It was the late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, who once quipped, “All politics is local.” I’ve never really understood what it meant, and quite honestly, I don’t know if Tip really did either. All I know is that it’s complete bullshit.
If, on Wednesday morning, you took a good, long look at the national House map, you would have found that only three districts managed to switch from Democratic hands to Republican ones. Of those, one in Pennsylvania appears to be less of a GOP pickup then a swap engineered by the court-ordered redistricting that the state so desperately needed. The other two are in my own state of Minnesota, where I believe the rural-urban progressive alliance is slowly beginning to crumble, being dismantled by forces far more national than local.
In short, two very rural Congressional districts, the First and the Eighth (my home), changed from blue to red Tuesday, much to the disappointment of many progressives across the state. The first reason for this, but ultimately the less relevant one, is simply the fact that the current DFL (or, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, as the Minnesota iteration of the Democrats is known) incumbent in the Eighth, Rep. Rick Nolan, decided to retire, and the Congressman from the First, Tim Walz, chose to make a run for the governor’s office. Because of their popularity and incumbency advantages, both almost certainly knew that they were the only DFLers capable of winning those House races. Walz, for his part, was elected Governor on Tuesday, but that doesn’t change the fact that he did so despite failing to win the DFL nomination over more progressive candidates (and being more of a Purple People Pleaser than a true Minnesota progressive). The real issue with these districts, however, goes far beyond the borders of the state itself.
Turning directly to the two House races at hand, I was disappointed but not surprised to see the two new DFL candidates, Dan Feehan and Joe Randinovich, lose their races on Tuesday night. These two individuals represented Minnesota progressivism in every sense of the word. Their platforms were in favor of labor rights and significantly raising the minimum wage. They both supported universal healthcare, and generally speaking, they had a deep understanding of what kind of representation their districts needed in Washington. There was nothing wrong about these two candidates, nothing that had condemned them to defeat. See, the unique thing about Minnesota, and perhaps the primary reason I love my home state so much, is that real progressive candidates have consistently been able to get elected in both urban and rural districts, as well as statewide. The fundamental reason for this is that our state Democratic Party and the more left-leaning Farmer-Labor party, originally formed as a coalition between the urban working class and farmers outstate, merged in 1944. As a result, even as political alliances shifted over the past 74 years, these progressive traditions have remained in our political zeitgeist. The union has produced leaders ranging from legendary Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, to his more contemporary ideological heir, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, to the newly elected Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, the first Somali-American to serve in the House, or the candidates Feehan and Randinovich themselves.
To me, it seems clear that it was not Feehan and Randinovich’s unabashed progressivism that sunk them in their elections. Rather, I believe that it was the fact that nationally, the Democrats have failed to embrace the progressive spirit in the same way. Voters in those districts did not respond to the DFL candidates themselves, but rather to the weak economic messaging of the national party. Now, to be quite clear, this is not another entry in the never-ending list of thinkpieces bemoaning the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the mythical “white working class,” or, God forbid, criticizing the party for its “identity politics,” or really any related screed. As a black man from a rural district, I’ve found that line of thought serves to erase the voices of people like me rather than provide any tangible electoral benefit.
Rather, it seems that national Democrats need to learn from Minnesotans, both urban and rural, and embrace the progressive (dare I say left-wing populist) politics my state has championed for many years. It is not enough to provide spineless neoliberal opposition to Donald Trump and the GOP from which his virulence is inseparable.
Instead, we must provide a real political and economic alternative to it. Those championed by genuine socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, immediately come to mind, but we should not discount those of unfearing progressive leaders like Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke either.
For the Left, it is not, as the punditry continues to remind us, about abandoning our focus on the racism, misogyny, and homophobia that we wish to eradicate from society. Continuing to fight these evils is an indelible piece of our struggle, as we must confront the hardships (both economic and otherwise) that working people face, whatever and wherever they might be. We must meet people where they are, just as Omar, Randinovich, and Feehan strove to do. This means confronting issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and the gender wage gap as well, not because these issues are economic (though they undoubtedly are), but because they genuinely matter to working people around the country. The neoliberal corporate Democratic agenda is no longer the way forward. It is time the party learned from Minnesotans urban and rural alike, and refocused on a truly progressive blueprint for the future, so we may not only be saved from Trump and the GOP, but so that we can build a bright future for working people across the country.
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