Covid-19, mass unemployment, police violence, a burning planet, and a defeated president refusing to concede made 2020 the year Americans couldn’t wait to end. Yet 2020 also saw a heroic pandemic response by frontline workers, mass protests against systemic racism, and a growing recognition of the necessity for big agendas: cash payments to the unemployed, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal. The most valuable progressives of 2020 kept hope alive with activism, ideas, and music to inspire transformational change in 2021.
When Abrams announced on December 14 that Georgia’s 16 electoral votes had been cast for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, applause erupted for the first Democratic presidential win in the state since 1992—and for Abrams, the 2018 gubernatorial candidate who had argued all along that voter mobilization could flip swing states against Donald Trump. With her group Fair Fight, Abrams championed voter registration and mobilization drives in Georgia, Wisconsin, and other battleground states. They figured out how to draw new Black, Latinx, and Asian American voters to the polls, circumvent voter suppression, and navigate the challenges of a pandemic election, with a savvy emphasis on mail-in voting, early voting, and safe in-person voting on Election Day that will be a national model going forward. That merits applause. And the cheering will be even louder in 2022 if, as many suspect, Abrams runs for (and wins) Georgia’s governorship.
the boldest battler
The senator from Vermont didn’t receive the Democratic nomination in 2020, as seemed possible after his New Hampshire and Nevada wins briefly made him the front-runner in the primary race. Sanders did, however, play a critical role in securing the presidency for the Democrats—working with Biden to establish unity task forces that framed the party’s agenda, and arguing relentlessly that Trump was an “existential threat” to democracy who must be removed from office. Sanders closed the year with a courageous effort to secure $2,000 checks for Americans who are struggling to get by in a pandemic-ravaged economy. That fight will continue in 2021, and Sanders will no doubt continue to be the Senate’s boldest battler for economic, social, and racial justice; for the planet; and for peace.
the house’s systemic changemaker
As the representative from the Minneapolis district where George Floyd’s death during a brutal arrest in May sparked nationwide protests, Omar immediately recognized that this police killing of a Black man was part of a broader crisis. “We are not merely fighting to tear down the systems of oppression in the criminal justice system,” she announced. “We are fighting to tear down systems of oppression that exist in housing, in education, in health care, in employment, in the air we breathe.” Trump staked his bid to win Minnesota on a campaign that viciously attacked Omar’s challenge to systemic racism. The congresswoman responded with a turnout drive that boosted Democratic numbers in her district and helped Biden sweep the state.
expanding civil rights protections
Rashida Tlaib’s Justice for All Act
A civil rights lawyer with Detroit’s Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice before her election to Congress, Tlaib wants to put the teeth back into civil rights laws that “have been undermined by conservative courts determined to give corporations and the government a license to discriminate if they just use the right code words and proxies for race, gender, and other aspects of who we are.” The Michigan Democrat’s new Justice for All Act seeks to guarantee that victims of discrimination can vindicate their rights in the courts by restoring and expanding the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. National Lawyers Guild president Elena Cohen says legislation like Tlaib’s is “sorely needed in order to protect all people of this country.”
anti-fascist attorney general
When Trump threatened to use federal agents to crack down on Black Lives Matter protests in cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s attorney general decried the president’s “fascist tactics, including his demonization of immigrants, his attacks on communities with large minority populations and the elected representatives of those communities, the blatantly illegal use of force against protesters near the White House, and the deployment of secret federal police” to Portland, Ore. He pledged to “take any appropriate legal action” to prevent agents from “interfering with peaceful protests,” stating, “I don’t use the phrase ‘fascist tactics’ lightly. But there is no more accurate way to describe this administration’s repeated resort to and incitement of racism, xenophobia, and violence.”
every native vote counts
Native Vote, Menikanaehkem
“Voting is sacred. My people know that. We were not universally granted the right to vote until 1962,” said Representative Deb Haaland, a tribal citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico who is now Biden’s nominee for interior secretary, speaking at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Grassroots organizing by groups working in tribal communities and outreach by Every Native Vote Counts, a national campaign of the nonpartisan group Native Votes, boosted turnout in swing states like Arizona and Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s Menikanaehkem focused on Menominee County, which shares boundaries with the Menominee Indian Reservation. In November, the county saw the sharpest swing to the Democratic ticket of any in the state and produced the highest support for Biden—82 percent. Increased turnout by Indigenous voters mattered in Wisconsin, where Democrats won by just 20,682 votes.
Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA)
Trump won Arizona by more than 90,000 votes in 2016, but he lost it by 10,457 votes in 2020. What changed? The Arizona Republic reported that increased turnout among Latinx voters was “critical for Democrats, as 63% of their votes went to Biden and 36% to Trump, according to exit polls.” Many unions and grassroots organizations contributed to the turnout spike. One of the most innovative was LUCHA, a group born in the struggle against anti-immigrant laws, which in cooperation with Seed the Vote and People’s Action embraced an innovative deep-canvassing strategy designed to reach out to undecided and conflicted voters and engage in real conversations. It worked.
reclaiming the courts
American Constitution Society, Alliance for Justice, Demand Justice
To counter the Federalist Society’s relentless drive to pack the federal bench with right-wing activists, the American Constitution Society, led by former senator Russ Feingold, came up with a plan to jump-start the Biden-Harris administration’s judicial selection process. Immediately after the election, the ACS delivered a list of hundreds of qualified prospects that would bring diversity to the courts. The Alliance for Justice, led by nomination expert Nan Aron, and allied groups also provided a list of potential nominees. And Brian Fallon and the crew at Demand Justice were already formulating strategies to get Biden’s nominees confirmed.
Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez
When former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, once a key fundraiser and power broker in Bill Clinton’s administration, was floated for a top job under Biden, Rodriguez, the Chicago alderwoman and member of the City Council’s powerful caucus of Democratic Socialists, penned a scathing letter putting him on a “DO NOT HIRE list.” That letter evolved into a petition to Biden signed by thousands of Chicagoans, which recalled that Emanuel covered up the 2014 police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and closed 50 elementary schools. The petition stated, “If you want to root out systemic racism, defend democracy, and build a society that leaves no one behind—all worthy goals mentioned in your victory speech—we can think of few people worse for the job than the man who earned the nickname ‘Mayor 1%.’ ” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman amplified the themes as the outcry went national. The pushback showed how progressives can and must put pressure on the new administration.
defunding the military-industrial complex
Representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan and the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus
Faced with a pandemic and an economic meltdown, Wisconsin’s Pocan argued in May, “Increasing defense spending now would be a slap in the face to the families of [those who] have died from this virus.” Pocan and California’s Lee rallied 93 House votes for a July amendment to cut Pentagon spending by 10 percent; Vermont’s Bernie Sanders secured 23 Senate votes. Lee and Pocan then formed the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus. Lee, who was recently honored by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for her long struggle to “move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy,” has warned that warped budget priorities harm Black and brown people the most. “We can’t keep spending billions for weapons while leaving our people defenseless against COVID,” she said.
networking for justice
Fair and Just Prosecution
The ranks of progressive prosecutors swelled in November with the elections of George Gascon in Los Angeles, Monique Worrell in Orlando, Fla., and José Garza in Austin, Tex. Nationwide, innovative district attorneys are generating fresh ideas for police accountability, ending mass incarceration, reforming drug laws, and addressing systemic racism. Fair and Just Prosecution brings them together to share strategies for “moving away from past incarceration-driven approaches and advancing new thinking that promotes prevention and diversion and increases fairness.”
fighter for nurses and patients
Unions were on the front lines of the pandemic, protecting their members and their communities as Covid-19 swept America. No labor leader battled harder than Castillo, a registered nurse and the executive director of National Nurses United. Starting in January, the union demanded that nurses get protective gear to save their own lives and the lives of their patients. NNU forced hospitals to change policies, demonstrated outside the White House, and kept an eye on the big picture. Explaining that “so much injustice in our society is amplified by Covid-19,” Castillo decried the racial inequities of a for-profit health care system and championed Medicare for All. As legendary United Farm Workers union leader Dolores Huerta said, “Bonnie does not just work to heal patients; she works to heal society.”
authors of a new vision
Zephyr Teachout, Jennifer Taub, Stephanie Kelton
Recovery from the many crises of 2020 will require bold thinking, and three great public intellectuals provide it with books that challenge monopoly power, neoliberalism, and corruption. Teachout’s Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money (All Points Books) argues for trust-busting as a necessary response to inequality, climate change, the consolidation of economic power, and the systemic disenfranchisement of women, immigrants, and people of color. Taub’s Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (Viking) explains that the crimes of the billionaire class are never ”victimless.” Kelton’s The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy (Public Affairs) provides an antidote to deficit hawks who claim there’s not enough money for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
Since taking over in 2019 as executive director of Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Hanauer has been calling out the economic fallacies that pass for policy in Washington. When Senate Republicans gamed the Covid-19 relief debates, Hanauer warned, “Senator McConnell is circulating a hoax of a plan with…two enormous giveaways to corporations: a liability shield for companies whose policies contribute to their employees getting sick, and a tax deduction for business meals.” Making the connection between regressive tax policies and rising inequality, Hanauer and her team crunch numbers and build arguments for taxing the rich and lifting up the working class.
Hood to the Holler
When Louisville Black Lives Matter activists and their allies demanded justice for Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker shot and killed during a police raid, Kentucky legislator Charles Booker joined them on the streets. He didn’t stop there. Booker took the racial justice message to rural Kentucky, mounting a campaign that almost had him winning the Democratic nomination to run against Mitch McConnell. After the primary, Booker formed Hood to the Holler, a grassroots movement to build “a new Southern strategy” that breaks down barriers to discussions of racial justice and generational poverty.
music that shall overcome
Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger
Commissioned by the FreshGrass Foundation to celebrate the 2019 centennial of Seeger’s birth, the always innovative string quartet and talented vocalists like Maria Arnal, Sam Amidon, and Aoife O’Donovan reimagined the folk singer’s songbook and added numbers from artists influenced by his radical humanity. Long Time Passing (Smithsonian Folkways) is both musically and politically brilliant. Its version of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” featuring the Ethiopian American singer Meklit, achieves the rare feat of being painful, beautiful, and healing at the same time.
anthem for a revolution
Janelle Monáe’s “Turntables”
“Turntables” ignites with the singer’s call for “a different vision with a new dream” and this promise: “We kicking out the old regime.” Written for Stacey Abrams’s voting rights documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, the song (and a brilliant accompanying video with a spoken-word invocation from James Baldwin) aligns history with a new generation’s demands for systemic change. Its release capped a remarkable year for Monáe, which began with a riveting Academy Awards performance that saw her celebrating Black History Month and pioneering women before declaring, “I’m so proud to stand here as a Black queer artist telling stories.”