The 25 Biggest Progressive Victories in 2012
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Progressives are rarely satisfied. It is part of our political DNA. There's so much injustice in the world, it's sometimes hard to feel that we're making progress. But as Chinese philosopher Laozi reminded us, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
As I document in my book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, the radical ideas of one generation are often the common sense of the next generation. One hundred years ago, ideas like Social Security, the minimum wage and women's suffrage were considered radical. Fifty years ago, most African-Americans in the South couldn't vote, few women were welcome in politics and many professions, and all but a handful of gays and lesbians were locked in the closet. In other words, if we take a long view, we can see that things do often change for the better, sometimes in big leaps, but usually in incremental stages.
Many progressives equate the word "compromise" with "sell-out," but the strategic question is whether compromises are dead ends or stepping stones to further progress. In their book Organizing for Social Change, Kim Bobo, Steve Max and Jackie Kendall contend that activism is successful if it (1) wins real improvements in people's lives, (2) gives people a sense of their own power and (3) changes the structure of power so that people begin the next phase of movement-building with greater leverage.
So let's look back at 2012 and see if we can recognize 25 victories - elections, ballot measures, court rulings, legislation and new waves of mobilization that meet those three criteria.
1. 99 to 1. In September 2011, a handful of activists took over Zuccotti Park in New York, and then the movement spread to every city in the country. Although Occupy Wall Street was forced after a few months to disperse physically, its ideas have continued to resonate with the American public, including its slogan casting America's economic divide as the 1% versus the 99%. Throughout 2012, the Occupy movement changed the nation's conversation at dinner tables, workplaces and newsrooms. It helped frame the political debate in both the Republican and Democratic primaries by focusing public and media attention on the widening disparities of income, wealth and power. Even in the GOP primaries, Mitt Romney's opponents attacked him as a job-killing corporate plutocrat. Democrats took advantage of the changing mood to focus attention on corporate power and the billionaires behind the tea party and the new right-wing super-PACs. Politicians and the mainstream media now consistently refer to the richest 1%, often highlighting the class warfare waged by the super-rich. Language matters. This impressive linguistic ju-jitsu has helped reframe our national conversation over taxes, the distribution of wealth and income and campaign finance.
2. LGBT Equality. Polls show that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage or civil unions, and that those under 40 overwhelmingly support marriage equality. Public opinion has changed dramatically in a short period, suggesting conservatives will soon no longer be able to use homophobia as a "wedge" issue in elections. These trends pushed President Obama to publicly endorse marriage equality in 2012. And, for the first time ever, a majority of voters approved same-sex marriage ballot measures. They did it in Maine, Washington and Maryland, and in Minnesota, voters defeated a conservative-sponsored ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage. A federal appellate court ruled that California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and two federal courts ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act. Wisconsin voters elected the nation's first out-of-the-closet lesbian to the US Senate, Tammy Baldwin. Voters also elected a record six openly gay and lesbian candidates to the House: incumbents Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and newcomers Sean Patrick Maloney (D-New York), Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin), Mark Takano (D-California), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona).