Will 2014 feature more of the same Washington gridlock, austerity, partisan posturing and just plain stupidity that made 2013 so miserable? The dysfunction got so bad that the media celebrated Congress merely for agreeing on a budget, one that will damage the economy but not as much as last year. That Congress could pass something, anything, made it seem like carping to note that legislators cruelly cut off emergency jobless benefits for workers unable to find work and stupidly killed the wind energy production tax credit, essential to that vital industry.
But the widespread predictions that 2014 will witness only more of the same ignore the growing reality that, outside the Beltway, people are beginning to stir and change is in the air.
One celebrated indicator was the stunning election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City. Voters overwhelmingly endorsed the sole candidate with the guts to challenge the city’s Gilded Age inequality and to call for taxing the wealthy to pay for preschool for all children. De Blasio’s victory was special, but it wasn’t unique. Voters in Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Minneapolis also elected progressives promising change.
Pope Francis and President Obama have put inequality on the national agenda rhetorically, but voters across the country were already acting on it. Workers in 13 states will enjoy an increase in the minimum wage this year, according to the National Employment Law Project. In New Jersey, voters defied Gov. Chris Christie (R) to pass an initiative that raised the minimum wage by $1 an hour, and they amended the state constitution to index the wage to inflation. The Massachusetts Senate passed a measure that would move to a living wage of $11 an hour over two years. And voters in the small community of SeaTac, Wash., passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage (the scope of which was later challenged by a court decision).
New York and Portland, Ore., joined four other cities in requiring employers to provide paid sick days for workers, something nations around the world routinely do. Corporations have pushed back, seeking state legislation that would ban cities from passing such laws. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is making paid family sick days a centerpiece of the party’s 2014 platform.
Hawaii and California joined New York state in passing a bill of rights for domestic workers. Homeowners gained their own bill of rights in Minnesota and California; at the very least, banks won’t be able to double-deal underwater homeowners, pretending to renegotiate mortgages while moving toward foreclosure.
Yes, immigration stalled at the federal level, with House Speaker John Boehner refusing even to allow a vote on reform. But Connecticut and California passed public safety measures that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driving licenses after passing appropriate tests. Common sense and public safety is beginning to break through the venom.
The anger at conservative efforts to constrict voting continued to build, and the stunning Moral Monday protests, led by the Rev. William Barber in North Carolina, are beginning to spread to other states.
Same-sex marriage is legal in 18 states plus the District of Columbia, (up from 10 a year ago). Medical marijuana is available in more places, and citizens in Colorado and Washington have voted to legalize marijuana. And despite all the supposed firepower of the gun lobby, more than half of all Americans now live in states that passed tougher gun laws after the tragedy in Newtown.
Common sense made progress at the national level as well. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was exposed for shamelessly peddling right-wing measures, including the “stand your ground” laws implicated in the killing of Trayvon Martin and legislation, financed by the fossil fuel industry, that requires science teachers to present preposterous rebuttals of climate change. ALEC has since lost a reported 400 state legislators, 60 corporations and about a third of its projected income. More importantly, legislators can no longer feign ignorance about the council’s right-wing roots.
In the Senate, an emerging caucus of aggressive progressives began to challenge the current debate. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in championing an expansion of Social Security, spurning the president’s willingness to negotiate cuts in benefits. Warren, Brown and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) led the challenge to Wall Street, looking to break up the big banks. They joined with Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) in leading the revolt that blocked the nomination of Lawrence Summers to head the Federal Reserve, a direct indictment of the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party. In the House, old bull Sander Levin (D-Mich.) put global corporations’ scandalous practice of tax avoidance on the national agenda.
And despite all the vitriol, disinformation and administration dysfunction about the new health-care law, more than 9 million people have insurance under it, nearly 4 million of them through its Medicaid expansion. These, of course, were largely in blue states, as many Republican governors chose political posturing over protecting their most vulnerable citizens.
Currents such as these aren’t yet a tidal wave. The citizens in motion aren’t yet a consolidated movement. But 2014 begins not only with change in the air but also with change taking place on the ground. Washington may continue to be gridlocked. Across the country, however, people are starting to move.