Apart from last week’s victory keeping the Affordable Care Act in place, there aren’t a lot of reasons for progressives to feel optimistic about the current state of affairs. The ostensibly left-of-center party took a broad mandate given to them in 2008 by Barack Obama and, after huge losses in 2010, continued to be decimated at every level by conservatives, who’ve used gerrymandering, voter suppression tactics, and all other sorts of nonsense to cement their power. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, the Democrats would still be in pretty sorry shape all over the country.
But in this weird, uneasy time for the left, a batch of progressive organizations like Our Revolution are putting forward plans to take back seats in Congress and state legislatures from Republicans and—in some cases—challenge moderate and conservative Democrats as well. This week, Justice Democrats, a group co-founded by the Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, blasted out an email taking aim at Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Mark Warner (Virginia), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Donald Trump’s new best friend, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.
“If they won’t represent us, we will challenge these sell-outs in their next primary,” the email said. “It’s time [to] take over the Democratic Party and restore its purpose as a party for the people.”
Not so fast, wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten. “I can see why progressives would be peeved with Manchin,” he said. “But it’s sort of silly to compare Manchin to the median Democrat. He represents West Virginia!”
The underlying assumption in Enten’s theory that Manchin is the best Democrats can do in 2018 is that current circumstances necessitate the candidates and platform they will need to win in two years, four years, and beyond. Liberals have to realize that Trump’s unpopularity and other factors mean that the current political moment is not the way things will always be, and that there is hope for progressives to come back in places, like West Virginia, that they’ve disappeared from.
It’s why they believed that the Obama coalition of 2008 was sure to remain in place in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—all states which have elected Republican governors at least once in the past six years—no matter which candidate ran for president. And if they don’t prepare for future political circumstances, this lack of a political imagination will be why they let the opportunity to win the state in the future get away from them once it becomes a viable option.
A primary challenge is not a death sentence, and all things considered, it will probably not defeat Joe Manchin, who was a governor before he was a Senator and is a known commodity in West Virginia. But if Manchin were to lose a Democratic primary in West Virginia, there would be little reason to believe he could’ve actually pulled off a general election win in that state, considering how far both Blue Dogs and public opinion of incumbents in general have fallen since 2010.
But winning is not the only utility of primaries. Insurgent, anti-incumbent campaigns all across the country raise the profile of left-wing candidates, give needed campaign experience for young people getting involved in politics, and force incumbents to consider moving more to the left than they would without a challenge. Sure, the main point is that it’s a pressing need to replace Manchin, who voted to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general and Scott Pruitt as EPA chief, but it’s almost as necessary to start growing the left’s voice in West Virginia politics for future battles. A high-profile primary does that everywhere—which is why Democrats all over the country, not just Manchin, should be facing primaries in 2018 and 2020.
The evidence for why progressives need to take a different approach is in the reasons why national Democrats have faltered in West Virginia in the recent past. The long-term decline of steel and coal was exacerbated by NAFTA, which was a pillar of the Clinton legacy. During the recession, Republicans used the bogeyman of Obama administration regulations to great success as an explanation for why the state was still hemorrhaging jobs.
To a lot of people there, that probably sounded right on the mark: from 1994 to 2016, West Virginia lost a whopping forty percent of its manufacturing jobs, which has caused what one woman at a recent MSNBC town hall called “generational poverty” within the state.
“[Hillary Clinton’s] husband introduced NAFA,” a former steel worker told The Independent (UK) prior to the election. “If anyone in this state votes for her, they’re crazy.” Hillary Clinton’s flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and her comment that she was “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” even if it was taken out of context, didn’t help.
Trump, on the other hand, made a vague promise to bring coal jobs back. He won by forty-two points.
If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s not that West Virginia is irredeemably right-wing. It’s that a deeply unpopular policy or politician could be enough to turn a state that’s safely in the column for one party— Bill Clinton won the state twice —against that same party four, eight, or twelve years later.
Here’s two reasons to believe that could happen in this situation. One, Trump is not going to bring coal jobs back. He can’t keep that promise; coal’s decline has been a long one, as natural gas and other energy sources are cheaper and more readily available. As Newsweek wrote in November, as fracking has become heavily subsidized by the federal government, “employment in coal mines began to dip precipitously.” Mere days after he took office, Trump advanced both the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines via executive order.
The second reason is health care. West Virginia expanded Medicaid after the Affordable Care Act, and the result has been that the uninsured rate in the state in 2015 is an all-time low of 8.7 percent. FamiliesUSA, a progressive health care group, claimed that up to 184,000 people in the state could lose coverage if the ACA was repealed through reconciliation.
It’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future, thanks to Trumpcare’s unceremonial defeat. And miraculously, some Democrats are coming around to the idea of universal coverage, as Vox’s Jeff Stein reported this week that the number of co-signers on Rep. John Conyers’ Medicare-for-All bill has ballooned.
Take both of those things with Trump’s sheer volatility as a president, as well as the waning popularity of Republicans in the states, and you have incredible opportunities—with the right platform and the right candidates—to build a progressive movement throughout the country, not just in the places where it currently exists, and to increase turnout in places where it does exist. Giving people a reason to vote for you—the promise of health care, jobs, education, investment in your communities, in red and blue places alike—is how you do that.
It’s not just about Manchin and a majority white-working class state like West Virginia. If you adopt left-leaning positions, proposals that will help improve people’s lives in tangible ways—free health care, free college tuition, a plan to bring jobs to hard-hit areas isn’t rooted in trying to relive the past—you can drive turnout in more diverse, purple-leaning states like Missouri. After all, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander was one of the more progressive Democrats running for Senate last year and nearly toppled incumbent Roy Blunt. Kander then started an organization dedicated to improving voting rights.
Proposals like Medicare-for-All could be a generational, map-realigning issue in the way that the New Deal was. The New Deal, not coincidentally, was when West Virginia became a Democratic stronghold in the first place.
In the months after the decisive election of Barack Obama, people had good reason to believe that the Republican Party was dead. No one could have ever predicted that less than a year later, a Republican could win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, or that two years later, the right-wing backlash to Obama would result in a huge wave that would win back the House, governors’ mansions, and state legislatures all across the country.
And even though we have an extremely small sample size right now, it feels like something similar is starting to happen: the overcrowding of town halls across the country, the massive turnout in a Delaware special election for state senate that resulted in a huge Democratic win in a district that was thought to be more conservative, and the possibility that a Democrat could win the former House seat of new HHS Secretary Tom Price (Georgia), which Price won by a whopping twenty-four points just four months ago. Even in Montana, limited polling has shown musician Rob Quist—a pro-choice, pro-single payer Democrat—has a shot at winning the special election for the state’s at-large House seat. As New York Times writer Nate Cohn pointed out last night, Trump’s current approval rating—a dismal 35%—is “around the spot where the House would be a toss-up.
In the current state of American politics, it’s impossible to tell exactly what will happen tomorrow, let alone two years from now. It’s clear, however, that for the majority of people in the country who didn’t vote for the president, what’s happening now is not working. But taking advantage of that opportunity, whenever it opens up, will require preparation and an imagination capable of seeing past what’s right in front of us. If progressives are able to do that, they might just be able to carve a political future that’s not only better than Donald Trump, but Joe Manchin and the current Democratic Party as well.