In yesterday’s midterm elections, Democrats pulled off “a better night than expected,” avoiding an anticipated “red wave” of Republican victories. Though Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis won reelection by an imposing 20-point margin and control of Congress has yet to be determined, many progressives have “breathed sighs of relief” given who won the midterms after dire pre-election forecasts of a right-wing sweep.
Given what’s at stake, this is understandable. Right-wing forces in the United States are white-washing history, attacking trans and gender non-conforming people, and destroying reproductive healthcare, all amidst threats of escalating conflict in Eastern Europe and signs of an impending economic crisis. With the Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in the midterms, you might be tempted to put such things out of your mind. Some will insist that we wait for liberal politicians to do the right thing, insisting that any criticism will imperil progressives in the next election cycle.
Though rooted in understanding the harm that right-wing policies have on us and our communities, in our homes, on the streets, and at our jobs, neither of those responses actually addresses that harm. It’s important to remember that elections are, at best, a means to an end. They’re one way of pressuring the political system to create better outcomes, but they’re far from the only way. The election results will have consequences we can’t yet predict. Our job is to ensure that us getting distracted from the work of fighting for a better society isn’t one of them.
• Have conversations with your friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors about getting connected to a local initiative for justice and liberation.
• Support grassroots organizations doing work around healthcare, immigration, labor, war, education, food, land, and justice.
Here’s the challenge of the election cycle. Whether it’s a victory or a defeat, elections can suck the wind out of the sails of social movements and grassroots initiatives that tirelessly fight for oppressed communities, day in and day out. If we’re only engaged leading up to election day, and passively celebrating or despairing at who won the midterms after the fact, no politician has an incentive to do a better job. It always means every social movement would have a two- or four-year expiration date. That’s why Dr. August H. Nimtz of the University of Minnesota has wondered whether elections might, in fact, be the “graveyard of progressive social movements” (Monthly Review).
As activist, musician, and Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley points out, significant political reforms don’t come from the ballot box: they come from strong oppositional social movements. “Think about it like this: Affirmative action came in under Nixon, and it’s not because he just had one contradiction where he had some progressive idea and was like, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ No, it’s because the ruling class was afraid of this movement that was building,” he says. “So if we’re looking for extreme changes like that, and we want elected officials to make big changes like that, we’ve got to stop focusing only on elections because then we’re going to get caught in this cycle” (LA Times).
When academic and activist Angela Davis was asked in 2016 what we ought to do during the Trump presidency, she responded, “Whatever we are already doing, we need to do more. We need to accelerate our activism” (University of Chicago).
And this is equally true in the event of Democratic victories. As Kandist Mallett put it during the 2020 election:
“If Biden does win, there will be a push from organizations and pseudo-movement leaders to focus on trying to gain small wins from the administration. That is a trap. We had Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock under Obama, and besides changing the national conversation within mainstream media, what has really changed?” (Teen Vogue).
The Anti-Racism Daily started connecting readers at the close of the Trump presidency during the George Floyd Rebellion. These protests were a continuation of the Black Lives Matter uprisings that started in the second term of the Obama administration. All of these protests confronted an anti-Black power structure that’s persisted over generations under the management of both political parties. The facts of who won the midterms may change the playing field that social movements must navigate, but they don’t reduce the importance of providing direct support to efforts by the most directly affected people to empower and liberate their communities.
• The midterm elections will influence the political playing field in the United States.
• Electoral victories can lull supporters into complacency, while electoral defeats can inspire hopelessness.
• There’s no electoral outcome that reduces the importance of directly supporting marginalized communities.