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Who’s truly rebuilding the Democratic Party? The activists.

Protesters against the Republic health care proposals chant slogans inside the office of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), July 19.


Protesters against the Republic health care proposals chant slogans inside the office of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), July 19.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

In June 2010 I made a very bad tweet that I came to regret. (Hard to imagine, I know.) I yelled at the disability rights group Adapt.

I’d come to DC to attend a conference of progressive leaders, “America’s Future Now.” And while I knew a lot about financial reform, I didn’t know enough about politics, activism, or the Democratic Party.

During a big speech by Nancy Pelosi, a group of disability rights activists began shouting down the then-speaker of the House, with cries of "Our homes, not nursing homes!” I thought these organizers were counterproductively attacking a potential ally, or disrupting a meeting of like-minded allies — or something — and I tweeted out my irritation. (I’d prefer to skip the specifics.)

Soon, members of Adapt explained to me these people were fighting to stay in their homes. They wanted Pelosi to support the Community Choice Act, which would have allowed funds for nursing homes to be directed for people to stay in their own communities. Embarrassed, I deleted my ill-tempered post and resolved to learn more about activists’ goals before speaking up.

This cringeworthy episode comes to mind because Adapt is again on the front lines of activism — fighting for everyone’s right to health care during the Republican’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. While insurance companies were missing in action in the Hill fight, the same people who were pointing out how the ACA didn’t address funding for community-assisted living in 2010 were there fighting for its survival in 2017.

Adapt organized a “die-in” at Mitch McConnell’s office, and got arrested fighting to prevent cuts to Medicaid. Their efforts produced powerful news photographs and TV footage that shaped the political battle. Like “resistance” organizers in town halls and community centers across the country, the protesters made it clear that lives would be hurt — and lost — if Medicaid and the ACA were cut, and they drove home the scandal of politicians cutting it in the middle of the night. They put their bodies on the line to highlight the stakes of the debate.

There’s been a lot of debate lately about what the Democrats stand for, and what they should stand for in the years ahead. As pundits and policymakers engage in that debate, we should be taking cues from activists.

Since at least the second half of Obama’s term, activists have been articulating a powerful vision of the world as it should be. They’ve been fighting for health care, a living wage, free education, and full employment, all in creative and diverse ways. Action on the ground has not only moved the policy goalposts but changed the center of gravity in the Democratic Party.

To be sure, Obama began his presidency with considerable support from activists, on such issues as health care, financial reform, stimulus, immigration, and climate change. But the fresh wave of activism can help us figure out what should come next.

It’s impossible, of course, to cover all the organizing and activism going on, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, but there are four campaigns that bear special watching:

Health care

The most important and striking activism has been centered on health care. This didn’t start with the repeal fight. After the ACA was passed, religiously motivated Moral Monday protesters made the case, most notably in North Carolina, that their states should expand Medicaid, as the law permitted. When Republican shifted their focus to ending the ACA, the movement became supercharged, with resistance activists coordinating across the country to bring pressure against repeal.

Ordinary citizens were drawn into these protests, and as they questioned politicians they often spontaneously articulated a moral vision for health care. They were not excited about the “freedom” of being able to go without insurance or the “liberty” to buy coverage that didn’t cover anything. They stood up and said they wanted social insurance to be broader, more inclusive, and with risk more equitably shared. These ideas spread thanks to their actions.

A living wage

The most successful activist campaign since 2013 has arguably been the Fight for $15. Activists pushed both local cities and states to take the lead on raising their minimum wages, over industry opposition and in the face of intellectual gatekeepers who ruled the idea out of bounds. As they demonstrated against the injustice of asking people to get by on $7.25 an hour, they called attention to the broader ways low-wage work with unstable hours degrades those forced to do it.

Note the clarity of the call for action here: “Nobody who works full time should live in poverty.” Activists draw a line and demand that people commit — or explain why they reject the idea. Scholars will rightly continue to analyze and debate the economic effects of the first wave of these minimum wage hikes, but the activism has struck a blow for dignity for workers.

Free college

Activists have also moved the goalposts in the battle over making college more affordable. It was 2015 when President Obama first proposed that the first two years of community college should be free. By 2016 Hillary Clinton came out in favor of debt-free college. Today that’s a nonnegotiable position for any Democrat serious about running in 2020. Better, governors from New York to Tennessee are putting the idea into action.

There are lots of reasons this position took hold, but activists’ speaking out for indebted students — along with growing recognition of the predations of the for-profit sector — played a central role. Members of this movement have articulated a sensible (and popular) role for public goods, one in which access to the core drivers of opportunity and a full life aren’t dictated by how much money your parents have, or by the private market alone. Children shouldn’t have to indenture themselves in order to fully develop their skills, those activists are saying. This is a powerful vision for Democrats to align themselves with, and they’re doing so.

Full employment

When Ben Bernanke held his first press conference in 2011, nine out of 11 questions from reporters were predicated on the idea he was doing too much — intervening too actively in the economy. This was when unemployment was 8.9 percent and inflation was well under-target, clear signs that they were doing too little. Now, in 2017, the idea that the Federal Reserve undershot its efforts to help workers carries more weight.

Though they have many allies, the activists at Fed Up, who have demonstrated at the annual Federal Reserve meeting at Jackson Hole, have stressed to a broad public the very real costs of unemployment and underemployment — and the link to monetary policy. Activism also directs reporters’ attention to research that suggests that there’s more room for economic expansion — and why the risks of undershooting growth targets outweighs the risks of overshooting.

Many Democrats are terrified that they won’t be able to bridge the gap between the need to fight sustained racial discrimination and to deliver populist economist messages. Yet looking at these movements on the ground, you are struck by how diverse they are. People of color dominate the activism around Moral Mondays and the Fight for $15, which makes perfect sense, given that women and people of color disproportionately work in minimum wage service jobs and suffer under the lack of health-care in states that did not expand Medicaid.

Forty-two percent of African-Americans between 25 and 55 have student loans, significantly higher than the 28 percent of whites in that age group that have them. Their loan balances, too, are 28 percent higher. Fed Up has made a point of emphasizing how central full employment was to the civil rights movement. Activists are bridging the gap between racial inclusion and populism because their lives are on the line

Activism doesn’t just reflect ideology. It can create it.

One of the most interesting books about activism I’ve read is Ziad Munson’s The Making of Pro-Life Activists, which documents how many people in the pro-life movement didn’t have particularly strong pro-life beliefs before joining. Like many people, their ideas are a mix of conflicting thoughts and impulses. It’s the political activity of doing pro-life activism that creates the coherent ideological structure that makes them pro-life.

This is the opposite of how we normally think of things. In the rationalist world, why would you perform the actions unless you already had the beliefs? But actions create beliefs just as much as the other way around. That is what is happening in the Democratic Party now, under the radar of most discussions.

Sometimes you have to watch the activism to understand the ideology — or better yet, take part in the activism.

Mike Konczal, a Vox columnist, is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. He also blogs at Rortybomb, and his Twitter handle is @rortybomb.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.

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