Election eve 2014 made evident early and forcefully that American public opinion is hard to square with reason and logic.
After growing demands from the grassroots over recent years for bipartisan problem solving to address the nation's continuing economic woes -- from wage and income stagnation to growing asset inequality -- Americans are tired of waiting for a fix. They are understandably angry at the intractability and inaction of Washington politics. They want and expect more of our national leaders.
At the mainline level, the past two presidential election cycles have seen strong victories by a Democratic party at least ostensibly committed to change. But the election results of this past midterm cycle could suggest the change agenda that originally brought Barack Obama to the White House may have proven naïve at best. A do-nothing Republican Congress was mysteriously rewarded for doing nothing; and more change-oriented Democrats helped to seal their fate in defeat by running away from their own president and record of achievement over recent years before the campaign season was even fully underway.
It is odd that Democrats who have produced so much for political and economic justice against such a relatively divided conservative opposition would run so far and so fast from their own strengths. A party that has recently produced historic health care insurance reforms, the longest consecutive monthly increases in new job generation in our recorded history, and the onboarding of historic new consumer finance protection laws would appear to have no grounds for apology given recent American economic history. But so it is with the Democrats.
Perhaps in part because of the Democratic Party's reluctance to stand with confidence behind its own important economic reforms of recent years, conservative candidates and causes seemingly ran the tables in this past election, nationwide. It is hard to see the November 4 election results as anything but a resounding defeat for progressive politics in America.
But the overall election results should not dampen appreciation of some very important victories for economic justice that champions of poor, diverse people and communities achieved this last election cycle beyond the glare of television cameras and the sharp analysis of political pundits.
As is often the case, California led the way. Indeed, the Golden State -- always a harbinger of the American political future -- passed several significant referendums with large implications for the rest of the nation.
Statewide, for example, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47, which will significantly reduce sentences and relax criminal classifications related to minor drug offenses and comparable petty crimes. The prior sentencing regime had exacerbated racial disparities in the state criminal justice system and especially grossly affected the employment and upward mobility prospects of young men of color across California. The Initiative passed with a nearly 60 percentage point voter approval.
California voters in the San Francisco Bay Area also approved Measure FF. Measure FF, which the Insight Center enthusiastically endorsed, will raise the minimum wage in our hometown of Oakland, index future wage levels to the official inflation rate, and protect local workers from employer wage theft and other abuses. This ballot measure passed with a more than 80 percent voter approval.
Finally, in the Bay Area city of Richmond, home to major Chevron refinery facilities, local progressive city council members and community advocates impressively defeated a slate of Chevron-endorsed candidates seeking to relax local regulatory authority over the oil giant. The election victory of Richmond's progressive city council came despite gross campaign finance spending advantages on the part of Chevron-endorsed candidates. Experts estimate that Chevron spent more than $3 million to elect its slate of candidates in this city of only about 100,000 residents.
While there can be no doubt that progressive America took a large hit at the polls in this past election, there are signs of future hope if we look in the right places and redouble our efforts to build on the evolving lessons of change in the few places where we actually won in 2014. To look in those right places reveals that change is still possible in America (perhaps even pre-ordained), even against the immediate backdrop of public amnesia and highly organized and heavily financed corporate resistance.
What California's voting pattern reveals is that with focused and unapologetic political leadership and unification of grassroots community efforts, real gains in social and economic justice are achievable. Now it is incumbent on progressive leaders and others who see the need for change in America to heed the lessons of this past election and to lift their heads and their sights to better days to come in 2016 and beyond. The very fate of our Democracy and continuing national prosperity hang in the balance.