Neoliberal House Democrats will collaborate with Trump unless grassroots pressure prevents them. Now that the midterm election is over, what can we do to preempt that collaboration? We need to shift from a short-term electoral to a long-term community and union focus, and shift from preaching to the choir to expanding our base. To build the multiracial working class coalition it will take to win in the face of climate crisis and neofascism, we must make a real commitment to solidarity and lift up a vision of a transformed society with democracy and dignity for all. Only we ourselves can save us.
On election night Nancy Pelosi said, “We will strive for bipartisanship with fairness for all sides.” This signals a dangerous rhetorical capitulation to the politics peddled by President Trump, one that could easily continue the rightward slide of the country. Rather than reinforcing the idea that the far right is a reasonable balance to moderate Democrats, House Democrats must refuse to collaborate. Strategically, this means building a disciplined bloc capable of passing dramatic reforms like a federal living wage, free college for all, and a Green New Deal, which would materially improve the lives of poor and working-class people, and sending them along to be voted on by the Republican Senate. Newly-elected democratic socialist Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib could be the warriors leading the charge rhetorically, as Sen. Bernie Sanders does in the other chamber, rallying the grassroots and bringing an ideological challenge to the very idea that for some to do well, the majority must suffer in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
But the reality is that the current Democratic Party leadership is far too beholden to special interest money, whether from Wall Street, the charter school lobby, big pharma or private health insurance. What’s much more likely to occur is the establishment Democrats will continue to listen to wealthy funders, overpaid consultants and beltway-bound policy wonks, rather than their own constituents, or more importantly, people in their districts who have given up on voting.
In the face of this neglect, only the broad left and progressive organizations with roots in communities can prevent the spread of Trump’s dangerous ideology. In the age of neoliberal capitalism, we live our lives in isolation, largely mediated by a computer or cell phone screen, and under conditions of economic precarity. The quiet desperation that leads to opioid and alcohol abuse, and the twin crises of farmer and taxi driver suicides, is but one symptom of an economy which drives down living standards and depends on competition rather than cooperation. We must rebuild social ties and movement infrastructure in communities hollowed out by free trade, factory closings and predatory lending, and organize for victories in and outside of the formal political sphere. As Trump perfects his base-building and turnout machine, the Republicans prepare for redistricting, and the Supreme Court continues apace with terrible rulings, ceding this ground and only talking with folks we are already comfortable with will be a continuation of the left’s failed strategy thus far. We need a return to genuine, deep organizing for power.
With groups in all 50 states, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — the group for which I am the national director — is well positioned to do this work alongside allies, and in fact we are already doing it. We go door to door in campaigns about housing, police violence, and a host of issues, but especially for Medicare for All. This election was a battle between a negative frame — fear of “violent” immigrants — and a positive one: hope for health care. Exit polls showed that health care was the number one issue on voters’ minds, and in three red states they overruled Republican state legislators to expand Medicaid. In two other states, voters elected governors who promised to expand Medicaid — not surprising since we know more than 50 percent of Republicans support single-payer health care. Our so-called health care system, where private insurers and big pharma wring profits out of our bodies by rationing care, works for virtually no one but the capitalist class.
The problem is that the same Wall Street Democrats that are ready to negotiate with Trump have already given up on Medicare for All. The aspects of the Affordable Care Act that made it so vulnerable to erosion, namely the inclusion of private insurance providers and drug companies, are being rhetorically lumped in with real Medicare for All, which is a single-payer, progressively funded health care system. This will be a poison pill and counter to the vision of the most successful Democrats who won on Election Day.
The other key lesson from this election is simply that racism continues to be a defining characteristic of our country, embedded in all our institutions, and organizing must confront it head-on, not only in terms of our goals but also how we go about our work. The problem is so stark that in full view of a watching nation, Georgia culminated a two-year campaign to purge more than 10 percent of its registered voters, block the registration of over 30,000 more, and shut down over 200 polling places mostly in neighborhoods of poor people and people of color, by setting up polling machines in Black neighborhoods on election day without power cords (and as we’re now learning, locking up hundreds of other machines in warehouses while Black Atlantans spent hours in line waiting to vote.) The same exit polls that showed health care as the top issue also showed white people continuing their historic behavior of voting their skin color. Until we — both liberals and the left — ask ourselves what we’re doing that’s not working, this trend will continue.
Part of the solution lies in the kind of universal economic demands, like Medicare for All, that benefit us all and around which we can organize people across our differences. The work of building something against a common enemy creates trust, as union members everywhere can attest, including those who struck this year or are still out on strike in the historic wave of worker collective actions. Bosses consistently play on racism to divide workers and there are tragic episodes where union workers fell for it, but on balance being able to see through it and refuse to be moved is a defining characteristic of a strong union member — and necessary to win. Many people do not start there, but through the struggle we learn this solidarity.
The other side of the coin is ensuring our organizing names the way race permeates our lives and is central to class identity, and confronting it head on. If Trump is screaming about racial conflict every day and the color line is enforced by random individuals as well as institutions, the silence of white people is disingenuous and undermines trust. In this context, campaigns like that of Houston DSA member Franklin Bynum against cash bail and punitive criminal legal system practices was a model for organizing the most oppressed. Work done by the DSA’s Florida chapters for Amendment 4, organizing for re-enfranchisement of people with felony convictions through a racial justice frame, and the work of our chapters in Nashville and Denver against aspects of mass incarceration, were all victorious, demonstrating that even in this hostile climate, organizing for racial justice can win. Post-election work is building on the relationships now developed through these campaigns and linking them to our Medicare for All and Abolish ICE campaigns.
When we can have genuine conversations with people in our communities and workplaces outside of our own social circle or activist bubble and knit together broad coalitions with a transformative vision, when we can see that winning the House was a critical but incomplete step in taking on the capitalist class, and when we can collectively engage in larger mass collective actions like militant strikes, only then will we be on the way to reversing the conditions that opened the door to Trump. Let’s get to work.