A New Way Forward: The Story of Election Day 2018

November 7, 2018 Alan Jenkins

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

As the results from yesterday’s election continue to come in, a powerful and encouraging story is emerging.  Across the country, millions and millions of Americans chose a shared future over fear, embraced our nation’s diversity as a source of strength, and adopted positive, pragmatic solutions to problems that lawmakers had failed to address.  And in the places where fear won out, the recipe for a new way forward began to emerge.

New Faces of Leadership

The new Congress and many state governments will be significantly more representative of our nation’s vibrant diversity:

  • A record number of women – at least 100— were elected to Congress.
  • Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Somali-American Ilhan Omar (MN) have become the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
  • Colorado’s Jared Polis will become the first openly gay man elected governor in the U.S.
  • Sharice Davids (KS) and Deb Haaland (NM) became the first Native American women elected to Congress.  Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and Haaland is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna.  Davids identifies as a lesbian, making her the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from Kansas.
  • Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia will be the first Latinx women elected to Congress from Texas.
  • Ayanna Pressley will become the first African-American congresswoman elected in Massachusetts, and Jahana Hayes the first in Connecticut.
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at age 29.

Embracing Solutions.

In ballot measures around the country, Americans voted in favor of pragmatic solutions that uphold the values of equal justice, community, and second chances.  On criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, and economic opportunity, voters often led where lawmakers had failed to do so:

  • Louisiana voters amended their state’s constitution to require unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases, eliminating one of the vestiges of the Jim Crow era.
  • Florida’s Amendment 4 will restore voting rights to 1.5 million Floridians with past felony convictions.
  • Colorado voters amended their constitution to remove slavery as a form of punishment.
  • Oregon voters defeated efforts to repeal the state’s sanctuary law that protects immigrants.
  • Voters in Arkansas and Missouri voted to increase the minimum wage to $11 and $12, respectively.
  • Medicaid expansion measures succeeded in Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska.

Choosing Community over Division.

Voters rejected some of the most virulent appeals based on bigotry, fear, and division.

  • Voters rejected the bigoted, anti-immigrant rhetoric of Kris Kobach in Kansas and Mike Coffman in Colorado.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s virulent anti-worker rhetoric and policies were rejected, as was Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was the original plaintiff in the anti-worker Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 lawsuit.
  • Suburban voters, in particular, showed their disdain for anti-immigrant fearmongering in a number of races, rejecting candidates who led with that rhetoric.

New Priorities.

While we’re still analyzing exit polls and voting patterns, it’s clear that voters in large swaths of the country are voicing a new set of priorities that favor greater and more equal opportunity.

  • A rising plurality of voters identified health care as their leading issue and voted in favor of candidates who supported coverage.  Bowing to that trend, many conservative candidates who had attacked the Affordable Care Act disingenuously touted support for coverage of pre-existing conditions.
  • Last year’s tax giveaway to the wealthiest corporations and individuals proved a liability for conservatives, who walked away from it in their campaigning.
  • The trend continued toward criminal justice reform that focuses on prevention and equal justice.  Among other results, reform-minded prosecutors were elected in Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois, and elsewhere, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s re-election means that the state’s moratorium on executions will likely continue.

And, most prominently, we are entering a new era of constitutional accountability and oversight of the Trump administration in the House of Representatives.  Harmful executive actions like tearing apart parents and children at the border, shifting critical FEMA disaster recovery funds to ICE, or thwarting an accurate census count, among many others, will no longer go unchallenged.

These milestones were, of course, mixed with setbacks for opportunity, inclusion, and equal justice. The politics of division were successful in several state-wide contests and, particularly, in many rural parts of our country.  Voters in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, and Oklahoma approved a controversial ballot measure known as Marsy’s Law that was marketed through fear and misinformation.  Voters in Arkansas and North Carolina passed voter ID laws, and Alabama and West Virginia voters endorsed new abortion restrictions.

But the setbacks – as well as the progress – point to a new way forward for social justice leaders and values around the country.  Listening to audiences across lines of difference is critical, as is leading with shared values of dignity, opportunity, pragmatism, and our shared fate.  Articulating an affirmative vision, concrete solutions, and alternatives to our current reality is critical to moving people away from fear and division and toward progress.  Lifting up diversity as our nation’s greatest strength is both effective and true to who we are, and will be, as a people.  Leaders who can speak that truth from their own lived experience must be at the center of our public and policy discourse.

At The Opportunity Agenda, we’re proud to have been part of this year’s progress and are learning from the setbacks.  In the year ahead, we will be preparing and equipping a rising generation of leaders to tell our new national story.  We’ll be focusing on leaders who are directly affected by the issues, supporting and joining them in telling their stories, including formerly incarcerated leaders, immigrant leaders, and leaders and communities living in poverty.  We’ll be listening to the hopes, dreams, and concerns of people across our nation.  We’ll be leading the shift from resistance to proactive, pragmatic solutions.  And, as always, we’ll be leading with an affirmative vision rooted in shared values.