The Nation Honor Roll is a decade old. Our earlier choices for “Most Valuable Progressives”—like Elizabeth Warren, first highlighted as an academic championing bank reforms, and Bernie Sanders, then a Vermont congressman—are now at the center of national debates and campaigns. So, too, are proposals for marriage equality, ending discrimination against the children of undocumented immigrants, and legalizing marijuana. This year’s list of most valuable progressive individuals, groups, and ideas focuses attention beyond the top-tier politics of a presidential race or the latest bad news. We’re celebrating progressivism that mattered in 2015 and that—if past is prologue—will matter even more in 2016 and beyond.
Most Valuable Senator
The Senate is controlled by Republicans who “continue to deny climate science, dismiss the urgency of action, or exaggerate the costs of the president’s plans to address it,” says Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. But Whitehouse—identified by Politico as one of the Senate’s “new breed” of “unabashed progressives”—keeps pushing back. He’s delivered more than 100 Senate speeches on climate change, and in December he was in Paris, urging the United Nations climate negotiators to go big.
That’s typical of Whitehouse, who stands firm when other Democrats get shaky. He was an early and ardent backer of the diplomatic agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, arguing, “Whenever possible, I believe the US should seek to advance our security goals through diplomacy rather than force.” In so doing, he made room for other Democrats to step up, assuring that the deal would survive GOP attempts to block it with a September veto override. Whitehouse’s trip to Paris employed a similar strategy. Along with several other senators, he delivered the message that, despite the Republican efforts to “undermine the credibility of the president’s climate commitments,” Senate Democrats had enough votes to back the president up, “giving the US all the credibility needed to strike a major agreement in Paris.” At home, the former Rhode Island attorney general talks up the idea that a federal racketeering lawsuit could “challenge [the] massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.”
Most Valuable House Member
It’s never easy challenging a president of your own party, but DeLauro did so with skill and determination in 2015, leading the charge that got the overwhelming majority of House Democrats to oppose granting President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in secret and without adequate congressional oversight. A House veteran who has worked with the White House on issues ranging from healthcare to gun control, DeLauro and Congressional Progressive Caucus allies like Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison challenged the administration without burning bridges. Republicans finally gave Obama the votes he needed to secure fast-track, but DeLauro kept working with labor, farm, and environmental groups, and experts like Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, to rally opposition. As the year came to a close, DeLauro and her coalition were still playing a critical role in preventing passage of what the congresswoman recognizes as “an unfair trade deal that will benefit the wealthiest corporations and individuals, while leaving working men and women to bear the costs of the agreement.”
Most Valuable Cabinet Member
Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell celebrated the 50th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid this past summer by declaring: “No other program has changed the lives of so many of our families, friends, and neighbors. No other program has given so many hope.” But she didn’t stop there—Burwell also preached the gospel of Medicaid expansion. Tasked by President Obama in 2014 to implement the Affordable Care Act, Burwell has tirelessly championed essential state-based expansions of Medicaid programs that extend care to uninsured children and adults. Republicans who have resisted the ACA at every turn find it tough to resist Burwell, who works Capitol Hill and the statehouses on behalf of healthcare expansion and jets around the country to, in the words of The Miami Herald, “make a hard sell for people to enroll.” That persistence has been critical at a time when Obamacare is being secured. Yet Burwell has also been busy opening the next front, with a high-profile push to identify skyrocketing prescription-drug costs as a “problem we must solve.”
Most Valuable State Legislator
Republicans have used their complete control of statehouses in a number of Midwestern states to wreak havoc on labor rights, voting rights, public education, and public health. But Republican Governor Terry Branstad has had a harder time in Iowa, where Democrats retain narrow control of the State Senate. Senate President Pam Jochum, a veteran progressive from Dubuque, gives the governor no quarter. She’s fought hardest to block Branstad’s plan to privatize the state’s Medicaid system. The mother of a disabled adult who has relied on Medicaid, and a longtime champion of programs that provide healthcare for low-income families, laid-off workers, and farmers, Jochum has barnstormed across Iowa and gone all the way to Washington to warn: “We are talking about the healthcare of one out of six Iowans—many who have serious health challenges—and the jobs of the people who provide their healthcare.” Jochum says, “If the federal government closely reviews the Iowa Medicaid privatization mess so far, I believe they will conclude that the Branstad administration is simply not up to this challenge.” The Des Moines Register has echoed her concerns, complaining about a “procurement process [that] certainly seemed thoroughly and methodically packed with bias, cronyism, lack of disclosure, inappropriate correspondence with bidders and other problems.” Jochum and her allies have made the privatization fight such a big issue in Iowa that Hillary Clinton (whom Jochum backs) now earns raucous applause when she declares, “I would not want, if I lived in Iowa, Terry Branstad administering my healthcare.”
Most Valuable Mayor
When Newark airport workers launched a 24-hour fast for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and union rights, Service Employees International Union 32BJ members gathered on the steps of City Hall. Joining the November “Poverty Wages Don’t Fly” protest was Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who announced that “all Americans deserve a living wage” and ripped airport officials for suspending striking workers. Few mayors are as outspoken in their advocacy as Baraka. Since his election in 2014, he has used his authority and his bully pulpit to advocate for workers, affordable housing, public services, and especially public education. A former high-school principal (as well as a published poet and longtime participant in the National Hip-Hop Political Convention), Baraka has battled to restore local control of schools that have been under state oversight since the 1990s. Working with the Newark Teachers Union (AFT) and advocates for local democracy, he says, “I don’t want a direct power over the schools. It should be an elected school board.” That’s a different line from the one taken by national advocates for top-down approaches and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel. How different? When Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia challenged Emanuel in April, Baraka endorsed Garcia, saying: “Chicago, Newark, and so many cities around this country face a common struggle against corporate interests that want to undermine public education and silence dissenting voices in the community.”
Most Valuable Union Wins
United Auto Workers
After the UAW narrowly lost a high-profile fight to organize the sprawling Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014, media coverage speculated that unions would never make a dent in Southern states with anti-labor “right to work” laws. But the UAW kept organizing at Volkswagen and, in December 2015, won an overwhelming victory in a vote to organize skilled-trades workers at the Volkswagen plant. Earlier in the year, the UAW secured a 2–1 victory margin in a vote to organize a commercial-vehicle group plant in Piedmont, Alabama. And the union is mounting a push to organize bigger facilities, such as the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Alabama’s Tuscaloosa County. “Workers do want change, and they can stand up and win in the South,” announced UAW vice president Cindy Estrada. And it’s not just in the South: Rank-and-file UAW skilled-trade workers initially rejected a contract proposal at General Motors in the fall, forcing extended negotiations that secured changes protecting job classifications and seniority rights. Although the negotiations were frustrating, deals were reached with all three major automakers. But where companies were intractable, UAW workers struck. The year ended with nearly 2,000 UAW Local 833 workers at the Kohler Company in Wisconsin striking for elimination of a two-tiered pay scale that paid new hires dramatically less than veterans. The Kohler strike was all about old-school solidarity. Local 833 member Doreen Luecke explained that, while as a senior employee she could live with the contract that was offered, “I’m out here for all the future generations.” Walter Reuther would be proud.
Most Valuable Humanitarians
International Rescue Committee
When Republican officials vowed that their states would not accept Syrian refugees, Texas Governor Greg Abbott led the way. Yet Syrian families are now settling in the Lone Star State. President Obama’s resolve was a big factor. But so, too, was the steely determination of the American branch of the International Rescue Committee. The group, which traces its roots to Albert Einstein’s 1933 call for efforts to aid refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany, resettles refugees from countries around the world in dozens of American cities. Texas officials ordered the IRC to “halt the settlement” and sued the group. The IRC pushed back, telling Texas officials they had no legal authority to bar resettlement and declaring that “refugees are victims of terror, not terrorists.” Abbott and his lawyers backed off, and in early December the refugees arrived in Dallas and Houston.
Most Valuable Activist
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America chose well a decade ago when it named Richards president. The wisdom of the choice was confirmed throughout 2015, as this tough Texan kept her cool in the face of unrelenting political assaults on the group. Called before Congress in September by anti-choice Republicans bent on cutting federal funding for the nation’s largest single provider of reproductive-health services, Richards offered a robust defense of an organization that had been smeared by a right-wing group (using doctored videos) and Republican presidential contenders. “The outrageous accusations leveled against Planned Parenthood based on heavily doctored videos are offensive and categorically untrue,” Richards stated. “I realize, though, that the facts have never gotten in the way of these campaigns to block women from the healthcare they need and deserve.” Later in the year, when a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was attacked by a gunman who killed three people and wounded nine others, Richards was resolute and strong, leading an “our doors stay open” campaign and declaring, “What happened in Colorado Springs broke our hearts—and it steeled our spines.… In these moments, we all have a choice: Do we let callousness win, or compassion? Do we tune out, or do we engage? Shut down, or stand up? Planned Parenthood always chooses compassion. Even in the hardest times. Especially in the hardest times.”
Most Valuable Intervention
Black Lives Matter
A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the man who launched the March on Washington movement, argued that activists had to keep the heat on both foes and allies. It didn’t always sit well with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy when Randolph challenged them on issues of racial justice. And it did not sit well with some supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley when Black Lives Matter activists disrupted their July appearances at Netroots Nation to press them to say a lot more about police shootings, mass incarceration, and criminal-justice reform. But in short order, Sanders, O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton were issuing detailed policy proposals and incorporating Black Lives Matter messages into their stump speeches and debate appearances. Randolph was right: Keeping the pressure on changes politics and policies.
Most Valuable Ideological Comeback
The Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas won millions of votes and elected big-city mayors and members of Congress in the early part of the last century. But that history was largely neglected until 2015. Now democratic socialism is trending. Bernie Sanders says of socialism: “Do they think I’m afraid of the word? I’m not afraid of the word.” And a growing number of Americans share his view. A May YouGov poll found Democrats evenly divided in their favorable views of socialism and capitalism: 43–43. By October, YouGov found that 49 percent of Democrats viewed socialism favorably, while approval of capitalism had fallen to 37 percent. The magazine Jacobin was so overwhelmed with inquiries about socialism that editors rushed to prepare a full-color booklet, “The ABCs of Socialism.” Early in November, voters in Seattle reelected Socialist Alternative activist Kshama Sawant to a second term on the City Council. Late in November, Sanders described his democratic socialism to a crowd of cheering students at Georgetown (and a gaggle of national political reporters), explaining: “I don’t believe in some foreign ‘ism,’ but I believe deeply in American idealism.”
Most Valuable Media Criticism
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
Yes, Donald Trump is a crude fearmonger whose hateful statements create new divisions while reinforcing old bigotries. Yes, Trump’s fellow Republicans have been too slow to call him out and too quick to adopt elements of his agenda. But Trump has also benefited from media coverage that—especially in the early stages of the campaign—was more obsessed with his celebrity than with his veracity. It fell to the watchdog group FAIR to highlight the media’s failings in covering Trump and the rest of the presidential campaign. FAIR filled the void with sharp critiques of how the debates were organized (“Why Do Conservatives Get to Question Candidates—but Not Progressives?”) and vapid coverage (“Corporate Press Fails to Trump Bigotry”). FAIR focuses on much more than presidential politics, but the watchdog role it is playing in the 2016 race is essential.
Most Valuable Broadcast Media
Juan González on Democracy Now!
So many stories are so undercovered in so much of media that Democracy Now!, the daily one-hour program anchored by Amy Goodman and Juan González, is no longer an alternative—it’s essential. This was especially the case in 2015, when González focused attention on the Puerto Rican debt crisis and the damage done by austerity policies. At a time when progressive talk-radio formats are under assault (although, thankfully, not so much as to cost us the voices of great hosts like Bill Press, Stephanie Miller, and Thom Hartmann), Democracy Now! extends the range of debate with a speak-truth-to-power perspective that challenges economic inequality—and inhumanity.
Most Valuable Podcast
The veteran radio and television host is not on MSNBC anymore, but Schultz is, if anything, more pointed and powerful in his advocacy for organized labor these days, with a progressive, populist politics that hammers away at corporate greed and the compromises of both the Republican and Democratic parties. With guests who share his passions, including members of Congress (Keith Ellison, Mark Pocan, and Bernie Sanders are regulars), activists (Global Trade Watch’s Lori Wallach and Bold Nebraska’s Jane Kleeb), and commentators (including The Progressive’s Ruth Conniff, The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, and this writer), he remains a stalwart critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and a fierce advocate for the renewal of American manufacturing. It’s all online at WeGotEd.com.
Most Valuable Headlines and Covers
The New York Daily News
Back in the days when Americans got their news from newspapers, big-city tabloids used their front pages to crusade on behalf of their readers and the public good. The New York Daily News (perhaps most famous for its 1975 headline Ford to City: Drop Dead) renewed that tradition in 2015, with a campaign against the National Rifle Association and the politicians who do its bidding. Its most powerful headline, published after the mass shooting in San Bernardino claimed 14 lives, shouted on the paper’s front page: God Isn’t Fixing This. The rest of the page featured screen shots of “thoughts and prayers” tweets from NRA allies like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul Ryan. A subhead explained that “As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” NRA backers cried foul, but Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said, “What is tragic is that those who have the ability to DO something about this crisis refuse to offer more than simplistic sentiments on Twitter…” The Daily News delivered this important message in boldface type, and it mattered.
Most Valuable Documentary
We Are Many
As the horrific consequences of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq become ever more evident, it is vital to remember that the people of the world opposed the folly of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Tony Blair. We Are Many documents that opposition with remarkable grace and power, recalling the February 15, 2003, antiwar demonstrations by millions of citizens in more than 800 cities around the world. The documentary features stirring commentary from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky, Vietnam War vet Ron Kovic, and dozens of others, yet the film’s strength rests in the remarkable images of great masses of people challenging the mad rush to war. Iranian-born British documentarian Amir Amirani makes the case that, while the protests didn’t prevent the invasion and occupation of Iraq, they did inspire activists who continue to struggle—often with success—for human rights, economic and social justice, democracy, and, yes, peace. In these times, it’s hard to imagine a more important message.
Most Valuable Rock Album
The Monsanto Years, by Neil Young & Promise of the Real
Neil Young has always known how to make political messages rock. But in 2015, he broke new ground with an album exploring corporate greed, commercialism, corruption, and the genetic modification of food. Young does a lot more than criticize a seed company; he indicts a food system in which “corporate control takes over the American farm…with fascist politicians and chemical giants walking arm in arm.” With the help of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah, and the band Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Young rocks with a passion that matches his fury, singing, “The seeds of life are not what they once were.” The Guardian gave The Monsanto Years five stars out of five, and rightly so.
Most Valuable Memoir
My Life on the Road, by Gloria Steinem
Before she was an iconic activist, Steinem was a journalist. And this chronicle of her travels is an act of brilliant reportage. She takes her readers around the world and through her own history as a “wandering organizer,” supporting civil rights, labor rights, and the feminist vision she did so much to shape as a co-founder of Ms. magazine and a constant champion on television, on radio, in print, and at a thousand rallies, marches, and conferences. This is an exceptionally adventurous and appealing memoir, to be sure, but it is also an argument on behalf of constant motion and constant activism. “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel,” Steinem explains. “Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”
Most Valuable Illustrations of Our Times
Drawing Blood, by Molly Crabapple
Crabapple is an engaging and exceptional artist and author, whom Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi describes as “this generation’s Charles Bukowski.” She is, as well, a political communicator of enormous power and reach. She draws for the purposes of “exposure, confrontation, or reckoning. Every line a weapon.” And she writes with openness, honesty, and passion about her life and her global travels. An Occupy Wall Street veteran, she has (as a contributing editor for Vice, illustrator, and author) examined the Greek economic crisis, the awful circumstances of the Syrians who are now refuges, and the truth of Guantánamo Bay. Drawing Blood (HarperCollins) is biographical and beautiful and essential.