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No Matter Who’s Elected, We Must Keep Demanding More

Democrats are advocating for more progressive priorities — thanks to grassroots activists.

Candidates stand onstage at the start of the Democratic presidential debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

Part of the Series

Elections come and go like seasons, and much like these yearly changes in the weather, we have a general idea of what to expect. As elections approach, candidates vie for their spot on the ballot and seek a supportive base. This phase is when we know politicians will change and say just about anything to attract the favor and loyalty of voters seeking someone true. It’s a point that is important to pay attention to, because it’s a time when people express what they need, when organizers can make key demands and when politicians make promises for which they can later be held to account.

The 2020 election has shown itself to be one of the most jarring spectacles some of us have seen in our lifetimes. Long after the reality of a Trump presidency has set in for those who disbelieved such a term could ever exist, another sits before us as a daunting prospect. The very possibility is enough to make some people feel desperate for just about anything that paints itself to be a viable alternative. Unfortunately, this desperation repeats a process that has taken place during many previous elections. It’s the contours of this repetition that we must organize through and around. That is to say, when we see how desperation-driven strategies repeat themselves, we realize we must make our organizing stronger.

Here’s one example: Many of the Democratic Party candidates have put forth strong criminal legal reform proposals in their platforms. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s platforms have been spoken of as “the most decarceral criminal justice platforms ever.” But these criminal legal system platforms calling for the abolition of cash bail and the death penalty, and for the legalization of marijuana didn’t fall from the sky. It was the tireless work of organizers who’ve fought for these priorities — and traded blows with this system — that got us here.

Seeing this organizing reflected in platforms is a reflection of the labor of activists over the course of decades. If organizers (many of them prison abolitionists) hadn’t been making these demands for years, they wouldn’t be included in a national platform as elements to make candidates seem more electable. (In fact, just a few short years ago, many of these positions would spell certain doom for a presidential candidate.)

Unfortunately, the electoral landscape hasn’t completely caught up with the times, on this issue. One of the candidates running for president is a great contributor to carceral violence as we know it, and another is a relentless prosecutor and former attorney general. However, even these candidates feel they must pay lip service to the growing movement for structural reform of the criminal legal system. Sen. Kamala Harris’s attempt to portray herself as a “progressive prosecutor” is a sign that the growing movement to elect reformist prosecutors is influencing national politics.

In other realms of electoral messaging, the push for Medicare for All and calls to cancel student debt have gained great momentum in this election, thanks to long-term grassroots organizing work. For decades, people have demanded universal access to health care in the U.S.

Now, to the tune of single-payer or “Medicare for All,” people are addressing the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act. A generation that has realized that the “promise of higher education” only amounted to the guarantee of debt refuses to accept the bill. Those organizing around student debt may call it student loan “forgiveness,” but the desire is for all student debt to be abolished. Additionally, people are confronting the climate crisis with a sense of urgency that increasingly matches the emergency at hand. Candidates see this, and they’re responding with reforms and plans to address the climate disaster in their own way.

The fact that these priorities have become “campaign issues” is a manifestation of activists’ unwavering commitment. Regardless of politicians’ sincerity going into or coming from the inner workings of the state, they’re hoping to appeal to our issues because our movements are growing in size. Organizing creates tension for the establishment that wants things to remain as they are. The establishment then in turn seeks to co-opt our movements so it can control them through the entangling processes of representation and governance. In the midst of climate crisis and growing inequality, time isn’t being as forgiving as we may like. There’s a sense of urgency among many of us that points to the need for more than just electoral pressure: We must also have good organizing.

No matter who wins, we must keep in mind that the president makes decisions that impact our lives — but they’re not the final decider of what determines how our lives will be. Our fight and our work is much bigger than the election. Realizing the ways in which our disruptions are influencing electoral politics means realizing we shouldn’t limit our demands. What was once considered “radical” not long ago — for example, abolishing money bail or canceling student debt — has now entered the realm of the U.S. mainstream. More people are rejecting capitalism and questioning the sincerity of government, and that’s not insignificant. We aren’t waiting on a hero or a savior to come in the form of a politician. Instead, we are demanding what we need at a time of great public crisis.

Right now, we must hold steady on our demands and ask even more. Nothing is too much when we are facing down a system whose existence is in fact, too much. The more we refuse, the more we contest, the better. Our action has the potential to move this nation to the left and establish an opposition that will not only make demands but dictate a future where people can be truly safe, happy and free.

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