As the new year begins, any honest progressive knows the political outlook is bleak. But if we’re going to limit the damage that President-elect Donald Trump inflicts on the country, then despair is not an option. The real question, as Democracy Alliance President Gara LaMarche recently said, “is how you fight intelligently and strategically when every house is burning down.”
Indeed, with Trump and Republicans in Congress aggressively pushing a right-wing agenda, progressives will need to invest their resources and attention where they can do the most good - both now and over the next four years. With that in mind, here are three steps to take to resist and rebuild as the Trump administration gets underway.
First, while strong national leadership is certainly important, progressives must recognize that the most significant resistance to Trump won’t take place in Washington. It’s going to happen in the streets led by grass-roots activists, and in communities, city halls and statehouses nationwide.
There is real potential for cities and states to act as a bulwark against Trump’s agenda. On immigration, for example, a coalition of mayors from across the country - including New York and Los Angeles but also cities throughout the Rust Belt and the South - are already coordinating to fight Trump’s deportation plans. Local Progress, a national network of city and county officials, is working to protect civil rights and advance economic and social justice. And while the Trump administration may ravage the environment, cities and states can also continue the fight against global warming; in particular, California has the potential to become a global leader on the issue, and Gov. Jerry Brown, D, has defiantly pledged to move forward with plans to slash carbon emissions in the state regardless of Trump’s policies.
Cities and states also give progressives an opportunity to play offense by advancing policies that truly improve people’s lives, while providing a concrete and actionable blueprint for the rest of the country. Take the Fight for $15. Last year, 25 states, cities and counties approved minimum-wage increasesthat will result in raises for millions of workers nationwide. And despite Trump’s hostility to workers, there are campaigns to increase the minimum wage planned in at least 13 states and other localities over the next two years, representing a real chance to build on that progress.
Second, as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman writes, “We need a broad commitment from activists and donors to take back state governments.” Even if Democrats do well in the midterm elections, they are unlikely to regain control of Congress until after the next round of redistricting, in 2020. Yet there will be 87 state legislative chambers and 36 gubernatorial seats up for grabs in 2018. Progressives would be wise to adopt a laserlike focus on winning these races.
A strong performance at the state level in 2018 would do more than improve progressives’ ability to combat Trump’s policies. It would also help create a stronger pipeline of leaders who could eventually run for higher office, following in the steps of incoming House members Jamie B. Raskin, D-Md., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. Crucially, it would also give progressive Democrats more influence over congressional redistricting in 2020, boosting the party’s prospects at the national level. For that reason, it’s noteworthy that President Obama is planning to get involved in state legislative elections and redistricting after he leaves office, though grass-roots efforts will remain paramount.
And third, it will be critical for progressive leaders in Washington to amplify local progress to drive a national message. In the absence of a single party leader - especially one whose success depends on compromising with congressional Republicans - there is more room for strong, populist progressive voices to emerge in opposition to Trump.
Already, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Vt., Elizabeth Warren, Mass., Sherrod Brown, Ohio, and Jeff Merkley, Ore., are stepping up, and they will be joined in the House by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose members will play a key role in recruiting and running progressive candidates, connecting with grass-roots movements and driving local issues into the national sphere. Working alongside activist groups, progressive Democrats can present a clear alternative vision for the nation.
To that end, the race for Democratic National Committee chair presents a significant opportunity to shift the party’s direction. Regardless of who prevails, progressives would be wise to insist on a return to the 50-state strategy that former chairman Howard Dean championed and that all of the current candidates say they support. Ultimately, the party’s fortunes will depend on recruiting a new generation of progressive leaders, especially women and people of color, who can harness the power of social movements and drive it into electoral politics - everywhere in the country, at every level of government.
Vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation magazine.