With the US witnessing rising levels of community and labor activism in the past two years, one would expect the 2014 midterm elections to be a vibrant moment of civic engagement, translating that activity into political power. But this year, that wasn’t the case.
In every corner of the country there are examples of an active and engaged population pushing for change. The murders of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Mike Brown in Ferguson as well as countless others killed at the hands of police generated a new spirit of organizing affirming that black lives matter. LGBTQ issues are making dramatic advances and unheard of cultural leaps. Our cities are roiling with the fight for 15 and a rising tide to lift the minimum wage. More than 400,000 people turned out for climate justice this Fall in New York City to sway the UN discussion. Native and indigenous communities pledge to be Idle No More. Undocumented people have tirelessly faced down fear and placed their bodies in the way of buses to stop deportations. And the incredible stamina of the Moral Mondays movement in the face of attacks of voting rights and campaign finance laws refuses to wane.
Yet voter turnout predictions going into the midterm elections this November were sagging, and despite herculean efforts, proved to be true. With so much in motion, where’s the disconnect?
Some pundits will cut numbers and cite the overall trends of midterm elections. Others will point to the Right’s seizing on “Obamacare” and fanning the underlying racism against the first Black President. But a view of the electoral campaign trail from the trenches of organizing would point to this:
The courage of the community is not being matched by the candidates seeking our vote. Voter turnout isn’t a measure of the state of social movements, it matches approval numbers for Congress.
The impressive level of activity doesn’t translate to incredible turnout for Democrats because the party’s made it obvious that its first response to people’s real issues, is to translate them into exit poll calculations.
It was on display in a short interaction between Hillary Clinton and a young woman in Iowa. When the woman introduced herself as a “Dreamer,” Clinton cheered with a “yay!” But when she asked what Clinton thought of President deciding to continue deportations leading up to the elections, her response was most telling. Without looking at the young woman concerned for her loved ones, the presidential candidate said, “I think we have to elect more Democrats.”
And there it is. Even if Democrats had managed to hold on to the Senate, they had already lost the moment that is 2014.
Their losing their seats wasn’t due to the lack of effort of those mobilizing the vote. Contrary to Nancy Pelosi’s allegations, it also wasn’t because of those criticizing the Democratic Party. The party itself must look in the mirror to explain why it lost and what caused its clear and simple failure to either capture our imagination of what’s possible or to lead with a fraction of the courage its constituency is regularly displaying.
The Democratic Party has relied on the loyalty of voting blocks, including Latinos and African Americans. Within that strategy, they’ve grown too comfortable defending their inaction with the argument that they are the lesser of two evils.
Many feel they ask us to display patience while they display political cowardice.
Reading the tealeaves of this election cycle didn’t require Nate Silver insights. It’s simple. People are not motivated to vote for candidates who legislate with their main consideration being the next election cycle or campaign contribution check.
After election day there will be a flurry of punditing about what the results mean for the future of a variety of issues.
But I’d like to offer a different metric.
The success or failure of the Democrats ought to be measured by the distance or proximity they have to the genuine efforts of the communities they’ve always considered locked-in voters. It will be in the moments when they stop to look the child of a parent in deportation proceedings in the eye or stand with the mother whose child was killed by police not just for the photo op but when its time for accountability.
Commentators often say that there is a fight going on for the soul of the Republican Party but I would say that it is any politician who is told of suffering and hears only vote percentiles that has soul searching to do. Perhaps that will be the best measure, and so far, they’re coming up short.