#Notthereyet, but working on it: Thoughts and takeaways for Progressives like me.
Like most of you, I’ve spent the last nine days vacillating between immobilizing disbelief, inconsolable grief and uncontrollable anger at the thought of a Trump Presidency, a Trump White House, a Trump Administration, a Trump nomination to the Supreme Court. And just when I thought a week+ of ranting on Facebook, regrouping with colleagues, recharging with girlfriends, and annoying my family was bringing me to the end of this emotional roller-coaster, the announcement that a White nationalist (i.e. supremacist), Steve Bannon has been named White House Chief Strategist, retired Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn will be National Security Adviser, and Senator Jeff Sessions will be appointed Attorney General, has catapulted me back to Election night and our nation back 50–60 years.
As an African American woman feminist who has dedicated her life — sacrificing her economic security and personal relationships— to advancing women’s and workers’ rights, racial and ethnic justice and slaying bigotry of any type and misogyny wherever it is found — at the dinner table, at church, at work, on social media or in the streets — no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient, I am personally aggrieved.
Though I am currently writing in my personal capacity, as a leader of a nonpartisan, innovative collaboration of 20+ women’s legal and workers’ rights organizations working at state, regional and national levels to close the gender wage gap, I am professionally aggrieved. My colleagues work daily without respect to political party, most often at the state level, with few resources but deep experience and savvy to combat pay inequality, occupational segregation, pay secrecy and retaliation for discussing pay, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination, wage theft and an inadequate minimum wage. We fight for the “causes and values” that most women — most voters — hold dear.
While I am heartened that the diversity of our organizational focus makes us well-suited to hold ground and perhaps gain ground on equal employment issues in the states; while I am buoyed by the fact that progressive issues — like paid sick leave and a raise in the minimum wage — were successful as ballot initiatives in certain states, I think of all that may be lost in this new regime at the federal level.
The opportunity costs of being denied future progressive wins on a range of issues: workplace equality for women, criminal justice reform, civil liberties, affordable housing, investments in public education, immigration reform. The specter of losing ground on the progressive wins of the past 8 years: quality and affordable healthcare, reproductive health care protections, environmental protections, workplace protections for all workers, Wall Street reform, LGBT equality. And these are just the domestic issues! The specter of losing ground on the wins of the past several decades: the social safety net, religious freedom, civil rights of racial and ethnic minorities. The notion that the highest and thickest glass ceiling of professional attainment and political influence — the American Presidency — remains unbroken for women. The fact that we have normalized incivility. The realization that our daughters and sons will still need to be told a woman can be President; they won’t just know it.
But more than that, as a patriot and former public servant, I grieve for our nation. America had a choice between moving toward a more perfect union and retreating from it, and enough of us (though not most) chose retreat. Moreover, many chose neither at all or sat this one out — a sad reminder that Dr. King was right: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
To the media outlets and agnostics creating a false equivalency between the “sides” of this election, know that there is no legitimate “side” in support of racial, ethnic, gender, religious, sexual orientation, disability status, or class supremacy of any kind in mainstream 2016 America. To the extreme-leftists who created a climate of “the better of two evils” or “I can’t bring myself to vote for either one,” know that you too played a role in the outcome you decry today.
So much progress has been made over the last few decades — during both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Sometimes we moved too slow, veered too far to the right or left, and shed blood, sweat and tears, but we always moved forward. This is the first time I can remember feeling like we are moving directly in the reverse — away from equality, away from diversity and inclusion, away from economic stability, away from national security, away from expanding our democracy … for ALL. And for many of us — millions of women, persons of color, immigrants, and religious minorities who won’t tolerate subjugation in OUR country, we feel like we are moving away from our political, personal, professional, and physical safety. And our fears have been repeatedly legitimized by Mr. Trump’s words — both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, his rhetoric, his rallies, his positions,his staff, his appointments.
Of course, this is not the first time our nation has moved backwards. As I watched in American horror mixed with American pride, as Hillary Clinton conceded graciously the election and President Obama welcomed gracefully President-elect Trump to the White House, I was reminded that 12 years of post-Civil War Reconstruction was followed by more than 80 years of Jim Crow. It was hardly happenstance then, and it is hardly happenstance now.
So, how do progressive policy advocates, whether professionals or unofficial social media warriors, ensure eight years of the nation’s first Black President and the first woman Presidential nominee to get the popular vote aren’t followed by a generation of roll backs and stalls on civil, women’s and human rights? How do we do our part to ensure America’s greatness? How do we atone for our role in T-Day, November 8th 2016? (Yes, we had one too.)
We listen. As angry as I am about what happened last Tuesday and why, there can be no doubt that those of us in the political chattering class didn’t listen as fully as we should have. And when we did listen, we didn’t believe voters on the ground. We engaged in confirmation bias, believing who and what we wanted to hear, discounting who and what we didn’t. We focused on the ideas and messages that reflected our priorities and spoke to our concerns — totally legitimate — and glossed-over, ignored, or ridiculed the ideas and messages that reflected others’ priorities and concerns — major mistake. Even if we disagreed on policy specifics, thought their ideas silly, or believed their messages and rhetoric reprehensible, we should have addressed their positions directly and showed them the respect of an earnest response. Yes, even the bigots and misogynists deserved our attention. As onerous and as deserving of rebuke these views are, they are rooted in fear, which, even if irrational, is a legitimate human emotion with which we can all identify. As my favorite poem, Desiderata, reminds:
“[L]isten to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”
We share our values. I was on a pre-election feminist panel and the subject came-up of Secretary Clinton’s lower than expected poll numbers with non-Hispanic, White women. One of the attendees — a non-Hispanic, White woman and a progressive policy advocate — decried the failure of her demographic to see the importance of electing Secretary Clinton and defeating Mr. Trump. Then she mentioned that she refrained from posting anything in support of Secretary Clinton on social media because she didn’t want to “get into it” with her family members. Wait, what?! We were all so shocked, no one held her accountable, but I wish we had.
How can we expect people to agree with us or even see our point, if we are unwilling to share our positions, our candidates, and, most importantly, our values? When we disengage with those who disagree with us, it inadvertently sends the message that we don’t care what they think and don’t believe them worthy of our engagement. It is also quiet assent to the very beliefs we abhor. In the alternative, when we stand up for what’s right we give others the cover and willpower to do the same.
We gain proximity. You can’t fully listen to or share your values with voters from your perch in Washington, DC, New York City or your state capitol. As policy advocates, we have to get beyond our staff meetings, social media posts, activist calls, and even data as we develop our positions and proposals. We need to be on the ground in community centers, in neighborhoods, and in homes to see what the most vulnerable are saying and experiencing day-to-day. Without that proximity, we can’t be sure our priorities are consistent with theirs, our ideas and intentions are understood, our messages are working, and our solutions stand a chance of being effective. Moreover, proximity shows respect and vulnerability, which in turn garners respect. And in the absence of that, votes are almost impossible, especially from people who have never voted before, who don’t trust the system, or who don’t otherwise see themselves naturally in the candidate or policy proposal.
We engage people in our work. Seasoned policy advocates revel in the details of regulations, legislation, and even appointments. At the end of an effort, win or lose, we send a press release celebrating victory or bemoaning defeat, and we wonder why the response is a collective shrug. I think it’s because we haven’t shown our work. We haven’t explained in digestible terms the policies and provisions that impact the lives of everyday Americans, the pros and cons of our positions, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and why we’re asking them to engage (when we ask them to engage at all). And, for those progressive donors out there, policy advocates need funding to do that, especially in the states.
Say what you will, Donald Trump inspired people to act collectively and individually to save their country, to Make America Great Again. Unfortunately, their version of great is our version of a nightmare, but who didn’t feel and envy the energy of their mobilization effort and, on the some level, understand its appeal?
We hold all of our leaders accountable. I have no doubt progressives will hold Mr. Trump’s feet to the fire over the next four years, but we also have to demand accountability from leaders more friendly to our causes. Regardless of the election outcome, a large number of voters, especially in communities of color, supported progressive candidates and causes. As a result, we must demand that those voters and issues be the priorities of progressive leaders without exception. Whether the topic is gun control, pay equity, education, economic policy or national security, we must shift the existing narrative that we work for our leaders, that we owe them something, that we must cater to their needs, that we must shield and celebrate them. It is the people who are owed something and must be catered to, celebrated and protected. Our servant, leaders work for us.
This push towards accountability should begin today. Out-going, incoming, and oh-how-we-wish-it-were-them leaders of all political stripes should be called-upon to speak out against bigotry whether manifested in a staff hire, cabinet appointment, political rhetoric, hate crimes, or crimes designed to look like hate crimes. Securing a peaceful transition begins with — does not avoid — speaking out in favor of equality and against bigotry and wrongdoing.
We remain hopeful. I’ll admit it: This one has been tough for me. Despite our missteps, I still believed progressives offered our best — a hopeful, forward-looking, inclusive, just, and comprehensive vision of an American where all could succeed. It is heartbreaking that not enough of our fellow citizens agreed. But there is hope in those who did agree, in those who didn’t but who are genuinely committed to bringing our nation together and rejecting divisiveness, in those who realize now how important it is to vote and encourage others to vote, in the overdue recognition of women of color as voting powerhouses, in the opportunities to address our fault lines now that they have been so clearly laid bare, and in the fact that our imperfect union still stands and is still seeking perfection.
And to those who say naively that I and other progressives are too alarmist, that “it will be alright,” I say: “You are right about that last part.” It will be alright but not by accident or placation. It will be by the relentless work of progressives who are committed to doing our part individually and collectively to achieve that more perfect union for every American.
This post is my first step. I think I’m ready to get off the roller-coaster now and get back to work.
Joi Chaney is President of J.O.I. Strategies in Washington, DC. This blog is written in her personal capacity and none of her comments should be attributed to her other organizational affiliations, including the Equal Pay Today! Campaign.