2016: A Retrospective of Progressive Victories

Happy New Year! Who’s with me in wishing one of the most frustrating, confusing years in recent memory a hardy farewell?

Each new year brings reflection. Even for the least taken in by all the pomp and sentimentality, it’s understandable to muse awhile about a closing year’s accomplishments, regrets, challenges, and changes. 2016 was particularly memorable, with all the celebrity deaths, record-breaking weather, a presidential primary season that felt like it would never end. When it finally did, we wished it had kept going another couple weeks to allow the country to contemplate and rectify what it had done in electing Donald Trump President.

True, Trump’s election was not our finest moment. Over the past month and a half we’ve watched as Trump named billionaire after billionaire after General-This and General-That to his cabinet. We’ve watched as Republican-led voter suppression efforts wreaked havoc on our electoral system. We’ve watched as police used old-fashioned Civil Rights era mob tactics against peaceful protesters over the Dakota Access Pipeline. We’ve watched as bloodshed in Syria reached its climax. We witnessed the hottest year on record, and an atmosphere that surpassed 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, a level not seen in human history. We witnessed police officers shooting 287 African Americans. As I’ve said before, the next four years are going to be a very bumpy ride. I have a bad feeling the bumpy ride isn’t going to end in four years.

But it’s easy to reflect on all the ways democracy was subverted this year. That’s no way to begin 2017. Instead, let’s focus a bit on progressive victories. There were a lot of them, and we should bask in the knowledge that as progressives we moved the needle in significant ways.

First, let’s look at the #NODAPL movement. Despite a virtual mainstream media blackout, activists from all over the world flocked to North Dakota, braving scorching heat then blistering cold, to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in protesting the construction of a pipeline slated to snake through Indigenous people’s sacred lands and under the Missouri River. Police protected Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, with rubber bullets, water cannon, sponge rounds, bean bag rounds, stinger rounds, teargas grenades, pepper spray, Mace, Tasers and a sound weapon. Victory came December 5th, when President Obama ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to withhold a permit to proceed with construction. The corps must now issue an environmental impact statement and look for alternative routes. Although President-elect Trump has a vested financial interest in the pipeline (because, why wouldn’t he?), and can reverse Obama’s decision come January 2oth, we should acknowledge the extraordinary victory this grassroots movement accomplished. Hundreds were arrested for acts of civil disobedience, including journalist Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! for simply reporting on the event. Goodman was charged with “inciting a riot”, which a judge later rejected.

It’s possible we will revisit this during Trump’s administration, but we’ve shown America, and the world, we aren’t prepared to roll over for adversity.

While we’re on oil pipelines, let’s look next at the Keystone XL, rejected in November after seven years of negotiations with Canada. President Obama had plenty of arguments to defend this difficult and momentous decision. He also had–and used over almost his entire tenure in office–plenty of talking points to defend the pipeline’s construction, from “job creation”, “less dependence on Middle Eastern oil”, “strengthened relationship with Canada”. He chose instead to take the less politically cliched route and stick up for the environment. “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action on climate change,” Obama said.

Of course Trump has a stake in this too, but let’s not ignore the fact that Obama’s refusal to proceed with the pipeline is directly related to grassroots campaigners who chained themselves to the gates of the White House and forged partnerships with landowners and ranchers in Nebraska and Texas. Climate change, like gay marriage, was practically a wedge issue a decade ago. It was something “fringe” candidates and hardcore activists talked about. It’s hard to imagine President Bush killing the Keystone XL for environmental reasons. Now it would be unthinkable to not even consider that stance. Obama deserves a lot of credit for this, and so do we for pushing him so relentlessly.

Then there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or, as journalist Thom Hartmann has called it, “the Southern Hemisphere Asian Free-Trade Agreement–SHAFTA”. This was another disastrous trade deal that would have eviscerated the already hemorrhaging industry base in this country. This “NAFTA on steroids” would have not only shipped more jobs overseas at a time when we most need them here; it would have rolled back environmental regulations, human rights regulations, and given transnational corporations legal authority to sue countries for loss of future profits if any opposition mounted against a corporation’s “right” to do business.

The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), as well as the South Korean Free Trade Agreement, all passed despite overwhelming Democratic opposition. The attitude toward the TPP was no different. Few opponents to the TPP were louder than Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who helped raise public awareness when the mainstream media, out of self-interest, refused to mention it. Former MSNBC correspondent Ed Schultz was actually fired for attempting to cover it seventy-one times between August 1, 2013 and January 31, 2015. President Obama, though, remained stubbornly loyal to it. He hoped he could pass it through during the current lame-duck session. Donald Trump won the election partly because he, as a Republican, was expected to support it as all good Republicans, like VP-elect Mike Pence, do. Instead, he rejected it, appealing to blue-collar factory workers who have seen their jobs disappear because of trade deals like the TPP that favor corporations over careers.

Yet, years of global outcry finally ended this fall when Obama decided against it. Time will tell whether or not Trump was sincere or simply absconding with Bernie Sanders’s platform to procure votes. Based on his behavior lately, most noticeably with the Carrier plant in Indiana, my bet in on the latter.

Also consider the win for the Verizon Communications Workers of America, who after a 45-day strike, added 1,300 new East Coast call center jobs, and reversed several outsourcing initiatives to create new field technician jobs. A four-year proposed agreement will provide 10.9% in raises.

Let’s not forget the Democratic National Convention in July, where, before Bernie Sanders conceded the nomination to Hillary Clinton, he and his surrogates shaped the Democratic party platform into its most progressive form in modern history. This was a direct result of all the Sanders supporters pushing Clinton–and the establishment–to adopt more progressive stances on fundamental issues that would have been ignored had Bernie never decided to run. Sanders’s policy director Warren Gunnells said the Sanders campaign achieved “at least 80 percent” of what it came for. “I think if you read the platform right now, you will understand that the political revolution is alive and kicking.”

Because of the unprecedented grassroots outcry, Clinton ran on a platform that called for an end to capital punishment; legalization of marijuana; putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions; raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour; overturning Citizens United; passing a family and medical leave act to allow at least twelve weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or address a personal or family health issue; expanding Social Security by lifting the cap so wealthier Americans contribute to it too; investing in a state-of-the art infrastructure project that included creating millions of green energy jobs; scaling back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas; eliminating tax breaks for big oil and gas companies; making community college tuition free; and cracking down on methods companies use to dodge their tax responsibilities. (Click on “platform” above for the complete draft.)

In his monthly column “Vox Populist” in the December issue of The Progressive, Jim Hightower outlines specific ballot initiatives voters around the country supported on election day. They were:

  • Minimum-wage increases in Arizona, Maine, Colorado, and Washington state. “Seventy-one percent of South Dakota voters rejected a proposal to lower its minimum wage.”
  • Washington (64%) and California (52%) passed initiatives calling for a constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United.
  • A 77%-passed initiative in Minnesota removes the power of state lawmakers to set their own salaries, and replaces it with a bipartisan citizens’ council.

In addition, there were some progressive “firsts”:

  • Pramila Jayapal of Washington state was elected the first Indian American woman to Congress.
  • Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada was elected the first Latina U.S. Senator.
  • Kamala Harris of California was elected the first Indian American Senator.
  • Kate Brown of Oregon was elected the first openly LGBT governor.
  • Stephanie Murphy of Florida was elected the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress.
  • Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was elected the first Somali American Muslim woman elected to a state legislature.
  • Sam Park was elected the first openly gay state legislator in Georgia.

As Hightower concludes his piece, “Trump is in the White House, but the takeaway from voters in this election is a mandate for progressive economic populism and more diversity among public officials.”

I’m going to think of that every time Trump does something to embarrass us, which he undoubtedly will. A lot. I’m going to think about all progressives accomplished last year whenever I’m beginning to feel despondent over the future. I’m going to think about what we progressives have done to change the political trajectory when I’m at the intersection of Independence Avenue and Third Street SW, near the U.S. Capitol, on January 21 participating in the Women’s March.

Now is not a time for complacency. Now is the time to build on our progressive revolution and bring our country back to its F.D.R. values. We can do it, but only together. As Bernie Sanders and President Obama have stated, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” We must hold Donald Trump and his band of cronies accountable for every misstep that violates our core ideals. We must shout as loudly and as long as we can to drown out the din of oligarchy so that we put a genuine progressive in the White House in 2020.

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