After the election results, I had some thoughts about politics, the state of our country and society, and some of the challenges ahead. A lot of my progressive Christian friends spoke of their faith that God is fully sovereign and that the moral arc of the universe does win out in the end. I admit, I envy that faith but do not share it. I believe God really is constrained by the choices we make, that injustices as much as justice, does shape the future terrain of the possibilities that God has to work with.
Consider the issue of climate change. If past events are really objectified, remain a permanent part of whatever future could follow, then if we reach a tipping point on climate change where nothing can be reversed, then it is not within in God’s power to change it back. God cannot undo the past but can only work with what *is* in terms of shaping the future. Given that, even something as momentary as a midterm election can affect God’s future and ours.
At the same time I’m also not comforted by the long arc of the moral universe, if it is too long for people who face the daily challenges of life. An estimated 17,000 Americans will die every year because they couldn’t afford to visit a doctor even as they would have qualified for Medicaid expansion but their governor, most who were re-elected, stopped this in Maine, in Oklahoma, in Wisconsin, in Florida. These are folks who can’t wait for the next election. They don’t have the luxury of time.
In Kansas the disabled are being cut off from Medicaid, in Michigan workers find their pensions are being raided by unelected city managers who are empowered to overrule local governments, from Maine to Indiana to New Jersey hundred of thousands were cut off from food stamps and other nutrition programs. Schools in 29 states have faced dramatic cuts, in Oklahoma by about 23%. None of this was to balance the budgets. They were used to fuel tax cuts for the wealthy. This was a redistribution upward. And in many states the ability to fund basic services is called into question.
It is not the case that this election is not without consequence. Unfortunately the result is a narrowing of the range of possibilities and life choices for far too many in this country. So yes 2016 is around the corner but we have a responsibility in our states, in our local communities to think short term and long term. The short term is to contain the damage, the long term to build a different society and culture. Some of them can come together by getting involved in churches, in non profits, in meeting directly those in need as well as advocating for different and more just policies.
Long term we have some structural hurdles to overcome including:
1) The Reagan Economy. Since the 1980s a growing economy has been severed from better wages, better jobs with some security and a chance for retirement. The most significant reason has been the end of the trade labor movement as a force in our economy. Rising wages and a shared prosperity are not naturals to capitalism, they happen as a result of some counterforce which demands it. And without it, it doesn’t matter how much the GNP grows and what the stock market is, people will not feel better about our economy.
Obama and many Democrats were surprised by the anger in the electorate given an economy that has had the 50 plus months of continual growth, the dramatic improvement of the economy, unemployment lower than even the Romney campaign had promised in 2012. And they can rightfully point to Obama’s policies from qualitative easing to the bailouts and stimulus efforts as part of that success story but too little of it trickled down to the rest of us.
Now Democrats can rightfully argue that over this last year they have been pushing to do things which would address this, making education more accessible, raising the minimum wage, discouraging the shipping of jobs overseas. But they were all filibustered by the GOP in the Senate. Why was this not done when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate? But this does raise another structural issue.
178 filibusters were recorded in this last congress. The average number in Senate history is in the 30s range. This presidents agenda has never been allowed to happen especially after 2010. That filibuster record undoes the will of all of us who voted for Obama.With the GOP controlling the Senate now, I imagine there will be a number of vetoes as well. And yet this state of affairs benefits those who say government cannot do anything to improve people’s lives. It doesn’t help those of us who believe it can.
What you have is that Democrats cannot fulfill their promises to those who came out for them in 2008 and 2012. That is hard to make the case to come out and vote. And it is a structural issue. Let’s take 2016 as an example, suppose the Democrats pick up the presidency and the senate. Does anyone believe that the House will change, that the filibuster will not be used? Despite what is said on the campaign trail, do we have reason to believe that these promises will happen?
And one reason the House is not likely to change is gerrymandering. Progressives have been put in concentrated districts so that even when millions more vote Democrat for congress, such as in 2012, it does not translate to more seats. This has been particularly bad for minority districts in the south where African Americans are sure to win their seat only to have no functional power at the state and federal level. That’s a recipe for apathy if not despair.
3) The Supreme Court and More Broken Government
One of the most significant achievements of the Obama administration was the Affordable Care Act which has insured 12 million Americans, lowered the uninsured rate to the lowest on record, has slowed the cost of health care costs and expanded the solvency of Medicare, all in one fell swoop. And yet in 2014, Democrats never really campaigned on the issue even as the GOP continues to press for its repeal.
For the GOP a program established by the government to insure Americans, in so far as it works, goes against a central argument that they hold; government cannot work outside of law and order and the military. To the degree that the ACA works and is now forever identified as “Obamacare”, a coalition in support of the law and the party that brought it could be as strong as what has been with Medicare and Social Security.
So there has been an all out war against the ACA. In some ways the most devastating attack was done by the Supreme Court. By allowing states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion, it meant there was a whole class of people who made too little for the subsidies for the exchanges but too much for Medicaid in most states. Most of the states opting out are the red states that Democrats had to defend their Senate seats in.
There are 3 million uninsured Americans who could be insured if red states like Oklahoma signed on. And many of these states passed laws to harass navigators who were hired to help folks get signed up on the exchanges and prohibited using any state resources toward that end. Mississippi is an example where every governmental and social pressure was applied to not insure people. Even advertising campaigns were had to discourage people from signing up for health insurance.
The result is that even when there is a policy that works, it doesn’t work for enough people, to feel the effect or to translate into support. And if the conservative groups who are in the courts to end subsidies for those who are in states without a state exchange an estimated 11 million Americans will lose their health insurance. The central campaign promise and legislative achievement of Obama will revoked with no relief for those denied access to health care.
4) The Supreme Court and Broken Government Again
The central enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act, section 5, which required the Justice Department to sign off of changes to voting laws in those states with a history of shutting out African Americans from the voting process, was struck down. Immediately red states from Texas to North Carolina to Kansas passed provisions to limit access to the ballot by reducing early and weekend voting, closing polling places, and adding costly paperwork to get photo IDs that the poor and many minorities do not own and could not afford.
The ID laws by themselves shut out 5 million voters and a new study shows work to depress voter turnout. They proved to make the margin of difference in Florida, in North Carolina, in Kansas and other states. Insuring access to the ballot, of which our new congress will not act on, is central to any path forward.
Then there was Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision which struck down individual limits on independent political expenditures, for corporations, unions, and non profits, declaring that their first amendment rights were hampered by restricting money. The pattern of seeing corporations as people with constitutional rights, now famous with Hobby Lobby has an earlier precedent by this court.
The result was a midterms which cost $3.7 billion, the most expensive in history. Most of that was directed to the GOP takeover. To get these kinds of funds means relying on a small group of individuals who gave over 1/3 of the funds supporting super pacs and their efforts. The class of senators and governors who were elected are dependent on this. Some will speak of such money going to Democrats, some did, and that is also a barrier for progressive change. If we want a chance to have our voice heard over concentrated wealth, this needs to change.
I’m not a political strategist, just a pastor of a small progressive church. There are folks who have a better sense of how to get the ball rolling so progressives can be in the fight again. When that happens, I’d propose that these structural issues need to be tackled, prior to election and during governance.
*Campaign finance reform efforts in the states, a constitutional amendment overturning citizens united, public financing, transparency laws on who give (which the supreme court assumed would be passed but never was). Also, shame and disinvestment campaigns to sever politicians from bad actors, such as the Koch brothers, is increasingly effective.
*The Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow a union when the majority of employees sign up in support of one, without the intimidation campaigns used against workers. In Minnesota, the legislature passed a bill allowing home care workers to unionize. The base for progressive action and the building of a middle class happens here. We need elected officials to not just not harm unions but to empower them.
*Do end runs around state legislatures, governors, and congress. It was four red states which passed initiatives increasing the minimum wage. Folks don’t trust politicians but when you break it down to the issues itself, the ability to make inroads abounds. The campaigns for living wages from Seattle to San Francisco, the paid sick leave initiative which passed in Massachusetts, we don’t need to wait for congress to act.
*If elected do something bold. In blue states, Democrats are the party of governance, in red states Democrats assume that losing the next election is the worst thing, both are recipes for doing little. If you fail to make education accessible, if you fail to improve people’s lives economically, if you fail to move on equity issues, the coalition that brought you into power may decide you’re not worth the investment.
*Build alternative progressive communities, whether it’s the church, in non profits, person to person. I’m a Facebook junkie but all the petitions from Creedo and all the arguments I’ve had on online forums simply do not replace person to person conversations and connections. That is how the LGBT movement made such progress, when it is your neighbor, your friend, your family member which is at stake. If we want to move on other issues (and side step the pollsters) the route will be the same.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma