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There is a progressive momentum in America right now. (Photo: National Nurses United/flickr/cc)

There is a progressive momentum in America right now. (Photo: National Nurses United/flickr/cc)

Failing to Learn the Lessons of 2018

Why the old guard must go

John Atcheson

The 2018 midterms should have put the debate about whether the majority of Americans are progressive to rest. Yet it still rages. And the consequences for 2020 could be bad—four more years of Trump, bad.

But it’s clear that the Democratic leadership hasn’t figured that out yet.  For example, the two big legislative pushes from Pelosi, Schumer et. al. were “pay go,” which mercifully fell off the map within a week of their grand announcement, and now the middle class tax embargo.

Let’s take a look at the obvious lessons from 2018.

Progressive ballot initiatives did well in 2018, just as they have in the past

In many ways, ballot initiatives are a better measure of how popular progressive issues are with the American voter because they separate the issues from party affiliation, or identification with a particular incumbent.

Even in deep red states, progressive ballot initiatives won handily. For example, initiatives to raise the minimum wage won in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri in 2018.  Doesn’t get much redder than that.  And that’s on top of eleven minimum wage ballot initiatives the voters passed between 2004 and 2016, many in red states. 

Similarly, initiatives on criminal justice reform, progressive budget reforms, Medicare extension, voter re-enfranchisement, and anti-gerrymandering were on the ballots in blue and red states, and all passed, and most enjoyed majority support from both parties. In blue California, voters overwhelmingly rejected an initiative to repeal the gas tax, and in deep red Utah, a measure to establish an independent redistricting commission looks like it will win. In purple Florida, the people voted to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people who’d paid their debts to society. Florida voters also chose to prohibit off-shore drilling for oil and gas, a position supported by every governor along the eastern and western seaboard except Georgia and Maine. And initiatives to legalize recreational and medical marijuana passed in deep red states as well as in blue and purple states.

Other progressive ballot initiatives that have won in recent elections include restrictions on gun purchases, fracking, and rejection of abortion restrictions (although two southern states voted for more restrictive abortion laws).

In fact, despite a few defeats, progressive ballot initiatives were overwhelmingly successful.  Many conservatives and establishment Democrats point to Washington to refute the progressive victories where a measure to put a fee on carbon was defeated, but opponents of the proposal spent about $30 million to defeat it, more than twice as much as those supporting it.

The fact is, when voters got to vote on progressive issues, they did extremely well. 

Progressive candidates set the party up for victory, even when they lost

Here’s where the debate about what the election means gets positively screwy. Conservatives and mainstream Democrats point to losses by high-profile progressives like Bet O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, and Andrew Gillum as proof that the voters aren’t progressive, but these losses were razor thin, and they occurred in red-red Texas, red Georgia, and red leaning Florida, and in Abrams’ case involved massive voter disenfranchisement.

In reality, these candidates had coattails and they made a down payment on future progressive victories.  Millions of citizens who haven’t heard from a progressive candidate in decades, liked what they heard and turned out to vote, making 2018’s turnout the largest midterm in a century. If the Democrats have the wit to keep running progressives, these new voters will be back, and they’ll bring their brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends with them, changing purple states to blue, and red states to purple.

Because here’s the dirty little secret centrist Democrats, conservatives and oligarchs don’t want you to know:  on an issue-by-issue basis, the overwhelming majority of Americans are progressive.

There’s a reason this hasn’t translated into votes and victories. First, almost no one has been representing a progressive position since Reagan and the DLC highjacked politics and handed the process over to the oligarchy.  You can’t beat something with nothing, and the Democrats offered nothing but tactics, identity politics, and nano-issues.

Which brings us to the second reason progressivism hasn’t done well since the days of the Great Society – values.  By choosing identity politics, “winning issues,” and clever tactics like “triangulating,” rather than a more broadly structured appeal to use the power of government to achieve the common good, the Democrats essentially played into the hands of the Republican’s divide and conquer strategy.

Republicans, on the other hand, had a clear brand, and it emphasized values.  Strong defense, fiscal prudence, small government, low taxes, personal opportunity and responsibility.  Never mind that these were smoke screens for their real agenda – to give more and more wealth to the already rich and powerful.  And never mind that they used racism, jingoism, sexism and anger to distract voters from realizing their values were just a pretext.  They won because in terms of substance, they’ve been running unopposed.  Few Democrats stood up for government as a force for good, and even fewer spoke about the need to constrain capitalism and the vaunted free market, or about representing the common good. So the Republican game plan of stoking the fires of resentment, envy, blame, hate and fear, ended up being the only game in town.

The old guard doesn’t get it, and neither do the pundits

There is a progressive momentum in America right now.  And that means we can do great things again.  We can pass single payer health care; we can protect and expand Social Security; we can stop stupid and costly wars; we can tackle climate change; we can raise up and restore the average citizen’s hopes and prospects by creating a level playing field for all; we can rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; and we can make our educational system—once the envy of the world—affordable and excellent, once again. 

And yes, these things are affordable.  By ending stupid wars, cutting the obscenely bloated defense budget, imposing a small transaction fee on the sale of stocks and securities, raising taxes on the uber wealthy, increasing the tax on corporations, upping the inheritance tax to where it was for decades (while protecting farmers and folks with less than $5 million estates); and by removing the cap on income that now protects the wealthy from paying their fair share into the payroll tax system supporting Social Security, all these things are possible, without blowing up the deficit.

But if what passes for your “big ideas” are de minimus stratagems and tactics like “paygo” or a freeze on middle class tax cuts, then I’m sorry, but you’ve got to go. This is a time for vision and courage, not stratagems and caution.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

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