Progressive candidates in competitive races across the country got trounced during the recent midterm elections. Although Gov. Dannel Malloy bucked the national trend to win reelection here in Connecticut, the Democrats lost eight seats in the Senate, 12 seats in the House and two gubernatorial races. We are now stuck with a House and Senate that stand squarely in opposition to the president’s agenda.
But considering only who wins and who loses in a first past-the-post electoral system misses a crucial element of an otherwise disheartening narrative. Unlike election results, the development of the progressive movement is not easy to quantify. By focusing on percentages and margins of victory, we ignore the millions of people who voted for losing candidates. This election is part of the slow but certain progress towards building progressive coalitions across the nation. In multiple states, including those that typically lean Republican — from Alaska to Nebraska — voters showed up to approve a higher minimum wage than the federally mandated baseline. Criminal justice reforms passed in California, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C.
These progressive victories happened because grassroots organizers — many of them college-aged students — knocked on doors, made calls and continued their work to galvanize popular support. We must not forget this fact. Many losing congressional candidates across the country spent the last two years organizing communities, particularly those typically underrepresented the political process, and that matters.
Given the election results, it would certainly be a mistake to call these programs sweeping successes. Yet even after the votes have been tallied, they retain value. Now, not 2016, is the time to be improving our organizing capacity. That’s why we, a small group of Yale students who lead Students for a New American Politics PAC, choose to spend our time empowering young people to engage in progressive electoral politics. This past summer, 20 passionate, college-aged activists served as field organizers on competitive Congressional campaigns with SNAP’s support.
Two of these activists spent their summers as field organizers for Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire’s 1st district. Despite garnering 49.5 percent of the vote, Shea-Porter lost in the recent elections. But the 300,000 individuals who voted for her don’t disappear after the polls close. Rather, they are more likely now than before to participate in the political process and make their voices heard moving forward. And this is just one example. Although victorious this year, the Republicans are not positioning themselves for future success. They are trying to squeeze every vote out of their existing and aging base; the progressive movement, by working in races such as Shea-Porter’s, is looking to expand its base and craft progressive coalitions that reflect a changing America.
Despite disheartening results, I take solace in the fact that 20 SNAP Organizing Fellows were able to break into progressive politics, as were thousands of other organizers and volunteers across the nation. The coalitions they built will stand ready in 2016 to ensure no one is denied access to health care because of an inability to pay, to defend women’s rights and to push forward environmental policies that recognize climate change.
Now is not the time to be discouraged — our goals remain unchanged. To ensure balloons are dropping and crowds are cheering in Democratic campaign rooms on Nov. 8, 2016, we must continue building these grassroots coalitions.
No one is better-situated to organize in a underrepresented community than someone who hails from a similar background. The staff of most political campaigns remains insufficiently diverse, hampering the ability of progressive candidates to act upon their values of inclusiveness in the political process and increased opportunity for all.
There remains considerable work to be done. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $3.7 billion was spent over the course of the 2014 electoral cycle. SNAP spent $41,923.
As a young American with an interest in moving our nation forward, I hope that my peers, both at Yale and at college campuses and vocational schools across the nation, will remain invested in building movements that represent the America of today. We will be better for it. Congress will be better for it. Our nation will be better for it.
Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a junior in Calhoun College and the executive director of SNAP PAC. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.