US Democracy Is Under Attack. These Human Rights Defenders Are Not Backing Down.

US Democracy Is Under Attack. These Human Rights Defenders Are Not Backing Down.

US Democracy Is Under Attack. These Human Rights Defenders Are Not Backing Down.

The progressives topping the 2022 Nation Honor Roll have refused to give up in the face of overwhelming challenges.

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If ever there was a year when progressives faced an uphill climb, it was 2022. Democrats had control of the White House and Congress, but corporate-aligned centrists stalled progress on major pieces of legislation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, rising gas prices and inflation, and challenges posed by the lingering coronavirus pandemic contributed to a sour mood on the part of the electorate. Then, in June, the US Supreme Court overturned its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and put abortion rights in jeopardy nationwide. It was easy to feel overwhelmed, yet progressives persevered. They played a pivotal role in preventing a Republican takeover of the Senate in November—and even flipped a GOP seat in Pennsylvania to John Fetterman. They thwarted the ambitions of election deniers and proponents of voter suppression in states across the country. And in cities like Los Angeles, they beat the big-money interests that now seek to control every branch of government—with grassroots progressives scoring victories against all odds. Here are some of the campaigners, activists, intellectuals, and artists who spoke truth to power, defended democracy, and bent the arc of history toward justice in 2022.

John Nichols

the governor who beat the extremists

Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan, a classic battleground state that backed Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, was ground zero for contests over reproductive freedom and voting rights in 2022. With funding from the family of Trump’s former secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, Republicans were pushing an extreme agenda. But Whitmer, who was battle-hardened after facing down the armed protesters who sought to take over the state Capitol (as well as barbs from Trump), joined Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in rejecting the big lies of the election deniers. And even before the Supreme Court upended Roe, the governor was unequivocal in her defense of abortion rights. Whitmer fought to prevent enforcement of a 1931 state abortion ban that Republican legislators hoped to reanimate, and she told Michigan officials not to cooperate in attempts to investigate or prosecute abortion providers. Along with state Attorney General Dana Nessel, she also campaigned in the midterm elections for a ballot measure that enshrined reproductive rights in the state Constitution. Michigan voters supported Whitmer at every turn: She beat a Trump-backed Republican candidate by more than 10 points, while Benson and Nessel beat their right-wing challengers as well. The pro-choice constitutional amendment won by a margin of 57 to 43 percent, while a package of voting rights protections won 60 to 40 percent. If that wasn’t enough, Whitmer’s focus on electing Democrats to the Legislature paid off, with the party flipping control of the state House and Senate. For the first time since 1983, Democrats will control the Michigan governorship and Legislature. And Whitmer is promising big things for her state, while observers in Michigan and nationally talk about her as a future presidential prospect.

the senator who made the senate work

Tammy Baldwin

Tammy Baldwin saw the writing on the wall when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned Roe in June. If the court could erase nearly 50 years of precedent protecting abortion rights, the progressive Democratic senator from Wisconsin reasoned, it was only a matter of time before right-wing judicial activists attacked historic precedents in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties. Justice Clarence Thomas was already urging his conservative allies to reconsider rulings that established precedents based on the 14th Amendment. “We have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents,” Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case. His list of targets included the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, in which the court held that the 14th Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriage. Baldwin, the first out lesbian elected to the US House and Senate, set out to codify marriage equality before the court could take it away. To do that, she needed to overcome the filibuster. Baldwin led the fight for a new iteration of the Respect for Marriage Act intended to protect same-sex and interracial marriages. Then she built coalitions both inside and outside the Senate. She negotiated, crafted compromises, and kept cajoling the Republicans to sign on. On November 29, Baldwin secured what the ACLU hailed as “a historic step forward for the rights of LGBTQ families.” In an evenly divided Senate, where the filibuster has so frequently been abused to prevent progress, the vote for marriage equality was 61 to 36. A week later, the bill passed the House, and President Biden signed it into law on December 13.

the truth teller

Bennie Thompson

When the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol gaveled into session, committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) addressed the country in blunt terms. He described the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol not as a “riot” or an “insurrection” but as the “culmination of an attempted coup.” He spoke of a “sprawling multistep conspiracy aimed at overturning the election, aimed at overturning the votes of millions of Americans,” and put “Donald Trump…at the center of that conspiracy.” Trump, Thompson declared, “spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down to the Capitol and subvert American democracy.” Media outlets focused mostly on Representative Liz Cheney, the daughter of the former Republican vice president, who broke with her party to object to Trump’s wrongdoing. But it was Thompson, whose political journey began with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College, who brought moral clarity to the proceedings with his clear-eyed choice to call a coup “a coup.”

the most indefatigable member of congress

Ro Khanna

The congressman from California was everywhere in 2022. While other Democrats were struggling to figure out how to respond to rising gas prices, Khanna proposed a windfall profits tax to curb price gouging by big oil companies. And with fellow California Representatives Katie Porter and Mark Takano, he sought to address the housing crisis with the Stop Wall Street Landlords Act, a bold plan to stem the speculation by institutional investors and prevent mortgage and rent gouging. Khanna was just as active outside Congress. He wrote a book, Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us, that the world-renowned philosopher Jürgen Habermas hailed as “a vision for creating spaces for rational exchange in digital media that do not serve first and foremost economic interests.” Then Khanna went on the road to factory towns across the Midwest to make the case for an innovation-focused industrial policy that reinvests in communities battered by deindustrialization. And he was reelected by his Silicon Valley district with 70 percent of the vote.

breaking the glass ceiling for gen z

Maxwell Frost

Frost was elected in November as the US representative for Florida’s 10th Congressional District—the first member of Generation Z in Congress. He’s an ardent progressive with an activist résumé so long it belies his 25 years. Frost got his start in gun-safety activism at 15, after meeting survivors of the Sandy Hook attack. Ten years later, he campaigned for Congress on gun issues as well as abortion, climate change, and Medicare for All. During the congressional orientation at the Capitol in November, he was repeatedly told that he was standing in the wrong line: the one for members, not visitors. But Frost didn’t resent it; as he later described the scene to Vox, two skeptical guards examined his ID badge closely. “And they started cheering, and they’re like, ‘Oh, my god, you’re so young! And he’s Black! Only in America!’ They were, like, jumping up and down and clapping, and it was actually really cool.”

Joan Walsh

defender of democracy

Adrian Fontes

In 2022, Americans finally woke up to the fact that the races for the secretary of state offices that oversee elections were where the fate of American democracy was being decided. With Trump and his Republican allies endorsing candidates who denied the results of the 2020 presidential election and promoted voter suppression schemes, everything was up for grabs—especially in the swing states that will decide the 2024 presidential election. Voters recognized what was at stake, as Democrats swept contests against election deniers. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, said, “Given the choice between democracy and extremism, voters chose democracy by electing Secretaries of State who will protect this nation’s free, fair, and secure elections.” The results were especially heartening in Arizona, where Marine Corps veteran Adrian Fontes won a brutal battle for the office. As Maricopa County recorder in 2020, Fontes faced down lies, threats, and violent protests to maintain free and fair elections in a county that became the focus of Republican efforts to overturn election results they didn’t like. Running for secretary of state in 2022 against a vocal election denier, Fontes boldly called out the Big Lie and said, “If you don’t call it fascism because you’re afraid to offend somebody, you’re not doing your job.” Voters agreed, handing Fontes a victory by more than 120,000 votes—the highest percentage of any Democrat on the statewide ballot.

the progressive who beat big money

Karen Bass

The former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass gave up a safe House seat to run for mayor of Los Angeles, the city where she got her political start as a community organizer working to end gun violence, promote police accountability, and advance civil rights. She began the race as the front-runner, then found herself facing off against billionaire real estate magnate Rick Caruso, a former Republican who ranked No. 261 on Forbes’s list of the wealthiest Americans. Caruso spent roughly $105 million on his campaign, which blanketed the airwaves and social media with ads smearing Bass, while the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the local police union, poured millions more into attacking the congresswoman, who in 2021 wrote the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But Bass didn’t blink: She ran as a progressive, appeared just before the election with Senator Bernie Sanders, and beat the big money by a 55 to 45 percent margin. She’ll now be the mayor of the second-largest city in the country and a key voice on municipal policy.

care in action’s political powerhouse

Hillary Holley

The 30-year-old executive director of Care in Action, the national group that activist extraordinaire Ai-jen Poo cofounded to channel the energy of domestic workers into electoral politics, Holley worked tirelessly to get voters to the polls in the battleground state of Georgia. She blew the whistle on the funding inequities that left key Georgia community groups behind in mobilizing voters of color and young people in 2020 and ‘21 and then starved for cash in ‘22. She shared Care in Action resources with partner groups and counseled that “you need the outside groups just as well funded as the campaigns.” Though Stacey Abrams lost her rematch with Governor Brian Kemp in November, Senator Raphael Warnock led in the initial voting and then won a December runoff against his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker. Holley was in the thick of the fight, and she knew exactly how to wage it. Before joining Care in Action, the native Georgian worked as organizing director and strategic adviser for Fair Fight Action, the voter empowerment group that Abrams founded after her 2018 loss. “Hillary is an organizer’s organizer,” Ai-jen Poo e-mailed me. “Wise beyond her years, she is always thinking creatively about how we reach and build trust with more voters, always from a place of believing in the resilience and power of everyday people.”

Joan Walsh

they took on a broken status quo

Yuh-Line Niou and Alessandra Biaggi

New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and state Senator Alessandra Biaggi risked their seats to mount uphill bids for Congress. Though they did not prevail against their better-funded foes in the Democratic primaries and were out of office at the end of the year, they’ve left an astonishing mark that has utterly transformed their state. Refusing to accept the corruption and sexual abuse that saturate politics there, they took on the once-almighty governor, Andrew Cuomo. Unlike the vast majority of their colleagues, who watched from the sidelines during the rolling series of scandals that surrounded Cuomo in 2021, Niou and Biaggi put themselves in the line of fire alongside the young women who spoke out about the ex-governor’s predation. It took guts and grit—and a total disregard for the conventional wisdom that preaches self-interest over public service. Nineteen million New Yorkers are better off because the two of them suited up to help slay that particular dragon. Their combat was brutal and glorious and shockingly rare. May their legacy be the standard, not the exception.

Alexis Grenell

beating the backlash

Progressive Prosecutors

Pundits predicted an overwhelming wave of backlash voting, but advocates for criminal justice reform kept winning elections in 2022. In Minnesota, Attorney General Keith Ellison, who led the prosecution of the police officer who murdered George Floyd, defeated a blatantly racist campaign to remove him. And in the state’s most populous county, Hennepin, veteran public defender Mary Moriarty was elected on a reform agenda. Another reformer, Kimberly Graham, won the race for county attorney in Iowa’s most populous area. Reformers won in Seattle, Memphis, and other major cities. Of course, there were setbacks as well, such as the defeat of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a high-profile recall election. But progressive prosecutors beat back challenges in many more jurisdictions across the country. “The bottom line,” observed Chloe Cockburn, a founder of the group Just Impact Advisors, “is that reform candidates across the country now oversee a combined population of over 50 million. Many of these victories happened despite the demagoguery, scapegoating, and outright lies thrown at reform candidates.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel

battlers for diplomacy, not war

Vets for Peace

With chapters in communities nationwide, Vets for Peace has long been one of the most effective grassroots organizations advocating for alternatives to war. The group was called into action in 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine saw a return to Cold War positioning on the part of top political figures. The vets condemned the invasion and expressed support for Russian soldiers and citizens who resisted the war. But they also warned that “the only sane course of action now is a commitment to genuine diplomacy with serious negotiations—without which [the] conflict could easily spiral out of control to the point of further pushing the world toward nuclear war.” While many advocates sent mixed signals, Vets for Peace retained clarity, explaining that “our mission remains the same. We are committed to a sustainable and just peace.” They also ramped up campaigning for the global abolition of nuclear weapons and for policies that prevent war profiteering.

the quintessential post-roe abortion resource

ineedana.com

Ten years ago, Rebecca got pregnant and needed an abortion, but she discovered that it wasn’t as easy as it should have been to schedule her appointment. (Rebecca does not use her last name for privacy reasons.) Given the proliferation of “crisis pregnancy centers,” which often pose as abortion clinics while spreading false information and coercing patients to delay their abortions until it’s too late, Rebecca resorted to Yelp and Google to find a clinic as well as accurate information about abortion care. Fast-forward to today: Rebecca and the team at ineedana.com have developed an online guide for people of all backgrounds to learn how to get an abortion. It was the resource being shared the day the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority decimated previously protected reproductive rights, and it has been the resource shared every day since then. Thanks to ineedana.com and other tools like the If/When/How legal hotline and plancpills.org, this period after Roe has not mirrored the time before Roe. But that doesn’t mean the work is done. There aren’t enough appointments, and there isn’t enough money to help finance all the expenses that people traveling across state lines to receive care must cover (not to mention the fact that pregnancy is becoming a crime in the US, where it already was a death sentence for too many). Because of the hard work of abortion funds, some people are getting the help they need. But the fight continues until the day when abortion is truly accessible to all without exceptions.

Regina Mahone

the podcast that keeps an eye on the right

Know Your Enemy

Pitched as “a leftist’s guide to the conservative movement,” the Know Your Enemy podcast eschews hyperbole and instead employs historical analysis and a savvy understanding of the contemporary political scene to explain how politicians in the US and abroad are advancing extreme right-wing ideas. Dissent launched the podcast in 2019 to “dive into the swamp of right-wing thought so you don’t have to, taking conservative ideas seriously but not uncritically.” It’s hosted by Matthew Sitman, who was the associate editor at Commonweal, and Sam Adler-Bell, a former Nation intern and a contributor to this magazine and many others. Know Your Enemy has become a go-to conversation corner for authors, journalists, and academics who keep an eye on the right domestically and internationally. From smart examinations of the rise of the neofascist Giorgia Meloni in Italy to assessments of the Christian nationalist movement’s increasing influence on the Republican Party in the US, this podcast gets the discussion about the right exactly right.

making sense of economic nonsense

Nomi Prins

In her 2022 book Permanent Distortion: How Financial Markets Abandoned the Real Economy Forever, writer and activist Nomi Prins outlines how Wall Street has delinked itself from the concerns of working Americans. “That’s why stock markets can skyrocket in the face of a global pandemic and threats of nuclear war,” explains Prins, who left a Wall Street gig to become an advocate for financial reform. “It’s also why the real economy continues to lag behind the markets during financial, social, and geopolitical turbulence.” Her book is essential reading in this era of roller-coaster markets, price-gouging inflation, and ever-expanding economic inequality.

music with a message

Brian Jackson

The multi-instrumentalist Brian Jackson and the poet Gil Scott-Heron produced revolutionary music in the 1970s that would influence generations of hip-hop artists and rockers. Now, after many years working as an information technology specialist with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, Jackson is back with a brilliant new album, This Is Brian Jackson. With its blend of jazz-funk, soul, and Afrobeat sounds, Jackson’s music is rich and robust. And as Pitchfork magazine observes, “The heart of a radical still beats inside his chest.”

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