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Progressives Aren’t Winning Headlines, But They Are Winning Legislation

Despite frustrations at the federal level, progressive officials and activists are winning in states and municipalities.

Nearly eight years since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, progressives are notching wins on both federal and municipal levels.

It has been nearly eight years since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign breathed new life into the U.S. progressive movement, and nearly six since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) upset primary win provided a roadmap for progressive candidates to advance their politics in the electoral arena. Since then, the modern progressive movement has notched many more victories: Candidates have been elected across the country from the municipal to federal levels, and policies codifying abortion access, decriminalizing marijuana, expanding state-sponsored health care, and taking steps towards ameliorating the housing crisis have passed at the local and state levels.

All this has taken place, though, against a backdrop of surging right-wing energy at the national level. Donald Trump’s blockbuster term of Supreme Court appointments has likely ensured a generation of right-wing judicial capture, and the results are already wreaking havoc on the lives of many. And with Trump easily outpacing the rest of the field of Republican contenders for the 2024 presidential nomination, Joe Biden’s 2020 victory seems less like a resounding defeat of Trumpism and more a temporary outmaneuvering.

Meanwhile, there appears to be real trouble afoot in the world of progressive electoral support organizations that played a critical role in helping candidates win their elections in recent cycles. Most visibly, Justice Democrats, the organization closely associated with AOC and other prominent congressional progressives, laid off nearly 50 percent of its staff in July. The organization’s executive director, Alexandra Rojas, explicitly cited fundraising shortfalls as the driver of the layoffs.

The layoffs came on the heels of what could be characterized as a disappointing primary season in 2022 for progressive organizations that have long staked their reputations on unseating moderate incumbents. Whereas the 2018 and 2020 cycles each brought numerous upset successes for progressive challengers to more moderate Democrats, only one such candidate, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, came out of the pack of progressive challengers in 2022. McLeod-Skinner, though, went on to lose to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in the general election, fueling criticisms that progressive candidates can only win in the deepest blue districts. While progressive candidates did better in races for open seats, these wins did not bring the same level of attention as progressives’ dethroning of moderate incumbents in past cycles.

Even more ominously, in electoral cycles in 2021 and 2022, left-leaning candidates were forced to contend with huge amounts of outside spending coming from the conservative pro-Israel lobby, led by Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This spending was not constrained to defeating left challengers to moderate incumbents; both groups also spent to defeat incumbent Andy Levin, a progressive Jewish member of Congress who faced over $4 million worth of attack ads. In many of these races, the tidal wave of outside spending was simply too great to be combated with grassroots organizing by a movement whose resources had already been stretched thin by consecutive electoral cycles on the offensive.

The flagging energy among progressive organizations and their supporters may be partly due to the lack of a central, galvanizing movement figure. Bernie Sanders’s campaigns in 2016 and 2020 offered a singular focus behind which progressive organizations of diverse tendencies could rally while also providing a vehicle through which the profiles of candidates running in state and local races could be elevated. Through offering his imprimatur, Sanders brought media attention, fundraising and votes to many more candidates running in down-ballot races.

Another difficulty for progressive unity is the ambiguity surrounding Donald Trump’s future — that is, whether 2025 will find him in the White House or in federal prison — and so progressives cannot rely, either, on Trump to function as the antipodal force that drew progressives together into coalition through his first term. Given the headwinds they now face, it’s reasonable to wonder whether progressives still have a strong enough coalition to make inroads either on the electoral or policy fronts.

Analyses that find a progressive movement in steep decline tend to focus solely on the national level, though. A closer look at progressive campaigns on the state and municipal levels reveals a different picture. Last year, ballot measures that would have severely curtailed abortion access were defeated by progressive activists campaigning in deep red Montana, Kansas and Kentucky. Meanwhile, in cities from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, voters approved affordable housing measures championed by local progressives.

Not all of these wins were definitive; in Montana, for example, the Republican-dominated state legislature subsequently passed a watered-down version of the anti-abortion ballot measure, while activists in Portland have already defeated a first attempt by the real estate lobby to overturn affordable housing measures that recently passed. Maneuvers like these illustrate how far reactionary political forces will go in attempting to undo progressive victories and point to the degree of control of state and local bodies that the left must aspire to if they want to concretize their policy wins.

Electoral efforts in previous cycles are beginning to pay off for activists, too. State legislators in New York, where a bloc of progressive electeds has been built over the last few electoral cycles, passed the Build Public Renewables Act (BRPA) earlier this year. The legislation marks significant progress toward both public ownership of utilities in the state and the proliferation of renewable energy. The legislation passed despite opposition from Gov. Kathy Hochul, a moderate Democrat who unsuccessfully tried to combat the legislation by offering a more milquetoast version of the bill. This success was the culmination of years of coordination between electoral organizers and climate activists who built the legislative bloc and policy basis that fed into a successful campaign for the legislation.

Meanwhile, city councilors in Somerville, where progressives have built a supermajority over several electoral cycles, have taken increasingly bold steps in enacting left-leaning policy. These efforts have culminated in the city council’s recent request to the Massachusetts state legislature to enact home rule in Somerville to address its affordable housing crisis.

The success of the BPRA and policy advancements made by the Somerville city council can be seen as models for where progressive activism is likely headed in the years to come. As I’ve written before, the U.S. left is less in a period of decline than it is in a period of norming and building its own institutions. We probably won’t see many sensational electoral victories in the next few cycles — moderate Democrats have become accustomed to combatting the progressive playbook, and outside spending on behalf of moderates is only increasing — but we will begin to see the efforts of earlier electoral successes bear fruit as former progressive candidates, now seasoned legislators, effect real policy wins.

And there is reason to be hopeful that we’ll see more wins for left activists, like the BPRA, crop up in other states and cities across the country. Just in the past two years, progressives have begun the process of developing blocs of left-leaning legislators in Colorado and Wisconsin, and in cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Somerville, Ithaca and San Antonio. As progressives make further inroads and potentially take control of these bodies, we are likely to see passage of more legislation that, like the BPRA, implements the policy prescriptions leftists have pushed for.

The question now is whether this new, comparatively phlegmatic era of left activism can still captivate its supporters — and capture their donation dollars. While activists were instrumental to the boom of the New New Left, the surge in progressivism over the last seven years has also been sustained by millions of silent, but engaged, boosters. If these fellow travelers are amenable to supporting progressive activists through this lull in headline accomplishments, it will allow the left to begin to work earnestly on building the institutions and structures it will need to survive in the long run.

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