A Guest Post
-by Andrés Bernal
I remember it being about 10 pm Mountain Time in Fort Collins, Colorado when the results of New York’s 14th congressional district Democratic primary started rolling in. I knew I had spent the last year and a half contributing to something special, but nonetheless had reserved expectations. Then it happened. My friend and colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected into Congress as the youngest woman to ever serve in United States history.
A lot of things have changed for me since then. I went from being purely an academic and living in the world of theory, a world which I love and is my passion, to living in a liminal space of communicating ideas and concepts into inspiration and expertise. From then on, I wanted to dedicate a part of my professional life to working with progressive candidates, elected officials, advocates, and the like. Since 2018, I’ve been traveling the country-- and sometimes the world-- speaking to dreamers like myself about the vision for a Green New Deal, about changing our policy paradigms, and about demanding social and environmental justice.
In the midst of a painful Trump Presidency, the year after AOC’s victory flowed with an aura that anything was possible. That we could turn this around and truly transform this country. That was soon followed by the heavy realization that nothing comes easy. There was of course, a reactionary backlash from the right and a remarkable amount of dismissal from the center. It was an educational couple of years as I learned the extent to which progressive organizing is hard, emotional work, requiring both tenacity and serenity. Many lost hope after both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lost the 2020 Democratic primary and failed to unite as a progressive wing. It is still argued within the Democratic establishment that it is foolish for progressives to challenge incumbents. That AOC was a fluke and that policies such as Medicare for All and student debt cancellation are unserious. I think this is deeply shortsighted and costly.
Over the last two years we have faced both a deadly global pandemic that shut down our economy and a worsening climate crisis as made clear by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC. The pandemic’s shock to the U.S. healthcare system, its infrastructure, and its incapacity to coordinate internationally for the public good has demonstrated how underdeveloped and unprepared we remain. And yet, many would have us believe we can continue to debate within conservative framings and propose the same failed policy responses that perpetuate a deeply unequal society. In fact, at this very moment some of our leaders are advocating that we spark a recession as a means of managing inflationary pressures by raising interest rates. I find myself asking, how in the world is that going to make our supply chains more resilient, monopolies stop price gouging, and fossil fuel prices less volatile?
Today, when I look at campaigns or movements to support, there are a number of boxes that are important for me to check. For one, there must be an eagerness to break with policy conventions and orthodoxies in ways that are both empirically rigorous and ethically sound. Anthropomorphizing or even deifying "free markets" and waiting for them to magically solve our housing crisis, mass incarceration, gun violence, climate change, and bankruptcies from health care costs while cutting public budgets and investments has been an unmitigated disaster that has nevertheless made a few elites incredibly wealthy and powerful. I want to see candidates that believe we can make our government transparent, democratic, and effective at serving the common good. Candidates who will not get tripped up at the obstructive ridiculous questioning in “but how are you going to pay for it?” that have bogged down progressive goals for half a century while we endlessly spend on wars. Someone who understands that wealth comes from the values and contributions of all people in a society, not just the super rich and most exorbitantly privileged.
Another key attribute for the modern progressive public official to possess, is an X factor. A demeanor and confidence that makes ambitious goals seem like a common sense kind of cool. Those who have a grasp of popular culture and a temperament that can hold steady amongst the toxicity of politics without letting go of the big picture.
Last October, I got on a zoom chat with Neal Walia from Denver, Colorado. Neal would go on to convince me that his team and movement was something I wanted to get onboard with. What struck me the most was his immediate desire to address the homelessness crisis in Denver. So many of us have either become accustomed to accepting the presence of a population experiencing homelessness as a natural state of city life or we have conceded to individual acts of charity as a solution. From the get go, Neal made it clear to me that this was a Federal issue that we had a moral obligation to study and respond to as effectively as possible. That there was a systemic relationship between affordability issues for rents across the board, healthcare costs, a lack of mental health services, job loss, and becoming housing insecure or homeless. Even though Neal and his partner could be considered middle class professionals, he saw the big picture effect and connection between the pain of those on the streets and the frustrations he felt with the costs of starting a family. A sense that we are all connected.
For me, that is exactly what it takes to overcome climate change and build a society capable of avoiding and responding to emergencies like pandemics or natural disasters in ways that do not abandon people. I’ve gotten to witness Neal charismatically speak to and empathize with constituents of many different political stripes and orientations. Offering friendliness and good will yet maintaining commitment to the urgency of bold progressive changes and justice.
I personally cannot fathom another decade of complacency with elected officials who stay in offices for decades and are considered to just be “good enough.” There is a rise of extremism and bigotry that seeks to capture the hearts and minds of a scared and anxious nation. It is under these circumstances that we must boldly insist that another world is possible.