Progressives understandably avoid celebrating our successes. There’s no joy in being proven tragically right, as in the case of the Iraq War. And most victories are partial — there’s always a caveat. Could it be, though, that our reluctance is sapping us of the verve needed for the struggles to come? In the long march for social and economic justice, we need to sound a few trumpets.
We have plenty to celebrate this year. Pushed by the worker-led OUR Walmart campaign, Walmart raised its minimum hourly wage to $9. Rivals T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Target followed. Responding to the Fight for 15, McDonald’s raised wages for 90,000 workers (although not to $15 an hour). The year also saw the death of the Keystone XL pipeline, the abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska and the election of two politicians on pro-public education platforms — Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — to name just a few.
Such victories don’t come from nowhere. Kenney and Edwards won because teachers unions have demonstrated that the billions of dollars spent on corporate education “reform” have failed to improve schools; that poverty is the main determinant of educational outcomes; and that privatization’s “winners and losers” ethos is bad for public education.
Indeed, progressives have been winning the contest of ideas for some time. The anti-Iraq War movement gave our fellow citizens permission to be skeptical about war. Seventy-one percent of the public now says Iraq was not worth it. Creative organiz ing by activists has reshaped the immigration debate: Even as GOP anti-immigrant fervor rises, 72 percent of the public thinks undocumented immigrants should have a way to stay. Thanks to 350.org and its alliance-building across the political spectrum, an overwhelming majority of Americans now support government action to mitigate climate change.
Amid a stultifying post-Cold War free-market triumphalism, the Occupy movement created space for the American public to embrace a critique of wealth. Sixty-three percent of Americans now say the distribution of wealth in the United States is unfair, and 52 percent favor heavy taxes on the rich as a fix. Nearly 60 percent approve of labor unions, and 70 percent support raising the federal minimum wage. In this context, Bernie Sanders’s campaign has thrived.
The debate about the Democratic Party’s progressive potential will continue, but clearly the demise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 2011 was a coup for progressives. Their centrist policies, a hallmark of Bill Clinton’s presidency, are in disrepute. Today the concerns of the Democratic base — racial justice, economic equity and equal rights for all people— dominate the party’s agenda. Hillary Clinton, the would-be DLC heir, finds it politically necessary to sound more and more like Sanders.
Of course, as a progressive, I must include a caveat. Though we have achieved tangible and meaningful change, we need a stronger social movement, greater funding and a firmly allied political party — be it the Democratic Party or its replacement — to bring transformational and permanent change. But the consensus we have achieved on so many fronts is an important foundation for such change. For the moment, a little self- congratulation is appropriate.