Post- presidential re-election years are rarely memorable, but 2013 was an exception. Nationally, fast food, Walmart and other low-wage workers engaged in their most powerful strikes and protests in decades. President Obama was spurred to call growing inequality the defining issue of our times, reaffirming the Occupy movement’s chief message. Immigrant rights activists battled all year for immigration reform, winning Senate passage and putting House Republicans on the defensive.
While no House vote occurred, pressure is building for a vote in 2014. The Senate passed long overdue filibuster reform for Obama appointees, but the lack of 60 votes was still allowed to block stronger gun controls. Republicans shut down the federal government, the traditional media promoted all of the GOP talking points on the Obamacare website, and effectively undermined the Voting Rights Act.
At the state level, marriage equality came to California and other states, representing an extraordinary political turnaround since 2004. Republican Governors denied Medicaid expansion to five million people lacking health care, an action that got far less media attention than the Obamacare website. GOP statehouses also imposed new hurdles to voting by students and minority voters, in a desperate attempt to reverse the demographic trends weakening Republicans. California became a national model for progressive government, with Governor Jerry Brown’s proving just as effective in his second round in office as his first.
While critical national and state events occurred in 2013, many Americans focused on other issues. Miley Cyrus’ August 25 MTV Video Music Awards performance was the talk of the world for days and her Wrecking Ball video got over 400 million You Tube views–while President Obama’s January 2013 inauguration speech only got only 1.1 million.
The Best in National Politics
This was a great year for progressive grassroots activism:
1. The ongoing movement to win House passage of immigration reform, which has included fasts, the out-strategizing of Tea Party activists around the August congressional Town Halls, the building of powerful grassroots campaigns in key Republican districts, and mass protests.
The immigrant rights movement is also holding President Obama’s feet to the fire, something it did not do in 2009 (as I detail in The Activist’s Handbook).
2. The plight of fast food workers and those at Walmart reached the national stage, resulting in President Obama’s backing for raising the minimum wage and for similar calls by Governors and Mayors to raise state and local minimums. The nation has refocused on the larger discussion about inequality highlighted by the Occupy Movement in fall 2011.
3. The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington brought renewed grassroots civil rights activism around the murder of Trayvon Martin, while attacks on Voting Rights in Florida led the Dream Defenders to stage a month long sit-in at the governor’s office.
Other bests in national activism include the nationwide “Draw the Line” protests against the Keystone Pipeline, the urgent mobilizing to stop President Obama from military action in Syria, and the ongoing protests against the Republican War on Women.
The Worst in National Politics
1. Rising Homelessness: 2013 saw rising homelessness almost everywhere and yet House Republicans would allocate no new funds and even tried to cut existing programs. And even worse is that credible publications like The New Yorker wrote articles on rising homelessness without even acknowledging the federal government’s role.
2. Inadequate Social Program Spending: Education, public transit, public infrastructure and almost every U.S. domestic program continues to be deeply underfunded. President Obama appears to now realize that he made a terrible mistake in 2010 shifting his focus from public investment to deficit reduction, yet now lacks the power to stop the triumph of austerity over public investment.
3. The Supreme Court Rejects Voting Rights: The Court threw out the core implementation provision of the Voting Rights Act, reflecting a court majority that have would have opposed Brown v Board of Education and every other landmark Warren Court civil rights ruling.
4. Boehner Denies House Immigration Vote: The only bright side is that hopes are now rising that he will allow a vote in 2014. But after the one-sided Senate passage, hopes were high for immigration reform to pass this year.
5. Defeat of Gun Controls: The rest of the world no doubt wonders why the United States allows people to purchase assault weapons, or to carry guns with them wherever they go. And they should also wonder why, in a nation that claims to be a democracy, a minority of Senators could block a vote on gun control legislation.
The Best in State Politics
1. Marriage Equality Momentum: 16 states now have marriage equality, as California, New Jersey, and Illinois were among those coming on board in 2013 An unbelievable turnaround since 2004 that is a case study for the power of grassroots activism.
2. California a Progressive Model: After voters allowed budgets to be passed with a majority rather than 2/3 vote, California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature avoided past gridlock. Labor had a banner year in Sacramento, and Governor Brown again proved his mysterious ways somehow work.
3. Renewed Focus on Education: Democratic Governors from California to Colorado invested major political capital in addressing school funding. Jerry Brown reallocated greater funding to school districts serving the poor, and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper went all out in an effort to raise school funding that was soundly rejected by voters. Despite this defeat, 2013 showed a growing consensus that schools serving low-income children in particular cannot succeed without a major influx of new resources.
The Worst in State Politics
1. Health Care Denials: Republican Governors denie Medicaid for five million eligible residents (disproportionately African-American southerners, whose grandparents were denied all civil rights). Timothy Egan’s, “The South’s New Lost Cause,” says it all: on social policies, the South is retreating from the rest of the United States.
2. New Abortion Restrictions: GOP statehouses further restricted abortion rights in 2013, and the Supreme Court refused to enjoin Texas’ requirement that abortion providers must have admitting privileges in local hospitals ((Wendy Davis’ filibuster against the new Texas abortion restrictions was among the year’s highlights). While Roe v. Wade has not been reversed, women’s access to an abortion in many states has been sharply curtailed.
3. Ignoring Public Investment: Tea Party Governors in many states cut taxes while eliminating and/or reducing public services.
4. Voter Suppression: GOP statehouses sought to avoid defeat in the 2014 elections by imposing harsh voter id laws, limiting early voting, and requiring students to register at their home rather than college address (the latter seemingly designed to prevent Duke students from voting in North Carolina elections).
The political situation in many states has been grim since the 2010 elections. Whether the 2014 midterms change this dynamic depends on whether low-wage workers and others involved in the grassroots movements of 2013 make the 2014 elections a priority.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. This article was originally published at Beyond Chron.