The United States is experiencing an extraordinary political moment. Apart from the omnipresent chaos that surrounds the Trump presidency itself – the near-daily stress test on the country’s democratic institutions – there’s also contention around how the economy functions, around social benefits, around civil rights, around gender relations, immigration policy, the environment, the composition of the US Supreme Court (not to mention a slew of lower federal courts), voting rights and myriad other big-ticket items.
“We’re at a crossroads,” says Brigid Flaherty, the co-founder and co-director of Down Home North Carolina, a group that has spent the past two years organizing Appalachian communities in the state around social justice and economic issues. “Depending on how things go in the midterms, this sets the course for the next 10 years, if not more,” Flaherty says. “Everybody’s issues are on the chopping block.”
With the 2018 midterm elections fast approaching, Equal Voice News talked with a number of social justice organizers to get their read on what is most at stake over the coming years. Many say that the interwoven nature of the challenges – from sweeping attacks on voting rights and longstanding systemic racism in housing and education, to the rolling crisis of climate change and the criminalization of protest – creates great political dangers. But at the same time, they see opportunities for alliance and movement building and the sort of cross-issues organizing, especially for families, that was too often muted before.
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“We’ve asked if this is a new political moment. It is,” says Cindy Wiesner, the Miami-based national coordinator for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance. “No single faction alone can take on what we’re facing. The resurgence of right-wing populism globally. We see it as a manifestation of multiple systemic crises – neo-liberalism, a crisis of the environment, people questioning state legitimacy.”
Wiesner says GGJA is particularly concerned with “a dismantling of public services, the growing power of the super-rich – it’s no hold barred for corporations and the super-rich – the blatant rise of White nationalism, the using of race, gender and class in a very clear and divisive manner.”
Wiesner adds: “We’ve seen an unprecedented mobilization of forces and [traditionally] unorganized people in this country. We have to think about not just the resistance that is necessary, is defensive, but ways to get on the offensive. We have to have the audacity to not lose that hope. Because the level of devastation, from children in cages to extreme rollback on climate regulations, to worker protections, you see it every day. We have to be really bold in this moment, fighting for this country, for our dignity and for humanity. Everything we care about and value is being taken away. But we are the majority in a lot of ways. People all over the world are wanting something different. We believe another world is possible.”
That sense of risk combined with possibility runs as a recurring theme through conversations with organizers. “There is no resting now,” Flaherty says. “Every day should be a fight to ensure we are really talking about the issues in a way that resonates with voters.”
Increasingly, that involves a much more assertive conversation about economic, environmental and legal change.
Health Care and the View From Nebraska
James Goddard, director of anti-poverty and health care programs at Nebraska Appleseed notes that after the November 2016 election, “the idea for months and months was getting rid of the Affordable Care Act. That was something that’s helped many people in Nebraska get health insurance.”
When the Republican effort in Congress to roll back the Affordable Care Act (ACA) failed, Goddard’s organization moved from being on the defensive – telling the stories of Nebraskans who benefited from increased access to insurance, in an effort to drum up support for preserving core parts of the ACA – to pushing to expand Medicaid in the state. When the state Legislature failed to support the expansion, Appleseed and other organizations worked to put a Medicaid-expansion initiative on the November 2018 ballot.
The signature-gathering effort proved fruitful, even in extremely conservative, rural areas of the state. Similar measures will also be on the ballot in November in Idaho and Utah. And Montanans will vote on an initiative to make their state’s 3-year expansion of Medicaid permanent.
“I think we have a really good chance,” Goddard says. Now, however, there is a new worry: What if Nebraskans vote to expand Medicaid and then the next Congress tries to repeal the ACA again? Or what if a newly minted conservative majority on the Supreme Court issues a series of decisions that have the same ultimate effect? “There’s a lot at stake,” Goddard says. Absent certainty in the health care markets, he is concerned that rural hospitals will end up particularly vulnerable. Some, he says, could even close.
Some organizers around the country are concerned that a “domestic gag rule,” barring federal dollars to organizations that have anything to do with abortion services, will end up removing Title IX funding from thousands of health clinics that serve low-income women. More generally, organizers worry that the Supreme Court might dilute or even eliminate the protections of Roe v. Wade, which would then put the issue before state legislatures and governors.
Goddard also is preoccupied with what he regards as an ongoing crisis in wages. Nebraska largely escaped the unemployment catastrophe that plagued so much of the country post-2008 and currently posts a mere 2.8 percent unemployment, but the availability of jobs hasn’t eliminated economic hardship. “People still really struggle with poverty and hunger,” he says. “Twelve percent face food insecurity. Families with kids, it goes up to 16 percent. People are working hard, and they’re still struggling. We have work to do around policies relating to wages, including the minimum wage, and benefits.”
Nationwide: “Pathways to Mobility” for All
Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which works to organize low-income, frequently immigrant, domestic workers around the country, agrees. “There is a narrative that the economy is good, and there’s job growth,” she says, referring to the less than 4 percent national unemployment rate. “But the pressure on low-wage workers is intensifying, and benefits and services are being gutted. We should be doubling down on making poverty-wage jobs good jobs with pathways to mobility. You want to resume the notion of economic mobility from one generation to the next, but we’re going in the exact opposite direction.”
Over the coming years, workers’ ability to organize into trade unions in the private sector will come under renewed threat. And in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 decision in June 2018, public sector unions will face huge challenges in maintaining their funding streams from membership dues. A conservative Supreme Court could well issue even more restrictions on unions.
The issues won’t only be decided in the courts. How the economy functions and how wealth and opportunity will be distributed are, of course, political questions. In many states with conservative legislatures, more interventionist city councils have attempted to go their own way when it comes to increasing the local minimum wage, implementing prevailing wage rules and making available certain benefits.
Over the coming political cycles, some states will likely try to pass laws preventing their cities from implementing such policies. Already, that has happened in Alabama with state lawmakers essentially blocking the city of Birmingham from increasing the minimum wage. Another example is Missouri, where the Legislature pushed back against St. Louis’s efforts to raise the minimum wage. Iowa also has preempted some counties that raised the minimum wage within their boundaries.
Goddard is concerned that progressive organizers in Nebraska might win local wage increases only to see legislators preempt them. And he worries that, depending on the composition of Congress and the Supreme Court in coming years, new federal laws and legal rulings could make it all-but-impossible for local governments across the country to increase protections for the poor – dramatically shifting the balance of power away from cities.
Protecting the Poor, Especially in Arizona
Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association, is concerned about protections for the poor in an era when technologies, such as artificial intelligence, and robot-laborers are making it harder for many low-skilled workers to find stable employment. And that concern deepens regarding immigrant communities experiencing an increasingly xenophobic moment nationally. “The impact on communities – and families, and children,” she says. “That is a huge concern.”
Zwick worries about a combination of deliberately harsh social policies, deregulation and simple ineptitude in the face of rapid economic changes. She feels that among policymakers, there is “a lack of a sense of where we’re headed. And this supports more chaotic responses going forward.”
ACAA works with impoverished Arizonans, many of whom rely on public benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps and often referred to as SNAP. Since 2016, the political conversation at a federal level has shifted toward both cutting the amount of benefits issued and imposing work requirements on families accessing SNAP and Medicaid – both proposals depending on the outcome of the midterm elections. These proposals are likely to either move to the center of the political stage or be neutered by Congressional opposition.
The Trump administration also recently unveiled plans to reshape a more-than-century-old definition of “public charge” to make it harder for legal immigrants and their US-citizen children to access a range of nutritional, health and other services. After November, immigrants’ ability to use the country’s safety net will likely be further eviscerated or fortified against Trump’s regulatory changes by a newly assertive Congress.
“Every area of the federal administration is being used to target and punish immigrant communities and gut the legal immigration system, in addition to the hyper-criminalizing and traumatizing of people arriving [without documents] at our borders,” says Ai-jen Poo. “The stuff happening under cover is a revolutionary overhaul of how immigration happens.”
The Trump administration has put its muscle behind policies that would, in essence, pull out the underpinnings of America’s post-1965 immigration system. Family unification would no longer be a priority, and geographic and racial diversity would no longer be seen as desirable. Fewer immigrants would be allowed entry into the United States, including fewer refugees and asylum seekers. The proposals floated by the administration and by conservative legislators such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas call for roughly halving the number of immigrants admitted – and those would be essentially barred from all public services, even emergency health and nutritional interventions.
Some of these policy changes are specifically aimed at immigrants; others are part of a larger assault on the notion of the social safety net. That assault will continue after the midterms, regardless of who wins, and it will be guided by an executive branch that prioritizes cutting down non-military branches of government. “There’s a very deliberate dismantling that’s happening,” says Wiesner. “This version of the Republican Party has an agenda – the dismantling of the state apparatus.”
“The worst-case scenario is that the status quo continues to operate,” says Zwick. “The best-case scenario is that we begin to shift that division and moderate a coming together of people willing to sit down and address the issues.”
This story was produced by the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News, a digital storytelling platform.