I was among the majority of voters in Portland, ME who approved a number of progressive ballot measures on Tuesday. We voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next few years, require time-and-a-half hazard pay during states of emergency, ban facial recognition technology, protect tenants by implementing rent control, establish a new board to review other potential rent increases and require real estate developers to utilize green technology and provide additional pay and training to workers in what was termed “A Green New Deal for Portland.”
These ballot measures reflect political trends and commitments that extend beyond Portland. With Democrats in Washington, D.C. failing to act on these crucial issues, Portlanders took matters into their own hands. Progressive Portlanders were successful in passing all but one measure, even though their opponents outspent them 14 to 1 and the liberal mayor and city council came out against them.
As they did in Portland, Americans pushed through progressive ballot measures across the country on Tuesday night, though not along traditional red-blue state lines. Coloradans supported 12 weeks of paid family leave. Arizona, New Jersey and South Dakota all legalized marijuana. In Trump’s Florida, voters approved a $15 minimum wage without the support of either major party.
In blue states and red states alike, voters are approving progressive measures when they stand apart from a particular candidate. Extrapolating from Trump’s victory in 2016 to claim that Americans are fundamentally “Trump conservatives” obscures the true picture: presented with the choice between an anti-establishment racist and a senile neoliberal, many of those who voted for $15 an hour in Florida–including more Latinx people than in 2016–opted for the former. Workers are voting both for their interests and against Joe Biden.
Even as Floridians demanded higher pay, a very different story unfolded in California. The supposed fortress of progressivism upheld cash bail and a ban on new rent control measures. California voters also rejected a bid to increase corporate property taxes to better fund education. Most strikingly, they allowed Uber and Lyft to continue classifying drivers as “contractors” rather than “employees,” exempting the firms from providing a minimum wage and benefits to workers. It is true that they expanded consumer data protections and gave felons the right to vote. But on the questions with the most material importance to California’s millions of working people, liberal voters sided with big business and the establishment.
It has to be noted, of course, that California has already passed more progressive measures than Florida, Arizona or South Dakota. But during the most polarized election cycle in memory, isn’t it notable that Californians resoundingly rejected Trump as they handed billions to major corporations and landlords at the expense of working people? Isn’t it strange that Florida embraced him by a larger margin than 2016 while joining California on the path towards $15 an hour?
Over the past decades, the Republicans have become the unabashed party of the rich, while the Democrats have become the other, slightly more abashed, party of the rich. They have claimed the moral high ground while doing the bare minimum as they continue to deprioritize American working people. Now, liberal Californians can pat themselves on the back for “rejecting fascism” while simultaneously siding with Uber over its workforce or landlords over their tenants. The liberal voting base of the Democratic Party does not, as the ballot measures reflect, identify with the exploited worker but rather with the penny-pinching boss. Uncompassionate, soul-sucking neoliberalism is the rosy future liberals yearn for, and they eschew gaining actual benefits for working people in favor of feel-good projects. If they really cared about materially helping people, then surely they’d start in their own state. If the votes in California tell us anything, it’s that Democrats, party establishment and rank-and-file voters alike are not the party of the working class.
It is a pretty sorry indictment of Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment that so many working people see Donald Trump as their best bet, even following four years of his administration’s intense wealth transfers to the top one percent and explicit authoritarianism (what does this tell us about Obama’s legacy?). Democrats and liberals need to snap out of their self-assurance and wake up to the reality of the majority of Americans: they are beyond desperate, and they demand more protections, higher wages and their basic needs finally met. In Portland, it was the Democratic Socialists of America who answered these calls against the wishes of the solidly Democratic city government.
Fox News’s own exit polls even found that over 70 percent of Americans favor government-run healthcare. If the Democratic Party doesn’t finally read the writing on the wall, it will never regain the working class base it needs to succeed. Being anti-Trump is not policy. They need to realize that Americans see right through their elitist farce. They need to realize that working people will not stop demanding better, fairer living conditions, whether it is Republicans, Democrats or neither who will carry them to the finish line.