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Why Progressives Don’t Have to Abandon Their Agendas

Victories in local and legislative elections show that their ideas resonate with a lot of voters, reflecting yearnings among much of the electorate for policies that enjoy broad support.

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St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, an unapologetic progressive.
(David Kidd/Governing)
Genuinely progressive political candidates and public officials — those whose political beliefs are well to the left of mainstream, centrist liberalism and who call for large structural and institutional changes to address America’s most pressing problems — don’t have to abandon their progressive agendas in order to be successful, but they do have to build principled coalitions in order to govern effectively.

Critics in the mainstream media have articulated the message that progressives are out of touch with the American people. They point to the victories of Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election, Eric Adams in New York City’s recent Democratic mayoral primary and Shontel Brown in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District special election Democratic primary last week as evidence. Those victories, the critics argue, indicate that the nation has chilled to progressive causes like radically reforming police budgets, creating a single-payer health-care system, closing loopholes that allow the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes and removing unreasonable work or educational requirements in order to receive public assistance.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Take the New York mayoral primary as an example: After the first round of ranked-choice vote-counting, Adams ended up with just 31.5 percent of the vote, followed by progressive Maya Wiley, who was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with 22 percent of the vote, and Kathryn Garcia with 19 percent. In subsequent rounds of counting, Adams managed to squeak out a victory, but his final margin of 1 percent was hardly a mandate for his style of moderate politics in the largely liberal city.

Proof that it wasn’t can be found in other recent progressive victories such as that of Black socialist candidate Charles Barron, who won the Democratic primary for his old seat on the New York City Council, and the 2020 electoral victories of Jabari Brisport for the New York state Senate and Phara Souffrant Forrest for the state Assembly. Both Brisport, a teacher, and Forrest, a nurse, were backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, and they won against moderate Democratic candidates backed by the party establishment.

Further evidence is that on the same day that Adams was winning the vote count in New York City’s mayor’s race, Democratic primary voters selected two progressives for mayor in other cities in the state: Buffalo chose openly socialist African American candidate India Walton, and in Rochester, Malik Evans bested the more-moderate incumbent Lovely Warren.

In my birth state of Missouri, voters in April elected Tishaura Jones as mayor of St. Louis. She is an unapologetic progressive who actually defunded her police budget (though more-moderate members of the Board of Aldermen tried to return the money using a workaround) and advocates that Black citizens be given reparations for past racial discrimination.

These victories cannot be dismissed as outliers or freak occurrences. They reflect a desire and yearning among much of the electorate for greater economic security for themselves, more social and economic justice for underserved communities and a higher level of accountability among elected officials. Above all, they reflect a longing by many to live in a different kind of America where peace, security and harmony exist between citizens and their physical environments.

Instead of being out of touch with the common problems faced by many Americans, as critics claim, progressive politicians are on the same frequency with many of their constituents who have become despondent, discouraged and tired of being lied to repeatedly. Progressives have a historic opportunity to lead and serve.

Leadership requires more than just empathizing with the challenges of the working and middle classes; it takes an understanding of governing. My experiences several decades ago as one of the then-progressive members of the Atlanta City Council may lend some insight. I pursued an agenda around such policies as leveraging the city’s purchasing power to create local jobs, using city pension funds to make “prudent man” investments in local small, minority and women-owned business enterprises, and permitting city workers to have union dues deducted from their paychecks.

I was not always successful in gaining approval for my initiatives, but I approached each one with zeal and these objectives and tactics: Whenever possible, obtain unanimous consent from colleagues; answer skeptics’ questions with facts and data; and make no personal attacks on those who disagree with my proposals. Further, I viewed the press as a friendly resource and frequently took to its opinion pages to advance my arguments and enlist support of relevant organizations and council colleagues. I often wonder now how much more effective I would have been if social media were as prominent and accessible as they are today.

Along with working to disarm and inform my opposition, I also worked hard to educate my supporters so that they could be better allies. These experiences from the past convince me that progressives today can be successful if they remain strategic, pick their battles carefully and draw inspiration from a deep well of love and affection for the communities they serve.

Progressives are a vital part of the Democratic coalition without which the party will not be successful going forward. Many of the causes for which they fight enjoy broad public support. The recent string of victories by progressives should encourage more of them to seek public office. Their voices ought to be heard, and their causes of jobs, justice and peace are desperately needed now more than ever.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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