Just a few months ago, conservatives had the momentum, emerging victorious from the midterm elections and claiming a sweeping mandate for their policies. In states across the country, newly elected Republican governors launched a radical drive to roll back workers' rights and gut social programs.
While many states are still trying to stave off deep and harmful cuts to our social safety net, Republicans can no longer pretend that they are acting on the basis of popular will.
Having seen the true agenda being promoted by officials such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, voters have discerned several key truths: that conservatives' proposals in no way offer real solutions to the problems we face, that they merely try to scapegoat immigrants and public employees for public woes and that the measures right-wingers wish to enact represent an assault on our rights - whether it is our civil liberties or our right to form collective organizations in our workplaces.
In recent weeks, several promising signs for the next election cycle have emerged. The following are four of my favorite reasons for hope that backlash against conservative overreach will carry into the next elections:
1) Buyer's Remorse Sweeps the Country
As pollster Margie Omero has reported, voters who may have supported Republicans in the midterm elections are having serious second thoughts. Having seen the true face of the conservative agenda, they are more than a little taken aback. As Omero writes:
Polls show voters in battleground states regret having voted for their new Republican Governors. Since February, [the] Democratic firm PPP released surveys in eight states asking voters "if you could do last fall's election for Governor over again, how would you vote?" In seven of the eight, the Democrat now would win, with all seven showing double-digit improvements in their margin. (Only Rory Reid in Nevada still trails.)
2) Govs. Scott Walker, John Kasich and Chris Christie Face Disapproval
In particular, three of the governors leading the conservative crusade are now paying a price. Polls show Wisconsin's Scott Walker with a current disapproval rating of 54 percent (compared with an approval rating of only 43 percent). Half of Wisconsin residents would like to see him recalled.
Likewise, in Ohio, Gov. John Kasich faces a 49 percent disapproval rating (with only 38 percent of those polled approving of his performance). Moreover, as a local news station reports, "Voters say 52 to 38 percent that limiting collective bargaining for public employees is not needed to balance the budget."
Finally, in New Jersey, right-wing hero Chris Christie is proving far less popular among residents of his own state than with his national Republican admirers. His disapproval rating has increased nine percentage points since February, with 47 percent of residents now critical of his actions as governor.
3) Heavily Republican Jacksonville Elects Its First Black Mayor, a Democrat
Jacksonville, Florida, is a city that leans heavily Republican. But, in a good sign for progressive prospects in that pivotal state, the city has just elected its first African-American mayor, a Democrat. Blogger Joy Reid writes about the significance of this shift:
[I]t appears that the doubters such as myself were wrong, and [Democratic] party chairman, Rod Smith, was right to pour money into J-ville, where an African-American Democrat and former Clinton administration official Alvin Brown, is leading by just over 600 votes in the mayor's race in the red, red city, after Tuesday night's election, pending a recount. The guy he's beating, for now at least, is a tea party favorite and Jacksonville's current tax collector, Mike Hogan....
To be clear, this is a big deal.
Jacksonville is so Republican, most of the city council races are Republican vs. Republican (in the city's electoral system, the top two candidates of either party to emerge out of a primary face off in the general.)
... [I]f it holds, it would seem to indicate the kind of anti-Republican backlash that could portend good things for Democrats in 2012.... And it would also make it clear than when they're ready, Florida Democrats do know how to organize and get out the vote.
4) New Yorkers Stand Up to Defend Medicare
In a final hopeful development, a special election in upstate New York (a fight known as "NY26," in reference to the electoral district in question) became a referendum on conservative efforts to undermine Medicare. Standing up for essential public services, voters rejected plans by national Republicans to privatize health care for the elderly, putting a Democrat into office in a come-from-behind victory.
As The Hill reported:
Medicare proved a winning issue in the New York special election, giving the [Democrats] a campaign theme for next year's election. The party hammered Republican nominee Jane Corwin for her support of [Paul] Ryan's budget plan and its proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher-like system for those under the age of 55. She lost to Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) by four points in a Republican-leaning district.
Almost immediately after the race was called for Hochul, Democrat after Democrat put out statements crediting Hochul's win to the Republicans' plan "to end Medicare." Polling seems to support the Democrats' strategy.
Why We Still Need an Agenda
All these things are genuinely positive. But while it is hopeful to see that the conservative agenda is backfiring and that Democrats are winning over voters, ultimately, gains at the polls do not substitute for having a real progressive agenda.
No doubt, voting is important. In the wake of Republican attacks in the states, we need to come out and send a strong message that public policy which strips away fundamental rights takes our country backward, not forward.
But, more than anything, the conservative maneuvers of recent months show what a truly desperate predicament we are in. Although they are now facing backlash, the Republicans came all too close to being able to successfully use their deceptive tactics. They may lose this round, but Republican actions of recent months should make us realize how vulnerable we have become.
When people in our country are in severe economic distress, it makes us increasingly susceptible to scapegoating and demagoguery. Democratic enfranchisement is based on people having some measure of economic stability. People cannot be full participants in our democratic system without it.
Recognizing the negative affect of divisions wrought by scapegoating and narrow special-interest appeals, our agenda must be based on rebuilding a common sense of purpose among Americans. The Democrats can no longer be a party representing a loosely knit collection of interest groups. If we are serious about building a majority party, we must advance a program that not only increases the number of jobs available, but that also improves the quality of existing jobs by expanding people's rights at work.
What does it mean to have a true progressive agenda? At its core, it means revitalization of key New Deal institutions such as the labor movement and an activist public sector - retooling these institutions so that they are relevant in a new economy. Recent weeks have offered signs of hope that conservatives will be punished for their overreach. But for us to truly be the beneficiaries of their decline, our support for elected officials should not be based merely on candidates' party affiliation, or on shallow promises to stand with working people. Instead, it should be based on their concrete actions taken in support of this agenda.