Progressive politicians spark hope in U.S. election, but their work is just beginning

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the Reardon Convention Center in Kansas City, on July 20, 2018. Photo: Mark Dillman/Wikimedia Commons

"Words cannot express my gratitude to every organizer, every small-dollar donor, every working parent and dreamer who helped make this movement happen," Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said to the ecstatic crowd that packed the election night party celebrating her victorious run for Congress. "That's exactly what this is, not a campaign or an election day, but a movement, a larger movement for social, economic and racial justice in the United States of America." Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or "AOC" to her core supporters, is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. This Bronx-born, 29-year-old millennial of Puerto Rican descent is a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She marks a critical inflection point in American electoral politics. Amidst the backdrop of white nationalist violence linked to the presidency of Donald Trump, the 2018 midterm elections are ushering in a slate of elected officials representing the country's diversity more than ever before.

While Republicans increased their majority in the U.S. Senate, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Many races remain too close to call, including the intensely fought and closely watched race for governor of Georgia between Stacey Abrams, who would become the first African-American woman governor in the country, and Brian Kemp, who refused to recuse himself as Georgia's Republican secretary of state, overseeing the very election in which he is a candidate. Kemp, who is being sued for a racist campaign of voter suppression, is slightly ahead in the vote tally, but thousands of ballots have yet to be counted, and Abrams is refusing to concede.

This was an election of firsts. Nationally, a historic number of women ran for office. This is the first time that more than 100 women will serve in Congress. Connecticut schoolteacher Jahana Hayes and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley became the first African-American women to represent their states in Congress. Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar became the first two Latinas elected to Congress from Texas. Early on Election Day in Escobar's district in El Paso, the U.S. Border Patrol initiated an unannounced "crowd control" exercise, only to cancel it after public outcry over the apparent attempt to intimidate Latinx voters.

Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first Native American women elected to Congress. Davids also is a lesbian, as well as a former professional kickboxer.

Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress. Tlaib, a Detroit activist who is filling John Conyers' seat, will be the first Palestinian-American congresswoman. She says she'll be taking her bullhorn to Washington. She told her supporters, "I will uplift you in so many ways, not only through service, but fighting back against every single oppressive, racist structure that needs to be dismantled, because you deserve better."

Minnesota legislator Ilhan Omar is the first Somali-American ever elected to Congress. In her victory speech, she said, "I stand here before you tonight, as your congresswoman-elect, with many firsts behind my name: the first woman of colour to represent our state in Congress. The first woman to wear a hijab … [and] the first refugee ever elected to Congress."

These are just a few of the agents of change who emerged victorious in the 2018 midterms. Many of them support progressive policies like "Medicare-for-all," a federal $15 minimum wage, debt-free college and comprehensive immigration reform, and are deeply concerned about climate change.

Yes, the bottom shook the top, but whether our country's dangerous shift toward authoritarianism gets shaken off its foundation is still to be seen. President Donald Trump represents a wall, both literally and figuratively. The 2018 midterm elections turned that wall into a door. Whether that door is kicked open or slammed shut depends not only on elected officials, but on the people who put them there. These elections are not an end in themselves. Times like these are when movements can have the greatest effect.

More than 110 million people voted, far more than in past midterm elections. Yet still half of eligible voters stayed home or were excluded by the increasingly widespread voter suppression tactics being deployed across the country. The movements behind this historic electoral result for women and for diversity must also work to increase engagement, enfranchisement and electoral participation. One of the biggest success stories this week was the passage of Florida's Amendment 4, restoring the right to vote to 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. It's one of the biggest acts of voter enfranchisement since women got the right to vote in 1920. It should be replicated around the country.

Now, as these many newly elected officials assume their duties after hard-fought campaigns, the real work begins.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Truthdig.

Photo: Mark Dillman/Wikimedia Commons

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