Who knows how long many of us felt something shifting beneath our feet.
This past Saturday, concerned citizens from across the state gathered at Lincoln University in Jefferson City to attend the Missouri Democratic State Committee meeting for Q4. From what I understand, the level of participation and energy this time was significantly different from past meetings.
I wouldn’t know; I’ve never gone to one before.
Strangely, the same was true for many other attendees. Most of them voiced that they felt compelled to show up, because this was a crucial moment for state politics. So why did this once routine meeting of usual suspects become especially important? And what does it mean for Missouri?
To answer that, you have to look at not only 2016 as a whole, but the context of the last couple of decades.
The Earthquake: GOP Takeover 2016
Caring about politics requires getting used to disappointment. But in most elections, even if your favorite candidate doesn’t win, you can look to other races to find ideological victories that offer some comfort.
For progressives in Missouri, November 8 offered no such bittersweet moments.
As a few more days passed, things began to change. The shell shock wore off, the hangovers faded, and we peeled ourselves off the floor. The fear and worry shifted quickly to productive energy and strategic thinking: “I must do something.”
A Divided Party
Step back again to the first half of 2016 and the Democratic primary season – a topic almost still too charged to discuss without stirring up feelings of resentment and blame. But solutions for our government can’t really be prescribed without diagnosing the past.
Whether Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump in a Presidential election is something people will probably be debating for the next half century (if humanity makes it that far). But the reality is that Hillary Clinton lost to the most know-nothing candidate the country may have ever seen.
Clinton supporters will protest and cite the popular vote. But an army of party-line voters in California and New York do not win the Electoral College. And even in states where she lost by a slim margin, this was not a race that should have been even remotely close.
For about half of Democratic primary voters, the panic over a Trump presidency began in July and was fully realized in November. For this half, a Clinton presidency would have likely resulted in relief at best, if not detached apathy. It would have been hard to envision a place for us at the table in the Democratic Party.
But now, both halves are in the same boat, completely devastated.
Both halves have felt deep anxiety and fear, and in return have been told by political rivals, “You’re being ridiculous.”
While the Clinton Democrats are still in mourning and probably still too close to their defeat for blunt critical analysis, Sanders supporters have been processing loss for months and are particularly motivated to start piecing a renewed coalition together.
The Soul of the Democratic Party
The long view gives some context to the deep divisions laid bare in the 2016 primaries. If you’ve been a progressive Democrat for long, you know something about feeling left out.
The Democratic Party (and friends in the media) showing a reluctance to support more progressive candidates got a lot of attention this year with Bernie Sanders. But this same story has played out in a number of elections in my lifetime, with Howard Dean, Bill Bradley, Jerry Brown, and one could argue, Dennis Kucinich. The rationale for this has always been electability.
Being progressive or liberal means that you are not electable because you won’t attract big donors, because you want the playing field to be too level. The sad fact is that elections are now bought, and no one wants to throw money at you if you aren’t going to help turn a profit later.
That machine of corporate politics imploded this year. The candidacy of Donald Trump was a perfect storm of a number of factors: white fragility, sexism, fake news, and an extremely disproportionate fear of terrorism at home. But another major element was the rebuke of both parties’ addiction to cash from special interests. The best metaphor I’ve heard is that Donald Trump is a brick through the window of the establishment. He was an ignorant, hateful vessel for voters’ frustration, but the most powerful tool of defiance they had at their disposal.
I will continue to wonder what would’ve happened if America had an alternative way to reject corporate politics while also standing on the side of inclusion, equality, human dignity, and workers’ rights.
The Growing Progressive Wing
We took the scenic route in getting to the root of why Saturday’s meeting meant something, but I think it’s important to acknowledge what motivates progressives and how that will impact our future.
Going into this blind, I had no idea what to expect. I was even nervous about attending. Like I have thought about politics most of my life: “I don’t know enough to participate – I have no business butting in there. I haven’t earned the right to be at the table.”
Not only was I wrong, but I was reminded of the lessons I learned while participating in the delegate selection and convention earlier in the year. This is a party of regular people, and a whole lot of them are just like you; maybe not a seasoned political veteran, but fired up and ready to go.
Saturday’s agenda included a preliminary meeting to gauge interest in a new Progressive Caucus, as well as a meeting and executive board vote in the existing Women’s Caucus. Both meetings were packed.
The vote for the leadership of the Women’s Caucus drew so many participants, there were people standing in the doorway who couldn’t fit into the room. A slate full of newcomers was voted in, largely by people who had met through work on the primary election and maintained that network. The Progressive Caucus planning meeting, whose organizers didn’t know what to expect in the way of involvement, collected 81 people on the sign-in sheet. The idea of an Environmental Caucus was hatched and work on that has started.
One of the people in the Progressive Caucus meeting, Stephen Webber, was later voted Chair of the Missouri Democratic Party. Another, Genevieve Williams, was voted Vice Chair.
In light of the history that got us here, this doesn’t feel like a fluke. It feels like a progressive revival, sparked for some of us by Bernie, but an inevitability in the broader scope of political evolution in this country. We know that shying away from progressive values has not served Democrats well. Justice, equality, and a living wage for every worker are goals we should state boldly and proudly.
I’ve heard that Democrats who have been participating in the state party for awhile aren’t sure what to make of the new faces. Are these new people loyal? Are they going to keep coming back? Will they do the work?
Putting in time and effort isn’t a question. Many of the people I’ve worked alongside put me to shame. I’m in awe of these amazing women and men who step up to the plate, again and again, even after a painful loss.
As for loyalty, I think blind allegiance is a relic of political history at this point. I doubt the two-party system is long for this world. Some people will start working on third parties from the ground up, which I fully support. I hope those people can also support like minds working within the Democratic Party. Because I’ve seen a lot of party-line Democrats, liberals, leftists, progressives, and socialists arguing about who’s moving forward in the most perfect way, and it’s accomplished a grand total of nothing so far.
The scorched earth in Missouri left few victors and no undamaged egos. Those politicians still standing face an uphill battle and are in desperate need of help. And now there many voters who are completely finished with the two-party system, even with the option to transform how we approach economic and racial equity within it.
In light of all of this, Progressive Dems are throwing up a big, tattered, dusty, tent and including anyone who wants to come on in and get to work. For those who hope to impact the elections in 2018 and 2020, there is an outlet for you in the Democratic Party.