I've been reading some of the ways that people are trying to spin the Democrats' big election victory on Tuesday (which, if course, I am also still celebrating!) My sense is that it is a big win for grassroots candidates and for economic populists. I heartily welcome both of these outcomes.
I should begin, however, with a response to the pessimism/realism exhibited by ambivalent_maybe of this blog in his comment on my last post. I agree with him that many good D's did not win, and that in some parts of the country, Democrats still faced an uphill battle, even against awful Republican opponents. Like him, I come from a very conservative Republican dominated part of the country. But this year, even Nebraska 3rd district of the 100% rural and small town western and central part of the state--where I grew up, often rated one of the Top 5 Republican districts in the whole country!--had a surprisingly competitive election, ending 55-45 (this is far closer than I recall a Democrat ever getting since I was born!) If you look all across the country at different races, Democrats ran stronger ALMOST EVERYWHERE than thay have since I can remember. They not only took the House and more amazingly the Senate, but they took 6 governorships, state houses all across the country (they now apparently control 15, as many as the Republicans in 1994!) Pending the outcome of one final close race in Georgia, where the Democrat leads, the Democrats lost not even ONE SINGLE SEAT nationwide in the U.S. Congress, an almost unprecedented (or is it completely unprecedented?) achievement. Thus, while we would be well advised to be realistic that this is only the beginning of the Progressive revival in America, we also need to recognize that it is real, dynamic shift, which we should celebrate and run with. Carpe diem!
The real battle, as many of us pointed out before the election, is what the Democratic leaders will do now. Will they re-trench and be over-cautious, or will they boldy lead forward with progressive changes? I'm not saying they should issue articles of impeachment in January (although through careful and methodical hearings over time on various matters, that might emerge as a real possibility in due course), but we should not be hesistant about pushing the envelope on series issues such as health care, Iraq, trade policy, education, the environment, etc., etc. As movement progressives, we need to fight for an enduring, bold agenda.
Part of that fight begins right now as we argue over the meaning of the election: who won and how they won. I've already heard several conservative establishment types say that so many of the Democrats are "conservative" that we cannot push for anything bold. Yet even as many pundits use cultural issues as a crude gauge for labelling certain Democrats as liberal, moderate, or conservative, under the radar screen many of them ran successfully on economically populist and progressive themes: Brown in Ohio, Casey in Pennsylvania, Tester in Montana, Webb in Virginia, and countless House races (including even a Democratic-establishment-recruited but strong anti-NAFTA winner in western North Carolina!) Voters also approved minimum wage increases in every single state where they were on the ballot. Even the tricky issues that didn't necessarily go the traditional liberal way, such as ballot questions on immigration in Arizona or on affirmative action in Michigan, reveal discontent that is based in large part on economic struggles that Democrats should be paying attention to. If Democrats run with a bold working-class economic agenda, we just might keep far-right Republicans from luring white working-class people--who have absolutely legitimate concerns about how the system is treating them--with racist appeals to blame immigrants and minorities for their plight. THIS IS THE MOMENT for restoring the center of the Democratic party as the party of ALL working people in America.
The other big issue for interpreting the results is to note how well many of the grassroots candidates did. Bloggers are screaming to take credit for all the "netroots" candidates--Sen. Tester, Sen. Webb, Pa.'s Rep. Sestak, Pa.'s Rep. Murphy, and many more--who came through despite either initial indifference or outright opposition from the Democratic establishment. Detractors argue that many of the netroots targets didn't win, and that many establishment candidates did. I am inclined to agree mostly with the bloggers (of course, we ourselves are bloggers, but I'm talking here about big-name ones). They were often taking on races that were completely ignored, with long odds, or candidates who came from the grassroots without tons of outside cash. It is really quite amazing that so many did so well at all. I do think that grassroots and netroots activism played a key role in this year's successes, and I almost wish now that I had done more to support their efforts. The blogosphere should also be credited--along with Howard Dean--for supporting a 50-state strategy, which gave the Democrats chances in districts that might not have even had credible candidates otherwise; when the political winds blew strong, the Democrats were ready to ride them. The role of grassroots candidates was also important on the ground, perhaps even more than on-line. This development is wonderful, because it means that the election represents more than just the success of one focus-group tested, triangulating, fake candidate over another. The progressive tide will only continue as long as it represents a grassroots effort by American voters across the country.
To a lesser extent, there was also evidence of moderate backlash against hard-core, far-right social conservatism. Anti-gay-marriage and anti-abortion laws in the "red" (in 2000 & 2004) states of South Dakota and Arizona were defeated. Both were such extremist proposals--the one in South Dakota banned abortion even in the case of rape, and the one in Arizona would have banned even domestic partner benefits for gay or straight couples. Still, like Tess over at Arch Words, I find some hope that right-wing extremism can be (narrowly) defeated at the polls even in conservative heartland states like Missouri. To the extent that Democrats can reclaim an economic populist heart, I think these cultural conservative issues will become less of a problem for the Democratic coalition (and, hey, some of them, such as opposition to stem cell research and abortion, are not majority issues anyway).