This last year was a tough one, with too many setbacks and too many reasons for justified anger. Yet we also saw inspired activism and the renewal of a movement-based politics of protest. There were stalwarts who battled economic inequality and racial injustice, who developed new ideas and new strategies. They deserve recognition—not as the only heroes of 2014, but as examples of what progressives can accomplish even in difficult times, and of what they will accomplish in the years to come. Here, then, is The Nation’s 2014 Honor Roll.
Most Valuable Progressive
No prominent figure in our politics did more in 2014 to clarify the economic issues that matter and to challenge the failed strategy of compromise with demands that Democrats fight against inequality and corporate cronyism. The senator from Massachusetts waded into the toughest electoral and economic policy fights, and while she did not always prevail, she invariably inspired activists to fight harder. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid recognized this after the dismal 2014 election, when he elevated Warren to a leadership position in the caucus. He said he wanted her energy and passion, and he got it. Within weeks, she was battling Reid and the Obama White House to block the scaling back of Dodd-Frank restrictions on big banks. Warren is sometimes portrayed as a divisive figure in her party. That’s absurd. She’s simply calling on Democrats to recognize that Americans don’t want caution and compromise; they want leaders who will fight on their behalf. As Warren said in an essential agenda-setting address at the summer gathering of Netroots Nation: “The game is rigged. And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much. So the way I see this is, we can whine about it, we can whimper about it, or we can fight back. I’m fighting back!”
Most Valuable Senator
No state sends a more solidly progressive delegation to Congress than Vermont. Senator Bernie Sanders champions economic justice. Representative Peter Welch works to reform foreign policy by ending wars and embracing diplomacy. And Senator Leahy, the senior member of the chamber, led fight after fight in 2014 to get big things done in a dysfunctional Capitol. He earned headlines late in 2014 when behind-the-scenes work (along with Senate staffer Tim Rieser) helped pave the way for normalization of relations with Cuba. And even Republicans recognized his effectiveness as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he worked diligently—and with considerable success—to confirm judicial nominees, protect civil liberties, tackle human trafficking and address mass incarceration. The latter struggle is a passion for former prosecutor Leahy, who says, “Our criminal-justice system incarcerates too many individuals, especially nonviolent drug offenders, because of its reliance on mandatory-minimum sentences. And there continues to be distrust between law enforcement and communities of color because of a long history of unfair treatment towards minorities.” Losing Leahy as Judiciary chair will be hard, but his continued service as the committee’s ranking Democrat in the new Senate will be vital. He knows how to build unexpected coalitions: Texas Republican John Cornyn co-sponsored his legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. As a senior Democrat, Leahy does not pick the fights he sometimes should with his party’s leadership; he is not a firebrand. Yet this senator understands what battles must be waged, and he pursues them with a determination that will be more necessary than ever in 2015. “I have fought the status quo every step of the way in these efforts,” Leahy said in November, when his plan to reform surveillance laws fell just two votes short of breaking a filibuster. Leahy is ready (and uniquely well positioned) to keep fighting—and changing—the status quo the next Congress.