Progressives were on the march in 2018. They weren’t just resisting Trump; they were outlining the alternative to Trumpism. They weren’t just winning the battle of ideas by moving Medicare for All and Fight for $15 proposals into the mainstream; they were winning battles at the ballot box as well. The fight for the future is far from over, but 2018 offered signs that it can and will be won. The Nation’s 2018 Progressive Honor Roll recognizes the dissidents and the strategists, the veteran campaigners and the next-gen leaders who are charting the course.
Most Valuable Progressives
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar,
and Ayanna Pressley
Democrats took back the House of Representatives on November 6, restoring the system of checks and balances that had failed to function for the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. But this was not a traditional transition of power: The winning Democrats were younger, more diverse, more aggressively progressive—and so many of them were women.
A week after the election, at the VoteRunLead Women and Power Town Hall, newly elected congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Rashida Tlaib (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) were snapped in a now-iconic photo showing the fab four, smiling, in their “seats at the table.” They were not the only groundbreaking victors in a year that saw a historic number of women secure Democratic nominations for the House, the Senate, and state posts. But this particular foursome had arrived with a sense of solidarity and shared purpose, having won with backing from Justice Democrats, the group that promised “a new type of Democratic majority in Congress.”
Omar announced that the newcomers—two of whom had defeated Democratic congressmen in the primaries, two of whom had won crowded primary contests for open seats—“did not come to play.” Fox News disapproved; it featured an image of the quartet with the headline “Radical New Democratic Ideas: Free College for All, Free Health Care for All, Abolish ICE, Green New Deal.” Ocasio-Cortez replied: “Fox News discovered our vast conspiracy to take care of children and save the planet.”
That wasn’t just rhetoric on her part. The youngest woman ever elected to Congress and her colleagues got started by calling for the creation of a select committee to create a Green New Deal. That unsettled some senior committee chairs. But young activists from the Sunrise Movement flooded the Capitol to lobby veteran Democratic lawmakers to follow the lead of their caucus’s newest members. The teenage protesters carried signs that read: No More Excuses. Now they have a nucleus of Democrats who share their sense of urgency.
Most Valuable Senator
A senator serving in the minority in Mitch McConnell’s chamber of legislative horrors has a duty to object. And few senators have objected so consistently in 2018 as Bernie Sanders did to the Senate’s transformation into a rubber stamp for the Trump administration and Wall Street. But what made Sanders so valuable—and effective—was his determination to promote an alternative politics and policies. Throughout the year, he introduced major bills that drew national attention: a “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist” measure, with California Congressman Brad Sherman, to break up the nation’s biggest banks and risky financial institutions; a Workplace Democracy Act, with Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, to restore the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively by repealing Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act and upending so-called right-to-work laws in the states; an Opioid Crisis Accountability Act of 2018, with Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, to penalize drug manufacturers who illegally market or distribute opioid products; and a comprehensive plan to save the US Postal Service.
Sanders, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah built a bipartisan coalition that voted 56–41 to reject the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia’s genocidal assault on Yemen. When he couldn’t get the Senate to act, Sanders used his bully pulpit: he organized live and online town-hall meetings—with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, filmmaker Michael Moore, actress Shailene Woodley, author Bill McKibben, and others—that attracted millions to discussions on climate change, inequality, and corporate welfare. In September, Sanders introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (or “Stop BEZOS”) Act, named for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, to pressure trillion-dollar corporations to pay fair wages. The proposal, wrote Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Michael Hiltzik, “set the policy world ablaze.” In October, Bezos announced that Amazon would pay its 250,000 US employees—and 100,000 seasonal workers—at least $15 an hour.
Most Valuable House Member
California Democrat Ro Khanna spins out more ideas in a week than most House members produce in a congressional career. In his freshman term, he emerged as the chamber’s most ardent and courageous advocate for a new approach to foreign policy by promoting engaged diplomacy as an alternative to ever-expanding Pentagon budgets. To that end, Khanna worked with Mark Pocan to end US support for the Saudi war on Yemen, and with California Democrat Barbara Lee to scrap the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which presidents have routinely used as justification for military interventions since 9/11. He also urged his colleagues to take risks in supporting the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
That would be sufficient to earn him a place on this year’s honor roll. But Khanna has also stepped up as the savviest advocate on communications and technology issues in the House, circulating a pitch-perfect Internet Bill of Rights. And he moved to the forefront of the fight for corporate accountability, sharing credit with Sanders for getting Amazon to raise wages and declaring: “I am not in the House to appease special interests, so it’s fine if Big Pharma and defense contractors don’t like me. I don’t work for them. I work for ordinary Americans who can’t afford a lobbyist.”
Most Valuable Champion of Checks and Balances
The Senate failed the American people when it put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, even after Christine Blasey Ford’s courageous testimony to the Judiciary Committee. The crudest moment in the meltdown of the advice-and-consent process came when Kavanaugh made a second appearance before the Republican-controlled committee and responded venomously to questions from Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Even as he demanded to know whether Klobuchar—who’d spoken poignantly about her father’s struggles with alcoholism—had ever blacked out from drinking, the senator remained firmly focused on the questions that needed to be answered. Her dignity under fire confirmed Klobuchar as the ablest defender of the system of checks and balances at a moment when the Senate was losing sight of its responsibility to the Constitution.
Most Valuable Policy Intervention
The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center
As Democrats prepare to take charge of the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs for the 116th Congress, Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) and Pramila Jayapal (Washington), have launched a bold initiative to get progressive lawmakers working on strategy and messaging with policy and advocacy groups outside Congress. The Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, with a budget in excess of $1.5 million and a staff of at least eight, will coordinate progressive policy development and messaging. Their mission, says Jayapal, is to leverage “the power of the progressive movement to enact strong progressive legislation and really build our movement for change across the country.”
Most Valuable State Official
Massachusetts’s Maura Healey is the bane of Donald Trump’s existence: a whip-smart state attorney general leading a skilled team that has joined (and frequently led) legal challenges to the president. Pick an issue—climate change, immigrant rights, predatory lending, the ban on transgender people in the military—and Healey has battled and often beaten the Trump team. “As attorney general, if I won’t stand up for the Constitution and against the abuse of power, then who will?” she asks.
Healey is just as tough on corporate abuses of power. As The Boston Globe notes, “Her aggressive action in regard to utilities, insurers, lenders, landlords, and dubious business practices has resulted in hundreds of millions in savings or money returned or rebated to taxpayers, workers, and ratepayers. Stories about her success on that front have become so regular as to be almost routine.” The voters were impressed, too: Healey was just reelected with 70 percent of the vote.
Most Valuable State Legislator
Pamela Powers Hannley
In her years as a blogger and activist, Pamela Powers Hannley often heard Arizona Democrats bemoan their party’s minority status. But she didn’t want to complain; she wanted to help fight for women’s rights, criminal-justice reform, strong unions, public banking, and her vision for democratic renewal. So she ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives, beat a Democratic incumbent in the 2016 primary, and joined eight newly elected Democratic women in the state legislature.
“This is a really intelligent, assertive group of freshmen,” noted Arizona House minority leader Rebecca Rios, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Phoenix. With a boost from Powers Hannley, an experienced communications consultant, the new legislators used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and podcasts to drum up attention—and support. “The people back in Tucson, they expect me to speak up,” Powers Hannley told the Arizona Capitol Times. “That’s why I persist.” Persistence paid off: In November, she was reelected with ease, as Arizona Democrats had their best finish in state House races since 1966.
Most Valuable Judges
Texas’s “Black Girl Magic” Slate
The movement for criminal-justice reform has increasingly focused on the election of local prosecutors who recognize that new approaches are necessary. But it’s also vital to elect judges who understand the need for equal justice under the law. A huge step in that direction was taken on November 6, when 17 African-American women were elected to judgeships in Texas’s Harris County, which includes Houston. Aided by the excitement over Beto O’Rourke’s Senate run and a smart social-media campaign that urged people in the state’s largest county to “make history” by voting for the “Black Girl Magic” slate, these candidates spurred a record turnout that changed the face and the focus of the local judiciary.
“I hope that our election will usher in courts that ensure an equal opportunity for justice for all,” said Latosha Lewis Payne, one of the new judges. “We talked about…being more compassionate, more understanding of the poor and disadvantaged that come into the judicial system.”
Most Valuable Mayor
Two years ago, at age 26, Michael Tubbs defeated a Republican incumbent to become the first African-American mayor of Stockton, California, a city of 310,000 that, after the 2008 financial crisis, was the second-largest community in the United States to file for bankruptcy protection. Leading a majority-minority city where one in four people lives in poverty, Tubbs has sought transformational change. He’s embraced a test project that will make Stockton the first city in the country to implement a universal basic income (UBI), providing 100 residents with payments of $500 a month for 18 months.
“We have a bunch of folks starting off life already behind, born into communities that don’t have a lot of opportunity,” says Tubbs, who recognizes that the “looming threat of automation and displacement” could make their circumstances dramatically worse. Tubbs isn’t suggesting that a UBI will address every challenge of the future; rather, the Stanford grad is working with some of the savviest thinkers in the country to make sure that his city generates cutting-edge responses to inequality.
Most Valuable Advance for Voting Rights
The Florida Voting Restoration Amendment
Four years ago, Floridians for a Fair Democracy drafted the Florida Voting Restoration Amendment. It became Amendment 4, a proposal to restore “the eligibility to vote of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole, probation, and restitution.” The group gathered 1.1 million signatures to put the measure on the November 2018 ballot, betting that a campaign based on common decency and common sense would earn broad support for returning voting rights to roughly 1.5 million disenfranchised Floridians. And it did: The amendment was passed with 65 percent of the vote.
Most Valuable Protest
Love Knows No Borders
There have been many objections to the horrific treatment of migrants at the US-Mexico border. Particular credit goes to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who traveled to South Texas in June and demanded access to hundreds of migrant children who had been grabbed from their parents under orders from the Trump administration. Video of Merkley’s stand went viral and played a critical role in forcing a debate that ultimately caused the president to declare that families should be kept together. But Trump’s policies continue to create chaos at the border.
That is why it is so important that faith groups have maintained a vigilant moral presence. The role played by groups like the American Friends Service Committee has been essential, especially as the president has demonized Central American migrants who have traveled by caravan to the border. AFSC supported a powerful “Love Knows No Borders” week of action in December, which saw more than 100 faith leaders from across the country participate in nonviolent direct action in the border region near San Diego. The campaign’s purpose: “demanding an end to border militarization and calling for humane immigration policies that respect the rights and dignity of all people.”
Most Valuable Multimedia Maker
If our media spent less time obsessing about Trump and more time focusing on the construction of a new economy, examining the abuses of the military-industrial complex, getting real about racial justice, and embracing the promise of intersectional feminism, there would be a lot more hope for the future. Laura Flanders knows this. Her focus on the work of visionary social critics, artists, and activists has, over the past decade, made The Laura Flanders Show—on television, radio, podcasts, and the Internet—essential media for our times. As the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II says: “Laura Flanders is the real deal.”
Most Valuable Documentary
“When I heard that my home state of Montana would be the only state to fight back against Citizens United in the Supreme Court, everything changed. As a fourth-generation Montanan…I knew I could tell a compelling story of campaign finance through the eyes of real people. I grabbed the best camera I could get my hands on and started filming,” recalls director Kimberly Reed. Her documentary, Dark Money, is a riveting story of how money corrupts our politics, and of courageous challenges to that corruption. It also makes a powerful argument for why grassroots journalism (as practiced by reporters like John S. Adams, founder of the Montana Free Press and one of the “stars” of Dark Money) remains our essential defense against the abuses of corporate and political elites.
Most Valuable Biography
Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death
The 2018 election results prove that we are still in the era of “firsts”: the first Native American women (Kansas’s Sharice Davids and New Mexico’s Deb Haaland) and the first Muslim American women (Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) elected to Congress; the first openly gay man elected as governor (Colorado’s Jared Polis). As the barriers to the full realization of America’s democratic promise were being broken down, historian Lillian Faderman released a brilliant rumination on the revolutionary political journey of Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated 40 years ago. “From his earliest campaigns, Harvey had argued that gay people had to make coalitions with all dispossessed people,” she writes. “Not only did they have common enemies: the ‘them’s that kept the poor and minorities in positions of powerlessness; but [it was also] the morally right thing to do.” These coalitions matter now more than ever, as Faderman so ably reminds us in a book that recalls the whole of Milk’s activism.
Most Valuable Autobiography
The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities,
by Wayne Kramer
For five decades, from the founding of the MC5 in the 1960s to the present, no one has rocked harder than Wayne Kramer. And few have done so much to link the vital energy of music with radical demands for economic and social and racial justice. At 70, Kramer’s back on the road with an “MC50” tour and an edgy autobiography that combines “kick out the jams” history with perspectives that, notes The Guardian, are “as suited to the sociology section as the music aisle.” What distinguishes Kramer is his determination to use every note he plays as a musician and every word he writes as an author to make a change-especially on the criminal-justice issues that have been the focus of his brilliant campaign to get musical instruments into the hands of people in prison: Jail Guitar Doors USA.
Most Valuable Local Radio
Berkeley’s KPFA, the first community-supported radio station in the United States will turn 70 in 2019—and it remains a multicultural treasure that produces some of the finest arts and music programming in the country. At the same time, KPFA has become an essential source for news programming in California and nationally (thanks to podcasts, the Internet, and collaborations with Pacifica stations). The station’s morning news show, Upfront, is a sharp and smart digest of local, national and international news that provides a perfect lead in to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!
Most Valuable Music
Fandango at the Wall
Grammy Award–winning jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill crossed borders and musical genres to create a stunning challenge to the politics of distrust and division that Donald Trump has amplified with his constant attacks on immigrants and refugees—and his obsessive advocacy for a wall along the US-Mexico border. O’Farrill drew together 50 artists for five recording sessions—several of them at the Tijuana–San Diego border—that produced 30 songs influenced by Latin jazz, hip-hop, classical, world, Broadway, and son jarocho music.
The resulting album is stunning, and the vision—as described in an essay by executive producer Kabir Sehgal—is a strikingly hopeful one: “Mobilizing a small army of musicians, producers, staff to stage a concert was a significant amount of work. But it was worth it.
“Here is the moment that struck me: the border wall was behind us, the sun was setting over the Paciﬁc Ocean, the crowd was yelling ‘Epa’ and Otra!’, and the band was grooving. Many of us were in tears as we took everything in. For a moment, we had helped to turn a symbol of division into a common space of peace and harmony.”