Voters made history Nov. 7. Exhausted and angered from a record number of deaths in Iraq, an economic recovery benefiting millionaires but not workers, and unchecked corruption, the voter upsurge rejected the Bush administration and its right-wing agenda.
Placing hope above fear, voters in all parts of the country stood up to defend democracy. The dramatic results present new opportunities for the grass roots to move forward a people’s agenda and oust the right wing from the White House in 2008.
After months of conversation with union brothers and sisters on the job, at their doors and on the phone, a resounding 74 percent of union members and their families, one in four voters, joined 88 percent of African Americans, 69 percent of Latinos and record numbers of women and youth voters to end right-wing Republican majority rule of Congress. The wave carried many state and local candidates to victory.
As voting day arrived across the country, electricity was in the air, with the sense that an upsurge “change” vote to end the war in Iraq and reject the Bush policies was about to sweep the nation.
It was an upsurge vote big enough and powerful enough to overcome long lines, faulty machines and dirty tricks meant to suppress the vote in many working-class precincts. It was made possible by shifts among independent voters and in some traditionally Republican areas.
Ten months earlier most analysts predicted that Democrats could not take the 15 seats needed to control the House and certainly not the six seats needed to win the Senate.
In the end, Democrats picked up at least 28 seats in the House plus the six Senate seats. No Democratic incumbents were defeated. Overall, those Democrats who took strong stands against the war and for universal health care and raising the minimum wage won the biggest confidence of voters.
When peace candidate Ned Lamont defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary, it sent a signal to candidates across the country that withdrawal from Iraq was a winning issue. Lieberman, who formed his own party to run in the general election, got 70 percent of the Republican vote by quietly sticking with Bush, but had to claim to favor ending the war in order to win by garnering some Democratic votes (30 percent).
Republicans in close races were forced to distance themselves from Bush. Some joined in the Democratic chorus for Rumsfeld to resign. With some exceptions, the most extreme anti-immigrant and terrorist-baiting attack ads, the ugliest ever seen, lost votes for the Republicans.
Prominent Republicans mired in corruption scandals went down to defeat while others held on by only razor-thin margins. Some of the most right-wing Republicans will not be returning to Congress, including Rep. J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.) and nine other members of the anti-immigrant caucus in the House, plus Sens. Rick Santorum, James Talent and George Allen.
The media are attempting to minimize the people’s election victory, continuing the biased role they played throughout the election. Claiming there has not been a real shift in public opinion on the issues, they dismiss the election results as a momentary reaction to scandals. Their spotlight on conservative Democrats who won election is an effort to undermine the ability of Nancy Pelosi, who will become the first woman speaker of the House, to advance a progressive agenda.
To the contrary, this election was a far-reaching rejection of the policies of Bush, whose performance ratings plummeted to 31 percent post-election (Newsweek). This election was a call for a change in direction. The victory gives hope to minimum wage workers, military families, students, seniors, immigrants and all democratic-minded people.
But the war in Iraq will not end, health care will not become universal, and workers will not achieve the right to organize just because Democrats won control of Congress.
Their majority in Congress is not large enough or united enough to be veto-proof. There is an ongoing struggle between the conservative and progressive sections of the Democratic Party. The Republican presence remains sizeable, and George W. Bush remains in the White House.
Yet the new Congress should be greeted because it greatly improves the playing field on which labor and allies can fight.
In large part it will be up to labor and allies, the core forces of the alliance against the ultra-right that delivered the election, to build grassroots pressure for Congress to be partisan to the needs of working families. Expanding the shift of independent voters in a progressive direction to win on the issues will require a strong rejection of the divisive anti-affirmative-action, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-GLBT tactics of the ultra-right.
Inspired by the election results, the union movement and women’s, youth, civil rights and peace groups who pulled out the winning vote in this election are already in motion.
Military Families Speak Out has called on the new Congress to support withdrawal of troops from Iraq as soon as possible. In response to voter turnout against the war and 162 ballot measures for withdrawal which passed overwhelmingly, Senate Democrats have come out for phased troop withdrawal beginning in a few months. The Bush administration says no. This will be the first big test of the new Congress and the ability of the peace and people’s movements to mobilize support.
For six years in the Republican-controlled House, it was impossible to get debate on any issue that did not have the support of the right-wing “majority of the majority.” The change in leadership opens new possibilities.
The largest ideological caucus in the new Congress will be the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Over half of all House committees and subcommittees will be chaired by members of the Progressive, Black, Hispanic or Asian Pacific Caucuses.
Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who helped found the Out of Iraq Caucus, says this election is “a vindication of our work … to change the direction of our Iraq policy and bring our troops home.”
In a message the day after the election, she emphasized that oversight of the executive branch will be restored. “The administration will now have to answer some tough questions on its rush to war, its failed arms control and broader foreign policies, its abuse of our constitutional rights and its failed economic and budgetary policies.”
Lee said the Progressive and Black Caucuses will prioritize “helping Katrina survivors return home and rebuild their community and their lives and insisting on a national plan to eradicate poverty … and creating a government that works for all Americans, not just the privileged few.”
The emergency agenda projected by Pelosi for the first 100 hours of the new Congress includes modest proposals that impact people’s lives. It has strong support from labor and allies, from Democrats across the board, and from some Republicans.
The six points include breaking the link between lobbyists and legislation, passing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, raising the minimum wage, cutting the interest rate on student loans in half, lowering drug prices for Medicare patients, and rolling back the multibillion-dollar subsidies for Big Oil companies and investing instead in energy independence.
If enacted, this modest beginning can provide the momentum for demanding more far-reaching measures. At the top of the agenda is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would remove barriers for workers to form a union.
The high union member turnout to elect pro-labor candidates makes labor a key force not only in significantly raising workers’ living standards, but in completing the task of defeating the ultra-right.
This historic election is just the beginning. The struggle now is to organize a grassroots groundswell for a people’s needs agenda, and develop tactics in collaboration with the progressives in Congress to pass legislation that is partisan to working people. Winning victories for the people is the best way to assure defeat of the Republican ultra-right in 2008.
Joelle Fishman (joelle.fishman @ pobox.com) is chair of the Communist Party USA’s Political Action Commission. She lives in New Haven, Conn.