In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, Democratic officials have sparred over who’s responsible for the party’s unexpected losses in the House of Representatives. Moderates (or “corporate Democrats” as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has dubbed them) claim that calls to defund the police, end fracking and ensure Medicare for All spooked moderate voters and helped tip otherwise competitive congressional races. Meanwhile progressives point to their more conservative counterparts’ refusal to embrace popular policies that increase voter turnout and substantively address institutional racism or invest in strategies like digital advertising and organizing.
Over the past week, In These Times spoke to nine organizations from Arizona to Georgia to Pennsylvania, each of which played a major role in turning key counties and states blue. Together, these groups showed how Black and brown communities increasingly ignored by the Democratic Party in favor of white suburbanites can defeat Trumpism by swinging entire states. Although the president managed to increase his vote share with people of color, these organizations’ achievements reinforce the importance of mobilizing low-income voters with campaigns that address their material conditions.
“The people who came out [to vote] were incredible,” says Dina Paredes, a California hotel worker who was laid off during the pandemic and joined canvassing efforts in Arizona through her union, Unite Here. “They had never ever voted before in this country.”
Paredes is from El Salvador and has lived in the U.S. for 25 years. As a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holder, she received a work permit under a humanitarian program set to expire in 2021 after the Trump administration succeeded in eliminating protections from deportation for around 400,000 beneficiaries. “I have TPS, so I get butterflies in my stomach when I talk about this,” she continues in Spanish. “What we achieved is historic. I’m going to recount it to my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. [But] our fight isn’t over. This is only the beginning.”
For decades, the Democratic Party has invested in pre-election canvassing that allows volunteers to speak directly to swing-state voters about their candidate of choice. Due to the pandemic, however, the Joe Biden campaign did not approve this kind of door-to-door outreach until October, focusing instead on television advertisements, text messages, emails and virtual events. There to pick up the slack were groups like Unite Here, which began its canvassing in the summer and completed its work without a single one of its 1700 volunteers contracting COVID-19.
“You don’t beat Trumpism with ads, you beat it with organizing,” says Jacob Swenson-Lengyel, director of communications at Pennsylvania Stands Up, a coalition devoted to building people power across the state. Swenson-Lengyel explained that volunteers engaged communities in lengthy conversations about how they were caring for one another during the pandemic and what it would mean to have a government that did the same. In all, the organization spoke to over 400,000 eligible voters.
By establishing relationships with community members that will last well beyond the 2020 election, organizations like SONG Power, a grassroots effort focused on the South, offer a powerful model for base-building. “We need to be oriented toward slow and respectful work,” says organizing lead Jade Brooks. “How do we combine that approach with an electoral cycle that’s all about [immediate] impact? [Part of] the answer is to invest in building community-based and rooted organizations that are going to stick around…long after the elections and will invest in the leadership of Black and brown leaders who have been doing the work [rather than] consultants.”
This is precisely the work SONG Power carried out with Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities in South Carolina and Georgia. Many of these people had never voted before, but outreach including the distribution of food, coats and literature helped bring them into the electoral process.
For Native American voters, a key issue this November was erasure — a phenomenon captured by a recent CNN demographics poll that classified them as “something else.” Following Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016, groups like Four Directions and the Native Organizers Alliance (among others) carefully studied how this population could determine the outcome of key swing states, leading to the first Native American Presidential Forum. The forum, held in August of last year, allowed Democratic hopefuls to converse directly with tribal leaders and activists. It also served to combat Native peoples’ disillusionment with the U.S. political system while generating the interest and investment necessary to train them how to overcome the huge barriers to voting on reservations.
OJ Semans Sr., Co-founder of Four Directions, trained and hired Native people across the country to conduct voter outreach in their communities. He estimates that volunteers registered 2,500 new voters in the Navajo Nation, which helped boost turnout and played a major role in delivering key counties to Joe Biden in Arizona. “This is one of the only elections where I’ve seen tribal organizations united in helping Natives get to the polls,” he said. Semans is now in Georgia to train local tribe members ahead of the state’s runoff elections.
While Black turnout in Georgia was up over 2016, it nonetheless represented a lower share of the electorate, and data indicates that Biden made some of his biggest gains with moderates in the Atlanta suburbs. For Brooks, this underscores the danger of drafting centrist candidates who will not address the needs of marginalized communities. The future of the Democratic Party, she contends, depends on its ability to attract voters with a bold, progressive agenda that will produce the kind of systemic change that has long been the goal of organizations like SONG Power, Mijente and the GLAHR Action Network. “This collaboration has been built over years of connection and organizing together,” says Brooks. “We have the kind of trust that’s only forged in struggle.”
Whether or not they can deliver Democrats control of the Senate via December’s runoff elections remains to be seen, but these organizations have already succeeded in ousting two local sheriffs whose deputies worked in close collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport undocumented immigrants for infractions as minor as speeding. Recounting a recent call celebrating these victories, Brooks says SONG Power members were “crying” tears of joy about the possibility of eventually ending money bail and “melting ICE.” Meanwhile in North Carolina, where many undocumented communities fall under the jurisdiction of the same ICE office, groups like Siembra are knocking on doors to ensure residents know their rights in the event of retaliatory raids.
In Arizona, the past 10 years of organizing against draconian anti-immigrant policies provided the infrastructure to turn out Black, Latinx and Native American voters at a scale that proved decisive. Alexa-Rio Osaki, communications director for the progressive advocacy group Our Voice Our Vote, Arizona, has seen firsthand how these violent policies galvanized a new generation of organizers. “Accountability [means more than] going on Twitter and yelling,” she observes. “Through the power of organizing, we have to show that there are consequences for being on the [wrong] side of history.”
These Black and brown-led movements are now setting their sights on states where right-wing power remains entrenched. Earlier this year, SONG Power launched a “Crack Graham” campaign to unseat South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham that featured “Hoe Downs” emphasizing the joy in collective action. While the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, organizers believe they were able to “seed the ground for a New South” by building relationships with rural Black, Latinx and queer communities.
As Trump’s presidency draws to an end, the incoming Biden administration will be forced to contend with a progressive movement gaining strength and momentum across the country. One Pennsylvania is redirecting its resources toward preventing an eviction crisis, combating wage theft and ensuring workers receive their paid sick days, while members of Pennsylvania Stands Up in Lehigh County are strategizing on how to defund local police departments and cultivate progressive candidates for future elections.
While autopsies of the 2020 election have only just begun, the impact of organizations like Mijente is undeniable. So too is their importance moving forward, especially as Trump’s gains with people of color have shattered the illusion that demographics are destiny. “All of these ideas of returning to what was considered regular under Obama was won through organizing,” cautions the organization’s senior campaign organizer, Jacinta Gonzalez. “It was won because communities fought deportation cases, fought for local and state policies and took to the streets and spoke to their elected officials.”
Only time will tell whether Democrats heed her warning. But if they don’t, there’s an entire movement ready to hold the party’s leadership to account.