The last week of June 2018 was an apocalyptic week in US politics, but I feel hopeful.
It started with the Supreme Court bombshells of upholding of the Muslim travel ban, a major blow to unions, and backing of anti-abortion pregnancy centers. And then Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, paving the way for a solidified hard-right supreme court that will very quickly revisit Roe v Wade, as well as many other decisions. All while no meaningful plan exists to reunite the over 2,000 children separated from their parents at the border, held in cages, and then sent to places where they know no one. A story that barely registered in the news cycle this week was the Trump administration’s plan to reorganize the federal government, massively slashing budgets for social services, privatizing public assets, and consolidating power. As I write this on Thursday, June 28 I receive another breaking news update: a white male has killed at least 5 people in the 195th mass shooting in the United States in 2018, this one at a newspaper in Maryland.
Someone close to me said “I haven’t felt this bad since the election. This week has felt impossibly dark.” Someone else I know pasted the word FUCK as many times as the character limit would allow in Facebook. Other people I know stopped what they were doing and joined occupations of ICE offices (some are still there). I had the familiar conversation with some friends over beers lamenting the state of the world and wondering if the announcement of the intention to eliminate due process for border crossing was the first actual step into fascism. People who have lived through fascist governments have said, yes, the United States is already in the first stages of fascism.
Then in the middle of the week something remarkable happened that gave me hope: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won the primary for the Democratic party for the 14th Federal Congressional District that encompasses parts of the Bronx and Queens. There is a lot that is remarkable about Ocasio-Cortez and her campaign: she is a 28 year old latina woman who defeated a 10 time incumbent who outspent her by more than 25 times. Ocasio-Cortez took no corporate money and ran as a Democratic Socialist with a campaign with bold progressive ideas including abolishing ICE and free Medicare and college tuition for all. Overnight, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory rewrote of the rules for how to win on the left.
I don’t live in Ocasio-Cortez district and I had only been following her race out of the corner of my eye. Her victory is a reminder of what I’ve believed since the beginning of my political life - local grassroots organizing matters. I donated to her campaign, but I didn’t expect her to win. Ironically, I have been spending the bulk of my organizing time over the past year learning about radical grassroots movements in cities in Spain, in Taiwan, and in Jackson, Mississippi to help the effort to network local places of resistance together to collectively fight repressive national policies and exploitative capitalism. I almost missed the revolution in my own back yard.
Many political analysts are also pointing out that Ocasio-Cortez radically changed local politics in New York state and New York City. The opponent she defeated was not only the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the US House of Representatives, but is also the head of the locally powerful Queens County Democratic Party that often played the decisive role in deciding who assumed positions of power in local government. Ocasio-Cortez showed us that it is possible to defeat the political machine and replace it with something else. The ideas are progressive and socialist, but the organizing tactic is just as important: grassroots organizing can form the basis of a left populism that can win elections. Tellingly, Democrat Minority leader in the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi arrogantly dismissed the significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory.
Three important lessons from recent progressive grassroots electoral victories (Ocasio-Cortez is not the only one):
Progressive ideas can drive turnout in Democratic primaries
Higher turnout for local elections can swing state or federal elections for democrats (see Lee Harper, a marine who identifies as a democratic socialist who won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates and helped drive up turnout for the 2017 Virginia governor's race)
In “safe” democratic districts grassroots progressive candidates (even open socialists) can successfully challenge status quo democrats (even democrats who claim to be progressive)
So pay attention to the congressional midterms, but don’t forget the city and state elections. Grassroots organizing on the local level was the tea party strategy that worked for the right, and it was the Bernie Sanders campaign strategy that energized new voters.
Let’s create a new politics we can believe in, a politics of progressive ideas rooted in grassroots movements. To me the minimum requirement for someone to be considered a progressive movement candidate (as opposed to a progressive sounding candidate) is for that candidate to refuse all corporate money, and instead rely on small donations and passionate volunteers. Almost everything else flows from this minimum requirement, as a small donation funded campaign must rely on connecting with voters on issues that really matter to them. To motivate enough people to participate, as Ocasio-Cortez did, the ideas must be bold and the support grassroots.
The no corporate money clause disqualifies most democratic politicians from claiming the progressive mantle. So let’s elect new politicians! Two elections in New York to consider are Julia Salazar for New York State Senate and Cynthia Nixon for Governor of New York. Both meet the no corporate money test, but we can go even further if we trust in the long, hard work of movement building. So let’s shake up the Democratic party machine control of New York on September 13th, but let’s set our sights even higher.
We can learn a lot about what is possible on the local level by looking to places around the world where experiments in radical democracy have taken hold. The citizen platform elected governments in Spanish cities, including Madrid and Barcelona were driven by grassroots left populist campaigns that emerged after the Indignados Movement that held public squares in Spain in 2011, a few months before Occupy Wall Street. The local and central governments that have existed after the 23 day occupation of the parliament in Taiwan in 2014 have operated under radical transparency and a sincere commitment to maximizing public engagement (lest the populace revolt again and occupy the spaces of government once more). The election of Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a socialist mayor from the black liberation movement in Jackson, Mississippi in 2017 came after decades of movement building from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that included the “promotion of participatory democracy, solidarity economy, and sustainable development“ in addition to “progressive community organizing and electoral politics.”
To learn more about these examples and others in North America, join me in New York City July 27-29, 2018 to learn more about the network of Fearless Cities setting a new path for politics. Tickets on sale at fearlesscities.nyc.
We can win. We will win. Let’s shift our focus to the local, and build from there.