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Debriefing the 2022 Midterms: Hard Wins and Historic Threats

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Foreground: a Black man with a shaved head and a face mask reading "VOTE." He's taking a selfie with a large crowd in the background.

Red wave, blue undertow: Smart, year-round organizing pushed back MAGA in the battleground states. Everywhere else, the Republicans—with their clap-back to the gains of the Civil Rights Movement—carried the day.

The red wave that most political commentators predicted ahead of the 2022 midterms didn’t quite materialize, at least not as expected—in no small part because of the work that grassroots organizers did in Georgia and across the country. Their work offers valuable lessons for how we can respond to the radical right while building the movement we need to win a multi-racial democracy and just economy.

To help make sense of this moment, Mat Hanson sat down with DaMareo Cooper, Co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy; Kendra Cotton, CEO of the New Georgia Project; Michael Podhorzer, former Political Director of the AFL-CIO; and Nancy MacLean, the historian and author of Democracy in Chains.

Mat Hanson: What can we learn from the results in Georgia, not just in terms of the Senate runoff, but over the long haul that got us here?

Kendra Cotton: A lot of folks will default to this campaign cycle to understand what happened in Georgia, but that’s not the whole story, and it doesn’t provide the context. What happened here was the manifestation of a lot of hard work by grassroots organizers, in addition to the campaign’s strategic efforts. The progressive ecosystem in Georgia is very, very robust.

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We registered 40,000 new voters this year alone and between our c3 and c4 work, we knocked over three million doors. That is no small feat. We’ve had about 300,000 real conversations with voters on the doors and, since November 14th, we knocked over 840,000 doors. That’s in a three-week time span when Warnock’s win margin was a little under 90,000 votes. 

Our mission at New Georgia Project is clear. We go after Black, Brown, young, and LGBTQ voters who are already out there. We are trying to expand the electorate. And I think what we saw here is that that happened. The national media wants to diminish the work of grassroots organizing, not intentionally, but by relegating these electoral results to a dichotomy of the primary colors red and blue. But that is not the story.

The true story is what’s happening in those red areas. We are operating under a hypothesis that there are progressive-leaning Black and Brown folks all over Georgia’s 159 counties. And we can extrapolate that out across the nation, which is why we say the South has something to say.

Mat Hanson: Let’s pull the lens back. The midterms defied most people’s expectations. What is the story you think we should be telling about them now?

DaMareo Cooper: There are actually more people in the country who want to have public resources and safe communities. There are actually more people who want that as a future for the country than not. And I think what we’re seeing is people reacting to that.

The other thing that we’re seeing is younger people who are voting in higher than their projected numbers. The work of organizing in between these elections is helping people get clarity around why they need to intervene and participate in these elections. And what we’re seeing is more people are starting to understand that, which is actually growing the electorate and changing the outcomes of elections. It’s not from election to election, but a long-term investment in a multi-year project.

Michael Podhorzer: This midterm is misunderstood because it’s the first one, certainly in recent political history, where we had two different things going on: a red wave and a blue undertow.

In the states that have become a battleground for the White House, for everything, the Georgias, the Wisconsins, all of those, the Democrats did basically as well as Biden did. In the rest of the country, the Democrats did almost as bad as Trump did in 2018. All of the things that were predicted as a red wave pretty much happened outside of those nine states. But because the media can’t get its head around the idea that things can be different in different places, we have this mushed up story about a red wave that didn’t show up. But the red wave did show up where people did not understand that fascism was on the ballot.

If on election night 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, you’d been put into a medically induced coma and were revived and told that, in 2020, Donald Trump was president, did the insurrection, all of that, and the Republican Party didn’t run away from him, they embraced him, and the result was that they controlled the House of Representatives—you would look around at people saying, “Wow, democracy won,” as if they were nuts.

We have to understand what’s really going on, and we have to understand that we don’t get out of this alive if there aren’t more places where people understand that. And the Republicans would not be in control of the House if the people in New York and California had turned out.

Nancy MacLean: I’d like to pull back the lens a little bit and say that while those victories show us the way forward, we also need to be mindful of what is stacked against us. The thoroughly dominated red states are controlled by a radicalized Republican Party; the big donors, like the Koch network, haven’t gone anywhere, and they’re continuing to fund the operations that brought us to this point. They’re funding election-denier candidates. They’re now putting money into Ron DeSantis and continuing to stop action on the climate or any kind of social, economic justice issues where they can have sway. They’re turning those red states redder. And having captured the Supreme Court with a six-to-three margin will allow them to do outrageous things like we saw with Dobbs.

Mat Hanson: How much do you think candidate quality factored into these elections? If the Republicans had nominated fewer MAGA candidates, would the results have looked different?

Kendra Cotton: I cannot stress enough that the work that we are doing is never candidate-driven. We have to do this work—this relational, organizing work—365 days a year.

There is an assumption that people are paying attention to politics at the rate that we are paying attention to it. But they’re not. These folks are trying to feed their families. They’re going into work, they got childcare issues. It’s other stuff going on, real life, those front-door issues. And so when you have grassroots groups that are speaking to folks about issues—not candidates, issues—the candidate ain’t nothing but a vessel to bring that issue into a reality so that it impacts people’s lives.

Mat Hanson: Can you put the midterms in historical perspective? How should we understand them in the historical arc of the fight for an inclusive, multi-racial democracy? What does this tell us about the status of the radical right’s overall project?

Da Mareo Cooper: This is a post-Reconstruction moment. During the last Reconstruction, in the 1860s and 1870s, there was this moment of Black and Brown people getting elected into the highest positions in this country and then there was a clap-back. January 6th was like a replica of some of the events you can read about from history, except for they finished the job in the 1870s. What the right is doing today is an old play. Just because we did not see a red wave does not mean that the threat is over—this is a historical threat. What we are facing now is not a spontaneous movement; it is a reigniting of an old ideology that is trying to come back into our society and take more power.

Michael Podhorzer: The problem on top of this is that the people who are popularists or the people who are talking about education polarization or woke Democrats or things like that are basically doing the same thing that was done as part of the retreat from a commitment to civil rights in the 19th century. Which is to say the problem isn’t the injustice, the problem is the people protesting the injustice.

Kendra Cotton: We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the role that felon disenfranchisement plays in the South and how, if we talk about expanding the electorate, it makes it more difficult to challenge the power structure. It is nefarious, they do it for petty crimes, and then target systemically Black and Brown people and you have whole swaths, particularly of Black men, Brown men who have been effectively removed from the electoral process.

Mat Hanson: What are the challenges or threats that you see ahead, both from the MAGA right and conservatives forces within and around the Democratic Party who spend big money to try to defeat progressives. How can we respond effectively to both of these?

Kendra Cotton: I don’t think Republicans ever really thought that they were going to have to deliver on abortion until the Dobbs decision, and so when the Supreme Court delivered their ruling, it shocked the hell out of them, I truly believe it did. And it messed them up electorally. And we saw that in Pennsylvania, we saw that in Michigan, and now they’re licking their wounds because they never thought that those folks were going to subscribe so rigidly and actually expect them to deliver on that policy—and now they’re a little bit in disarray.

Meanwhile, we are trying to expand the electorate over here because America is browning, America is getting younger. And so we are trying to win over hearts and minds of our targeted communities because we know that they are enough. We know that we have the votes in states the Democrats left for dead. Winning coalitions are still there, but we just haven’t invested in them. This is a problem.

Nancy MacLean: To the question of Democratic donors who spend big to defeat progressives, we are seeing this particularly around solidarity with Palestinians, from AIPAC, as happened with a North Carolina House seat. We on the Left have been very focused on domestic issues for a good while now, but we live in the largest empire in the world—with an absolutely massive military budget that goes essentially unchallenged by Democrats. We’ve got to become a two-lens Left again, where we see the connections between what’s happening in the country and globally.

We know who we want to be in the country in terms of a multi-racial democracy for economic justice and everything, but who do we want to be in the world and which forces do we want to be supporting in the world? We can’t be defensive about this.

But back to the domestic front, John Fetterman’s campaign is also a really important model for the Midwest. He showed that it was possible to compete, and shave off significant margins, in rural areas. We have to do the hard organizing work in rural communities. Because we’re in a geographically based political system. There’s a lot of people there who have the same issues that people in cities and suburbs have, and nobody’s been talking to them for a very, very long time. So I think we saw the fruits of that in Georgia. We saw the fruits of that in Pennsylvania.

Michael Podhorzer: I’d really suggest that we should stop calling MAGA the Right or extremists or anything like that. That’s like calling the KKK the right wing or something. They are not a wing. They’re criminals, they’re illegitimate. They can’t be considered on the same continuum we are. They have not agreed to participate in this democracy. They are trying to take democracy down.

Trump and all the people around him are actual criminals. It’s not an ideology. They are outlaws. I know this is kind of fraught because talking about criminality has very bad racial overtones, but the fact is that talking about them as criminal is the way people understand that they are not part of the system and the thing to do with them is not vote them out of office but send them to jail. As long as you put them in the same kind of vocabulary that we put ourselves, we’re giving them a legitimacy which we can’t overcome.

And we have to be really disciplined about that. And I think it’s even worse because most of the people who have appointed themselves to be democracy defenders really are not defending democracy. They’re just all up in rules and stuff like that.

Second thing that I want to point out is the kind of things that we’re not saying about this election. Everyone wanted to say “democracy won,” but it is not a step forward for democracy when the tens of millions of people—because of all the bills that were passed in legislatures in 2021 to make it harder to vote—have to wait longer, couldn’t do all those things. That’s not democracy advancing. That’s not democracy winning.

The last thing is that of the 122 election deniers who ran again for Congress, 94% ran in districts where there was no electoral competition.

Nancy MacLean: We know from comparative political science and democracy research that the best predictor of a successful coup is an attempted coup that doesn’t have accountability. And that looks like where we may be heading. For all the kudos that Liz Cheney has gotten for her performance on the January 6th committee, apparently from news reports, she’s trying to keep their agenda very narrowly tailored to Donald Trump, whose star is already fading, but not have us look at the other election-denying Republicans, and that will hurt us.

Mat Hanson: Given what we know now about the balance of power, what does progress look like in the next year or two?

Da Mareo Cooper: The truth is that we’re in a country where we’re talking about forces who are for multiracial democracy and forces that are about white supremacy. And it manifests in different ways, but it’s the same thing, whether you’re talking about Andrew Jackson or Lee Atwater. It’s a throughline.

We’re about the people who want to support and have a multi-racial democracy. In this fight, the government is the prize; you win it or you lose it. Government is not the football field: it’s the football and when you have it, you’ve got to score. Ballot initiatives can be an essential tool for doing this, especially when they’re coming from directly impacted communities that have the support of national networks and local networks to help them deliver real change.

Two, conservatives have spent a lot of money on building an ideological infrastructure. On our side, people feel the impacts of political decisions in place, but there is no clarity around who is the actual opposition, what are we actually up against? People are going through their lives and they’re feeling the impacts of these decisions and they’re just like, that’s the way it is.

I think over the next two years, it’s really about how well we build a network of folks who understand the issues, are connected to them and connected to institutions that are fighting for those issues—and that we are translating information in ways that people want to repeat it, not in ways that we want to hear it. I can’t say this enough. We want to hear what we think repeated to us. And what we actually need to do is create things that people want to say to their neighbors and their friends. That’s what the other side is doing.

Kendra Cotton: Our only recourse for change is to recruit people who already share our ideals and who want to see similar policies to raise their hand and begin to run for office at the municipal level so that we can build an adequate bench.

That’s where we did ourselves a disservice. We ceded these statehouses, city councils, school boards, sheriffs, and district attorneys; we ceded that, all trying to go after these national elections, the big prize. We’ve got hospitals shut down, we’ve got folks who can’t get to an OBGYN in a rural area without driving 150 miles, and six-week abortion bans. It is ridiculousness, and we are living under these oppressive policies.

We have no choice but to play a long game because of the system in this region that relegates the people, the masses, to the sidelines.

Convergence is co-publishing this article with The Forge as part of our 2022 Election Reflections series.

Featured image courtesy of New Georgia Action Project via Facebook.

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