Elections are not how we change history. But they are a big part of how we—social movements, poor and disenfranchised and marginalized people, communities of color—engage with power. So when we win electoral victories, it matters. A lot. It’s not because of which party wins, which state turns from red to purple or back again. Elections are not a box of crayons.
It’s because of what happens when people are sent to congress or to the state house by and from our movements, and voted in by mobilized, engaged and enraged constituencies who will hold them accountable for what they do. We didn’t win everything last night—we never do. But we did see amazing victories in diversifying who serves in Congress (including topping 100 women for the first time) and expanding who gets the right to vote.
Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, won a House seat in New Mexico last night. Sharice Davids, from the Ho-Chunk Nation tribe, defeated her Republican opponent in Kansas. They are the first two Native women ever elected to Congress. In Michigan, community organizer Rashida Tlaib won the seat of legendary Congressman John Conyers, while Minnesota elected Somali-American Ilhan Omar to replace Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress (and who was himself just elected state attorney general). Tlaib and Omar are the first Muslim women in the House of Representatives. Kevin Thomas, an Indian-American immigrant was elected to the New York State Senate from Levittown, the Long Island community created to keep Black and brown people and immigrants out. Massachusetts elected its first African-American woman, Ayanna Pressley. In Georgia, African-American gun control advocate Lucy McBath is narrowly beating out her white opponent for Newt Gingrich’s old seat in the House.
These trailblazers are all intersectional in identity and in political principles. Davids will also be the first openly LGBTQ representative in her state. Omar is also the first Muslim refugee elected, and Tlaib is also the first Palestinian woman in Congress.
Deb Haaland comes out of one of the most impoverished populations of one of this country’s poorest states—and she was elected with a commitment to defend Native rights. But her political goals go further, campaigning on the need for democratizing taxes across the country. “America isn’t broke,” she said, “but we have been pillaged by billionaires and big corporations who get rich off our infrastructure and expect working people to foot the bill.”
Pressley campaigned to close the vast economic gaps in Boston, pointing to the 32-year difference in average life expectancy between rich and poor neighborhoods. She described the situation as “the legacy of decades of policies that have hardened systemic racism, increased income inequality, and advantaged the affluent,” and campaigned on a program of economic justice including longer prison terms for bank executives whose fraud or negligence endangers working people’s retirement and savings.
On voting rights, there was a huge victory in Florida, with the passage of an initiative re-enfranchising more than 1.5 million returning citizens who had served their sentences for earlier felonies. As many pointed out throughout the night, this would allow the formerly incarcerated to join the two largest groups of people to win voting rights in the 20th century—women in 1920, and 18-year-olds in 1971. As is always the case, the 60+ percent vote needed to pass the re-enfranchisement initiative didn’t just happen—it was the result of years of hard, slogging work by a wide coalition of organizations and activists coming out of the racial justice, anti-mass incarceration, civil liberties and other movements. It was a victory of movements over politicians.
There were victories for trans rights in Massachusetts and for union rights in Wisconsin, where the infamously anti-union governor Scott Walker was defeated. Strong minimum wage laws passed in Arkansas and Missouri. A constitutional amendment for same-day registration and an anti-gerrymandering initiative passed in Michigan.
As movements, we can be proud of how incredibly close so many elections in the south were, in places like Georgia, Texas, Florida and elsewhere. In North Carolina, after our years of battling and beating voter suppression, the extremist Republicans lost their veto-proof racist majorities in the General Assembly, so they cannot override the new democratic governor. And NC elected another Black woman justice to the State Supreme Court.
Of course we’re far from full-on victories. North Carolina also voted to put a photo ID clause in the state constitution—which will of course set up a legal battle. But even where the most progressive candidates did not prevail, it reveals the breaking of the once-solid right-wing hold on the south. We are witnessing the death of the once-automatic victories of white extremism in the south. Instead, we are seeing diverse electorates we never saw 20 years ago. And beyond the immediate electoral shifts, those changes can create a new recognition among “small-d” democrats and progressives, anti-racist campaigners and beyond, that the south is where we need to ramp up our work. Not just in the run-up to elections, but all the time.
Democrats will retake the House majority. And there, the real victory is that many of the Democrats who won are progressives, some of them avowed socialists, and most all emerged out of social movements, campaigning for immigrant rights and the Fight for $15, for ending US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and taxing the rich their fair share.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus will expand greatly in number and power, as its members with seniority will become chairs of most committees and subcommittees, and will be able to hold hearings, launch investigations, and pass bold legislation. Actual legislation will of course be largely stymied by the Republican-held Senate, but much can be accomplished anyway, particularly in exposing government wrongdoing. And we may see new levels of engagement between social movements and citizens, and the representatives they organized and voted for.
In the governors’ races, the defeat of Kris Kobach in Kansas, who as secretary of state was responsible for so much of the Trump-backed voter suppression efforts around the country, was only the start. There were sweet victories for progressives as anti-worker, anti-poor leaders in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kansas were defeated. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams ran an amazing race against high odds—and could still become the first African-American woman governor. She faced a Trump-backed and extraordinarily vicious, racist, misogynist campaign, as well as the harsh reality that her opponent, the Georgia secretary of state, used his office to disenfranchise 56,000 people, most of them people of color, on the eve of the election. As of Wednesday afternoon, her Republican opponent had 50.3% of tallied votes—but many early ballots remained uncounted, and if his final vote is less than 50%, a run-off is required. Abrams has so far refused to concede.
Other movement-supported candidates took some hard licks as well. We saw the heartbreakingly narrow defeat of progressive Tallahassie mayor Andrew Gillum, who would have been the first African-American governor in Florida’s history. Beto O’Rourke came tantalizingly close but was ultimately defeated as senator from Texas. Washington state’s carbon fee initiative lost, and Colorado’s effort to increase the space required between fracking operations and schools, homes and bodies of water was defeated as well.
And we must recognize the sober reality that the president and too many others campaigned on hate—on racism and Islamophobia, on hating immigrants and “the other”—and that in many places it worked. In Texas 59% of white women voted for Ted Cruz against Beto O’Rourke, despite all his policies that will hurt women and children. Racism and division are not anomalies in our country, they are part of the basis on which this country was founded. We have movement work to do.
The most important defeat of the 2018 midterm elections was the fact that 51% of the voting public still did not vote. With all the anger, all the outrage, all the marches and mobilizations, more than half didn’t show up. Certainly many faced structural or institutional problems—for some, the poll lines were too long (by design, as happened in Georgia) and, being low-wage workers with no paid leave, they had to report to work and couldn’t wait that long. Naturalized immigrants in border communities may have been terrified to vote. Others, poor and elderly or disabled, couldn’t get to the polls because they can’t drive/can’t afford a car, and there’s no public transit where they live. We have movement work to do to change that.
But millions more who could have voted stayed home. What if they had gone to the polls instead? What if Democrats had reclaimed the Senate as well as the House? It wouldn’t have meant the end of systemic racism and misogyny, environmental degradation and corporate overlordism, Islamophobia or anti-immigrant laws. Not to speak of endless wars and an out-of-control military budget—plenty of Democrats are longstanding supporters there.
But if more registered voters—more young people, more people of color, more poor people, more women, more immigrants and students and workers and activists—had voted, things might be just a bit better. That’s our real challenge. Not to get caught up in the negatives, the limitations of elections which are always—always—about how we engage with power, not victories in and of themselves. And certainly not to just go chill, not to think the fight is over because we won a few things. The challenge is to mobilize now, harder than ever. Not just about voting, though voting remains a key right we need to continue to fight for. But to mobilize, to organize, to build the movements and the organizations we’re going to need to fight for power. We have a long way to go – last night was only the latest of our beginnings. We have movement work to do.