At the close of 2004, progressives can be forgiven for feeling they’ve found themselves in a particularly bleak midwinter. When they gather on New Year’s Eve, the term “good riddance” will doubtless accompany reflections on a year that saw America re-elect a President who gave us the Iraq quagmire, record trade and budget deficits and the steady erosion of our civil liberties. But even an annus horribilis can produce enough progress to inspire hope for better days.
Election day brought down-ticket signals that a more populist politics may be in the offing. In Vermont, the state’s Progressive Party won six legislative seats. San Francisco elected an activist Green, Ross Mirkarimi, to its board of supervisors and affirmed the commitment of the city that challenged the Bush Administration’s anti-gay marriage crusade to maintain its radical opposition to the politics of fear. Across the country, seventeen graduates of Camp Wellstone, inspired by Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s ideals, won races for the state legislature, school board and city council, while Cincinnati voters overturned a charter amendment that prohibited city officials from passing any laws aimed at protecting gays and lesbians.
In New York David Soares, a young activist attorney who ran against the draconian Rockefeller drug laws on the Democratic and Working Families Party lines, was elected Albany County District Attorney. The Los Angeles City Council unanimously adopted the nation’s most aggressive antisweatshop ordinance after two years of lobbying by local unions, sweatshop workers, clergy and activists, and Florida and Nevada voters overwhelmingly passed initiatives to raise the minimum wage.
Western states saw a Democratic surge, as the party gained control of previously Republican legislative chambers and statewide seats; gains included a new US Senator, Ken Salazar, in Colorado. Salazar, a Latino, will join Illinois’s Barack Obama, who will be the only African-American in the Senate after an absence of blacks for six years.
The two will enter a Congress where challenging Bush will be hard but not impossible. Patriot Act II legislation stalled in the House, as the courts began to challenge the Administration’s suspension of due process for Guantánamo detainees. Farm groups and organic-food activists prevented the food-processing industry from derailing country-of-origin labeling regulations–a major victory over special interests. In early December Louisiana voters elected Democrat Charlie Melancon, who campaigned against the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which will face a fight in the next Congress. Such fights could be made harder for the Administration if its main muscle on Capitol Hill–House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas–is out of commission; DeLay is battling to keep ahead of investigators and indictments.
Major media began to show signs in the course of the year of recognizing that they had been gamed by the Bush Administration, with the New York Times, the Washington Post and CBS’s 60 Minutes apologizing in their own way for their failures of skepticism before the invasion of Iraq. That is thanks in no small part to criticism by media watchdog groups and to truth-telling by documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald. Also during 2004 progressives created Air America, part of an alternative to the right-wing echo chamber.
In the waning days of 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–whose ouster we urged eighteen months ago–finally appeared to be losing his aura of arrogant invincibility, as a majority of the public told pollsters he should lose his job. Come to think of it, a year that caused Rumsfeld and DeLay as much discomfort as 2004 did is worthy of a toast.