Wednesday, November 7, 2018


Harry Targ

After hours of watching election results on Tuesday night, I came away with a sense of puzzlement about the meaning of the outcome. As a democratic socialist activist, and a compulsive blogger I feel compelled to force the complexity of contemporary history into categories to facilitate understanding and perhaps to deduce “a plan of political work” for the coming period.
To begin, I report on the results of elections in my home state, Indiana, and local community, Tippecanoe County.

At the top of the ticket incumbent centrist Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly lost by a large margin to a conservative Republican, Mike Braun. (When I moved to Indiana in 1967 the two Senators Birch Bayh and Vance Hartke, both Democrats, had already declared their opposition to the escalating war in Vietnam. Then, also, Indiana was one of the ten states with the largest percentage of workers in unions). The rest of the state ticket on the ballot, Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Auditor went Republican as well. The Republican candidate for Congress in the 4th Congressional District, replacing conservative Todd Rokita, won as well.
However, Democrats won races for two State Representatives, two County Council members, a County Assessor, Township Advisory Board Trustee members, Township Trustee positions, and even County Sheriff. Many of these Democratic candidates are active in various progressive organizations in the county, such as Lafayette Indivisible and the Greater Lafayette Progressives. Some were organizers of or participants in the large Lafayette women’s rally in January, 2017 or the Resistance Fair, which was attended by 500 people from the county, in February, 2017. While local candidates and their supporters worked for the statewide Democratic ticket, they were visible and energetic workers for the Democrats running in the county.

Next, I reflect on election results around the country:
First, most states are really multiple geographic communities with their own forms of political organization, demographics, and culture. For example, Indiana is really three states—a northern section formerly industrialized and racially diverse; a central part of the state with pockets of liberalism in a sea of traditional conservativism; and a southern part of the state which has traditionally embraced a politics and culture close to the white South. In addition, in Indiana, as with many other states, there are university communities which may have political characteristics different from surrounding areas. Television analysts, as they reviewed voting patterns in statewide races, such as Florida and Texas, also identified clear geographic differences and factors that affect electoral outcomes. “Red” and “Blue” currently are signifiers for these deep differences in communities.

Second, given the special significance of state races in comparison to local contests candidates running for statewide office draw the largest amount of money, media coverage, and support from outside influentials. And despite the extraordinary diversity of communities within states, most attention, analysis, and summaries are about state politics not local politics.
Third, political activists allocate their resources, time and money, disproportionately to state-level races at the expense of their local work. And state parties are often insufficiently knowledgeable or experienced enough to help candidates running for office in local races. Some state Democratic parties are embroiled in internal conflicts which impair support for local candidates and grassroots campaigns.  

Fourth, at state and local levels, voter suppression is a growing constraint on the electoral process. This includes, gerrymandering, new voter identification laws, reducing the hours of voting, moving and/or eliminating voting stations, and, in the end, relying on machine tabulations that sometimes are reportedly erroneous. Some of the outcomes of races may in fact have been affected by the manipulation of just a few thousand votes.
Fifth, and to varying degrees, the political culture of white supremacy, remains an albatross around the neck of the body politic. As Peter Beinhart put it: “The harsh truth is this: Racism often works. Cross-racial coalitions for economic justice are the exception in American history. Mobilizing white people to protect their racial dominance is the norm. The lesson of 2018 is that American politics is not reverting to “normal.” In many ways, Trumpism is normal. It’s not Trump who is running uphill against American tradition, it’s the people who are trying bravely-- but with mixed success--to stop him.” (

Sixth, and what should not be forgotten, is that elections are controlled by the economic ruling class, directly or indirectly. Most candidates are wealthy. Huge bundles of money come from billionaires such as the Koch brothers. And, media frames are shaped by corporations and banks. All this so far is less the case at the local level.
The attention above has been on the state races but some differences can be noted in local races for candidates for Congressional seats, state legislative assemblies, and various county and city offices. Most of these races involve candidates who have roots in their communities (with the exception of some candidates from outrageously gerrymandered districts). Many candidates are not wealthy. Many of them go “door-to-door” to recruit voters. For the most part, candidates and their supporters are more issue-oriented. And these local activists, along with promoting candidates and issue platforms, are major advocates for voting. Finally, local candidates get resources from and are influenced by progressive, usually issue-oriented groups, in their communities. In the end, local and Congressional races are decidedly more grassroots races and as a result more reflective of democratic participation in the electoral process.

What does this mean for left/progressive activists. First, of course, elections matter, even the state and national ones. Second, key work needs to be done at the local level, with the expectation that local mobilizations will begin to transform the work done at state and national levels. Third, local work should continue to prioritize issues, not personalities, or ideologies: health care, living wages, jobs, education, transportation, the environment, and contrasting expenditures on these with military spending. 

While doing the organizing, working with those in single issue groups, advocating for issues salient to local communities, progressives can continue to introduce larger more systemic analyses of the economy, the polity, and the culture. People are more comfortable today discussing Wall Street, financiers, the military/industrial complex, the corporate polluters, and the traditions of white supremacy and nativism. Progressives can continue to make the connections between these as they do grassroots work. In addition to building progressive caucuses in the Democratic Party or establishing third parties where feasible, study groups can be encouraged as well as film series, lectures, and even working with allies to construct progressive educational programs at libraries, churches, and other public spaces.
The modest victories for progressive change in 2018 can be seen as a step in the direction of recapturing a progressive majority and a more humane society in the years ahead.