economic system.
My message for my Democratic friends in this very tough election environment is pretty basic: heed Gabe Gonzalez. Name the fight, pick the fight, have the fight. Stand for real values and real people, not D.C. centrism whatever that is.
Here’s the other thing: don’t think small. Playing safe, being cautious is not going to win an election right now. I love it when the President says he did not run for President to do small things. But don’t apply that to the issues that thrill the D.C. elites like cutting things like Social Security and Medicare and education spending that help the middle class, apply it to things like taking on the big banks in the fight to get them to give mortgage relief to middle class homeowners. If you went big and forced those biggest mortgage holders, and Fannie and Freddie, to give several hundred billion back to homeowners (money that they rightly owe after benefiting from massive mortgage fraud schemes), you would do more to help the economy than anything this Congress on its best day would ever do.
There is a progressive mood growing in this country on economic issues. Americans know the 1 percent are hoarding way too much of the money, and they want to take their democracy back and start building the middle class brick by brick again. They are looking for politicians who will fight on their side rather than fold to the 1 percent. Democrats need to start focusing on demonstrating in big, serious ways that they are up for this fight. No small ball right now, no cautious small steps: Democrats need to step up.