The conclusive defeat of Donald Trump comes as a huge relief to millions of people who call this country home, especially those in our most vulnerable communities. Looking at the results, there is no question that progressive organizing in battlegrounds — especially the efforts led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color — played a major role. Joe Biden may lead Trump by more than seven million votes nationwide, but his margin of victory in four key battleground states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona — is less than 120,000 votes. It’s clear that our work mattered.

On the other hand, we fell significantly short of key goals to win true governing power: ending the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, solidifying the Democratic  majority in the House, and flipping state legislatures ahead of 2020 redistricting. Instead, down-ballot Democrats tended to underperform Biden, Democrats lost as many as a dozen seats in Congress, and the Senate is on a razor’s edge, with two tough but winnable Georgia special elections in January to determine control. Even in the best case, the Senate will be a dead-even tie, making substantive progress on the federal level no sure thing. 

I would love to be able to give you clear and concise answers about how we won, why we fell short, and where we go from here. Unfortunately, the data we receive weeks and months after the final votes are cast are certain to turn our initial hot takes on their head. The unique conditions of 2020, including a global pandemic, wildfires and hurricanes, and a historic uprising against police violence, add further layers of complication and uncertainty. 

Even if we don’t have the data we need to arrive at answers, I think we do know enough to start formulating important questions we must answer as we prepare to fight for our communities in 2021 and look to the big electoral contests ahead. 


1. How can movement power build governing power? 

We live in an age of social movements, and it's no mystery as to why. Social movements arise when the governing powers ignore the acute needs of the people, and the current neoliberal order has left far too many needs unmet. 

There's no clearer example of the phenomenon than the Movement for Black Lives, which emerged this summer as the single largest social movement in U.S. history. In 2,440 cities and towns across America, tens of millions rallied in more than 7,000 individual protests against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. These weren't just protests; they constituted a mass uprising against police violence and systemic racism too long overlooked and countenanced by the powers that be.  

For all the conservative and corporate Democratic hand wringing about BLM and the call to "defund the police," there is good evidence that the uprising helped defeat Donald Trump. In the first half of June, more than 520,000 Democrats registered to vote, a fifty percent increase over the May total. When it came time to vote, 91 percent of voters said protests over police violence were a factor in their voting decisions. Of those voters, Biden won by a seven-point margin, 53 percent to 46 percent. A new analysis by the Movement Cooperative indicates that the turnout increase from 2016 was higher in counties with protests than counties without protests — a key sign that the protests were crucial to political organizing. We saw the effects of the movement as cities like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Detroit delivered in a big way for Biden. 

This wasn't just a simple matter of cause and effect; organizers made a strategic intervention to maximize the impact of the uprising on the 2020 elections. From the very beginning of the protests in June, movement leaders and progressive organizers were clear-eyed about the opportunity to channel the power of the protests into victory for our movements at the polls. 

I'll give you one example. This summer, the Working Families Party, the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, and United We Dream Action launched The Frontline. Our aim was simple but ambitious: to translate movement power in the streets into electoral might that could defeat Trump and Trumpism and set a new course for our nation. The Frontline organized sixty GOTV events nationwide, recruited 3,553 Slack volunteers, 1,174 texting volunteers, and 29,800 Mobilize users; sent a total of 3.37 million texts; and even made 2.75 million voter contacts in a single day. In a separate but related effort, the WFP partnered with the newly formed Black Lives Matter PAC to recruit 6,000 volunteers who called and texted 5.4 million voters in states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Arizona.

Those are just two examples. The Movement Cooperative conducted a survey of its member organizations and found that activists made more than 2.6 million phone conversations, sent 260 million texts, and mailed 18-million volunteer-written postcards. 

So what are the lessons for the future? First, we need to think about social movements like waves. They arise on their own, but you can ride them with preparation and experience. Movements capture lightning in a bottle, and we should be prepared by building the kind of durable organizations that are prepared to work with them when that lightning strikes. 

Practically, we need to strengthen alliances and partnerships between progressive electoral projects and social movement activists and leaders and center leadership of color throughout, especially Black, Indigenous, and Latinx leadership. We need sustained, year-round support for local organizing and base-building so that we have the capacity and networks to connect with social movements as they arise. 

That's especially true because, as strong as our movements can be, and as excellent as our organizing work was, it wasn't enough. Which brings me to my next question. 


2. Why don't we have governing power when our coalition is bigger and our ideas are more popular? 

There is something wrong with a political system in which one party can win seven million more votes than another party and count the year as a mixed bag — or even a failure. If our system seems tailor-made to thwart or at least temper a working-class majority, that's because it is. From the U.S. Senate to the Electoral College to state legislatures and the courts, our system of government is actively hostile to majoritarian rule. 

The Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight elections. During that period, there were only four years in which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency. In the 2018 "blue wave” midterms, the Democrats netted 41 seats in the House of Representatives, but we still lost ground in the U.S. Senate. And despite an overwhelming anti-Trump movement showing up in force, we got clobbered down ballot. If tens of thousands of votes in a few key states had gone the other way, Donald Trump would still be president. 

We know what we need to do to build a functioning democracy that honors the popular will: abolish the Electoral College, eliminate the filibuster, win statehood for DC, and expand the courts. We must make the right to vote ironclad and inalienable, rewrite gerrymandered maps, and offer voters real choices through voting with multimember districts and other reforms that challenge the rigid two-party system. 

Our challenge is to build enough governing power within a rigged system to unrig it once and for all. But as we saw this year, even getting our foot in the door is no easy task. In this country, the contest for power is not so much a contest for popular majorities as it is a contest for space. Our political system demands that we fight not just for people but for acres and the people within those acres. Where we win matters. 


3. How do we build enough governing power to unrig a rigged system? 

The biggest lesson of 2020 is that we must expand our coalition’s geographic reach. Over the past ten years, a clear trend has emerged in which the Democratic voter coalition has become more metropolitan and increasingly reliant on voters on the higher end of the income spectrum. Worse, as the Democrats embrace neoliberal politics, their base changes to reflect that, making it more likely that neoliberal politics become the only way Democrats can win across an increasingly limited geography. 

To be clear, any future progressive majority must center the leadership of people of color, particularly in urban areas. At the same time, we cannot accept the confines of the urban-suburban coalition as it exists. We need to break into rural communities. 

The work of building power in rural areas is daunting. White Christian identity politics is a powerful force that has already captured majorities of white rural voters. Trumpism isn’t just popular in these circles; its popularity is growing. 

But we also know that the electorate in every community is in constant flux as people move in and out, kids turn 18, and older voters pass away. There are nearly sixty million people living in rural America. That is a lot of voters to write off. And when you write those places off, you write off all the people there: Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, queer, women. About nine or ten percent of the rural vote is Latinx; eight percent is Black (mostly in the South). Over half of all Native Americans living in the U.S. live in rural communities.

Looking back over the past few cycles, President Obama won 43 percent of the rural vote, while Secretary Clinton won just over 30 percent. We don't have to win rural counties to win overall, but we can't afford to get trounced. There are 676 counties that Obama won twice; Trump won a third of them in 2016, often by huge margins. These are largely rural, majority-white communities. But rural Latinx counties also started trending toward Trump in 2016, a fact that got little media coverage. This was the product of investment and organizing by right-wing groups like the Koch brothers’ Libre Initiative. 

To a large degree, Democrats have not really tried to compete in rural communities, and the organized left hasn’t done so either. Unions, which traditionally fostered cross-racial, working-class solidarity, have been weakened after decades of right-wing attacks. 

The Demoratic establishment often posits two paths for dealing with its weakness with rural voters, and both of them are bad. The first is to write rural communities off as a lost cause, and the second is to “win folks back” by playing to the center, dodging race and immigration or, worse, employing dog whistles. 

But there is another way: organize around people's pain, build trust, and move folks on race, immigration, and more over time. According to New York Times / Edison exit polls, Joe Biden won handily among voters who said racism in the U.S. was the most important problem or one of several important problems. He lost those who thought it was a minor problem — or not a problem at all — by similarly staggering margins. The hard work is increasing the share of people who believe that racism is real and does real harm. 

That means that rural organizing done right is racial justice work. Demos developed pioneering work as part of its Race Class Narrative program, and several WFP allies and institutional members, including Standing Up for Racial Justice and People's Action, have been leading the way on this front. They've found that through one-on-one conversations with culturally competent and trusted messengers, we can win over at least some white people — especially younger white people — who haven't yet been captured by Trumpism.

People's Action Director and WFP Executive Committee Member George Goehl described their approach as follows:

We start first with what folks are struggling with — health care, polluted water, factory farms, opioids, housing, etcetera — and we organize to win on those issues. And we work on moving people into a race-conscious, multi-racial context. And, through the organizing, we do real-time political ed where we look at how racism dependably creates different outcomes for different people based on race, and how racism is the reason we were not organizing together (and winning!) in the first place.  

That is hard and painstaking work, but it is crucial. The progressive movement can't just be concerned with proximal fights, whether it's pressuring the Biden Administration or the primary elections just around the corner. If we don't start preparing in 2021, the elections in 2028 and 2030 will look every bit as disappointing as this year's, and we will still be blocked out of key institutions like the U.S. Senate and the legislative redistricting process. 

This election year underscored the power of our movements and organizing, as well as our limitations and the challenging terrain ahead. But here at the WFP, we're committed to walking that path ahead in partnership and solidarity with all of you. 



Created with Sketch.

Related Articles