Commentary: Where Do We Go From Here?

Friday November 12, 2004

In the wake of Bush’s victory, the question is what to do next. The usual answer—keep pressuring Congress and the president—is problematic, as the Republican leadership appears immune to reason or the popular will. But activists must remain engaged, as the prospects for making a meaningful difference in people’s lives were not erased on Tuesday.  

The difference between the 2004 election and prior elections is that the president and Congressional majority have religious-based views that are not subject to facts or popular pressure. Only a handful of Republican senators are in “blue” states, and pressure on these politicians is critical. But activists living outside Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maine and Rhode Island also must remain engaged, and much can be accomplished despite Republican control of the national government. 

I was struck on election night by the defeats in the blue state of California of both Prop. 72 and Prop. 66. Both initiatives were central to progressive agendas. Prop. 72 expanded health care and Prop. 66 redirected billions from prisons to education and human services. 

Despite their importance, neither initiative was backed by a vigorous grassroots campaign. When Walmart and other corporations threw big money against Prop. 72, there was no ground campaign to overcome it. As a result, an historic opportunity to greatly expand health care was lost without a vigorous fight. 

Prop. 66 would have ended the lifetime incarceration of non-violent offenders, thus redirecting billions of dollars from prisons to human needs. The measure was safely ahead for most of the campaign, until opposition from the Governor and despicable hypocrites like Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown—revving up for his attorney general run—brought it down to defeat. 

As with Prop. 72, there was little if any grassroots campaign for Prop. 66, so the personal contacts with voters necessary to offset the opposition’s lies was missing. Its backers vow to return to the ballot, and will hopefully fund a statewide field effort in addition to media ads. 

For the Bay Area, this was not a great election for progressives. Voters in Berkeley and San Francisco rejected a series of tax hikes necessary to maintain city services, marking the first time in the college town that a tax to fund libraries had been defeated. Progressives were split on the tax increase imposed by Oakland’s Measure Y, which added both police and social services, and the measure passed after different versions failed on two prior ballots. 

I am well aware that there were reasonable arguments against some of these tax measures, but the bottom line is that the proponents of maintaining city services were out-organized by opposition campaigns that preferred budget cuts to tax hikes. It is not only in the red states that raising taxes to maintain services has become difficult, and with Bush expected to slash aid to cities in his next budget, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco voters could be looking at sharply reduced city services by 2005. 

Activist energy was understandably focused nationally this year, and I am not suggesting that those of us who spent more time with voters in Nevada, Ohio or Florida than in our home cities and state were misdirected. But the election is over. As important as national politics is-and my book, Reclaiming America, is all about the need for activists to engage in national struggles—the blue states are not exactly overflowing with social justice and economic fairness. Activists should seize upon opportunities for reform at the state and local level while fighting Bush and gearing up for the 2006 congressional elections. 

The big issue that cannot be addressed at the state or local level is Iraq and U.S. foreign policy. Exit polls (for what they are worth) found that California and New York voters saw these issues as the most important, and this appears overwhelmingly the case in the Bay Area. 

American progressives did everything in their power to alter the course of the war in Iraq, and we fell short. But Bush’s control of American foreign policy does not impact the struggle against the occupation by the Iraqi people and the international community. Continued public protest in America is essential, but activists should accept the fact that unlike the Johnson and Nixon Administrations during Vietnam, the Bush administration will not be listening. 

Activists may have even less opportunity to influence the debate on national domestic issues. While Alaska drilling and other environmental outrages can potentially be stopped through vigorous organizing, the new round of Bush tax “reforms,” his budget cuts, and his economic program will pass in any form he desires. 

Bush’s top goal will be to redirect social service money to faith-based providers. This funding builds the infrastructure of the Republicans’ evangelical base, and the prospects of defeating this public subsidizing of church services is nil (and if lower courts object, the Supreme Court will uphold such laws and pave the way for even more intersection of church and state) 

With little opportunity to influence national politics, activists face a choice: they can continue their near-exclusive focus on battling Bush or they can stay alert for openings to influence national politics while building progressive power at the state and local level. 

Here’s my case for the latter option. 

Bush plans to slash non-defense programs during the next four years in order to limit the deficit. These lost federal funds are either replaced by increased state and local funds, or our public health system, housing and homeless programs, public transit operations, and virtually every public sector service will be stripped to the bone. Since the California Legislature remains overwhelmingly Democratic, activists have a chance to secure increased state funding for programs on the federal chopping block. The Democrats stood firm against the governor’s budget plans this year, and with grassroots support-coupled with Schwarzenegger’s failure to defeat any Democrats he campaigned against—they can be even more aggressive against him in 2005.  

Unlike Bush and the Republican evangelicals, Schwarzenegger cares what people think and is acutely sensitive about his image. He does not like 

being portrayed as hurting children or the vulnerable, and organizing against him can succeed. 

The Democrats have veto power over the state budget. If activists expend anything close to the type of energy they exhibited in the presidential campaign to build public support for a progressive budget, the results could be astounding.  

George W. Bush is responsible for many wrongs, but it’s not his fault if we allow our governor to set the agenda in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. 

In San Francisco, Mayor Newsom’s political weakness has been exposed, increasing the willingness of supervisors to stake out their own approach to the city’s budget crisis. If some of the activist energy previously confined to presidential politics could go toward building popular support for a progressive budget alternative, the proposed slashing of critical city services could potentially be averted. 

It strikes me as very odd that our elected officials should interpret the defeat of Propositions J and K as reflecting anti-tax sentiment, when these same residents voted for a presidential candidate who may have raised their taxes. Our Supervisors can put together a tax package that can win, and this time activists, not the mayor, should take the lead in organizing public support  

Similarly, the defeat of San Francisco’s Prop. A does not mean that activists should abandon the cause of supportive housing. Rather, activists can work to put together a supportive housing bond that can win. 

Progressive change at the state and local level is not only possible in 2005, but realizable if the activist energy we saw in the past few months is channeled to these arenas. These struggles do not have the international significance of the battle against Bush, but they can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. 

Rather than view state and local fights as a diversion from the national arena, these struggles will build progressive power and expand the base for the nationwide campaigns to come. 


This article orginally appeared on BeyondChron.com.