This is the worst I remember feeling about the results of an election since the famous “Contract with America” moment in 1994. I feel like there are some potentially helpful parallels between that moment and this one, at least for me. And I’m recognizing, as I tell this story, that it’s grounded in my own relative privilege—mine and the people who are closest to me.
In 1994, I was working as the canvass director of a sizable door-knocking operation at California Peace Action. At that time, California was a pretty different place, at least politically, than it is now. Bill Clinton had won the 1992 presidential election in California, but the state was far from reliably blue, in both national and state elections. The Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who was a notorious enemy of people of color—Latino immigrants, in particular—was running for re-election, and Republicans were desperate to prove that the presidential win was a one-off.
There was a tremendous amount of white anxiety over the fact that California was in the process of becoming a majority-minority state, due to an influx of Asian and Latino immigrants. And that white anxiety was manipulated into a political backlash (or as Van Jones dubbed it more recently, a whitelash) that targeted immigrants, African Americans, and women over the course of a couple of political cycles.
In addition to the racial anxiety that was being felt by whites, there was a fair amount of economic anxiety being experienced by the public regardless of race—the country was coming off a recession—Bill Clinton’s informal campaign slogan had famously been “It’s the economy, stupid”—and Clinton had started closing down military bases and cutting defense industry contracts, as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. High-paying defense jobs were going away, and it wasn’t clear to many voters what was going to replace them.
California conservatives had put Prop. 187 on the ballot, to stoke the fear of immigrants, and drive up turnout among white working class voters who were experiencing economic turmoil. Prop. 187 essentially made it illegal to provide public services to undocumented immigrants—hospitals and schools, in particular, were supposed to not only turn people away, but report them to immigration authorities.
And it worked.
Governor Wilson got elected. Prop. 187 passed. A whole slew of conservative Republicans were elected to congress, and noted racist Dan Lungren was elected Attorney General.
The day after the election, most people who had been working on the election were in shell shock. I got a huge lift that day when a group of high school students (most of whom had been ineligible to vote in the election) walked out of school all over the Bay Area—including a group that came marching up Mission Blvd., right past my office. Hundreds of thousands of people were thrown into limbo, not knowing if their children would be allowed in school, or if they would be denied needed medical care. We had to mourn and organize at the same time, just like now.
As I look at California today, it looks like one of the most hopeful spots in the electoral universe. It’s a reliably Democratic vote in presidential contests. Republicans didn’t have a chance in the most recent US Senate election.
So what lessons do I take away from the ’94 election that makes me feel at least a tiny bit hopeful now?
- Create organizations that were staffed and led by leaders of color, LGBT people, youth and women—or coalitions of those groups working together. One of the groups that I helped in a very small way to start, in the wake of Prop. 187, was Californians for Justice, and I’m proud to say they still exist and are still fighting for justice.
- Don’t deny that bad shit is happening to people & will happen to people, as a result of short-term electoral losses. Groups on the left that actively showed solidarity with immigrants succeeded in California, because solidarity always matters.
- SOLIDARITY ALWAYS MATTERS. Defend the vulnerable.
- Issue-based organizing is more effective than candidate-driven organizing, almost every single time. The way this often plays out in California is through organizing—both offensively and defensively—around ballot initiatives.
- Similarly, election-only tactics are not a strategy for winning. Direct action, legal challenges, individual legal defenses, and sometimes just feeding people or providing other basic human needs are all important, if we want to build a different world.
- Electoral politics doesn’t matter at all, unless it produces visible change. And that doesn’t just mean political change—it means representational change. Look at this photo of the current statewide office-holders in CA, and tell me again how we should keep running straight white cisgendered men as the most possible progressive champions.
- Deep organizing wins more than last-minute election-year canvassing. If you can’t be an organizer in a community that you don’t belong to for whatever reason, then don’t show up in that community in October of an even-numbered year and expect to move people. Center your work in the organizations that are doing that work all year round—help them raise money, teach them skills they don’t have, amplify their voices instead of your own.
- And finally, SOLIDARITY ALWAYS MATTERS. Everyone’s life is equal to yours.
We’re going to lose some things that really matter. We’re going to see people who we love get hurt by the policies of the new Administration. I don’t want to sugarcoat any of the pain that some people are going to feel over the next four years. But I do want to feel some hope myself, because I know that if we lose hope, we will lose the strength to keep going. And I’ve got to keep going.