In 2011 vote, a post-partisan populism

Mississippians vote on a state constitutional measure that would eliminate abortion. They voted it down.

Story highlights

  • Sally Kohn: 2011 elections a victory for unions, immigrant and reproductive rights
  • But those victories were mixed with support for conservative causes as well, she says
  • Kohn: Tea party, Occupy are alike: grassroots groups taking politics into their own hands
  • Kohn: This is a convergence of people with problems, fed up with both parties
This week's election was more than a victory for public employee unions, immigrant rights advocates and reproductive justice activists. This election marks the victory of a new politics in America, an emerging populism that is neither left nor right, Republican nor Democrat, but is fiercely pro-worker, pro-community, pro-opportunity and pro-American dream.
It all started when the disillusioned right and the disillusioned left came together. Tuesday night, they tied the knot.
Americans were hungry for a different type of politics in 2008. The election of Barack Obama, our nation's first black president and a strong centrist, came about through millions of unlikely voters and first-time voters pulling the lever for a new political direction in America. And yet, whether because of his own personality faults or because of the change-resistant molasses that is Washington politics, Obama was unable to bring about the change his supporters expected.
Then the tea party galvanized millions of Americans who were angry that our government bailed out Wall Street while letting working families and small businesses sink. Like candidate Obama, the tea party asserted that government was broken. Obama showed he couldn't fix it; the tea party counterproductively showered its support on extremist candidates bent on breaking government even more.
And so we find ourselves in 2011, ordinary Americans of every political stripe fed up that our economy and political system are rigged to help Wall Street and the superrich while blocking opportunity for the rest of us. Tea party supporters and Obama backers may use different language to voice these critiques, but make no mistake, their frustration is more similar than not.
Sally Kohn
Despite Occupy Wall Street being launched by left-leaning activists, the 99% movement it inspired is supported by conservative, liberal and independent Americans from all walks of life.
So while the ballot measure vote against Ohio's anti-collective bargaining law is certainly a rebuff to Republicans, it's not necessarily a victory for Democrats. Community-based organizations and unions led the campaign to defend the right of public workers to organize. Democratic machines wrote a few checks, but Obama and others have been relatively invisible in responding to anti-union attacks over the last year.
Thus, the outcome in Ohio is a resounding victory not for the Democrats but for ordinary working folks who see their interests best protected not by government or by big business but by banding together with their fellow workers and community members.
By the same token, any attempt to paint Ohio's outcome along traditional ideological lines is belied by voters enacting a measure allowing the state to opt out of the mandate aspect of the health care reform law, even though it's a largely symbolic gesture because federal law pre-empts it.
Similarly, in Mississippi, voters struck down an amendment to the state's constitution that would have conferred "personhood" status on embryos after conception. A total victory for liberal Democrats in Mississippi? Guess again. Voters also approved a law requiring potential voters to show a government-issued photo ID, which many advocates see as an anti-immigrant voter suppression law. They also sent an archconservative to the governor's mansion.
Arizona voters recalled State Senate president Russell Pearce, author of the state's extreme anti-immigrant measure SB 1070, replacing him with a Democrat. But voters in Virginia handed control of their statehouse to Republicans, although the vote was so close a recount is expected.
Our two leading political parties have blatantly failed us. Record unemployment, record personal and political debt, a crippled housing market, crumbling public education, runaway costs of health care and food -- all while Washington continues business as usual and Wall Street racks up record profits and bonuses.
The recent anti-incumbency streak added to the varied outcomes in this last round of voting makes clear the American people are furious with both parties, seeing Democrats and Republicans as too beholden to big business and special interests.
This leaves an ideological void that social movements and grassroots organizations fill as they have during our nation's past, when the political system has not met the needs of the people. Politics is shifting away from Washington, away from red and blue dichotomies, and toward the heartland of America, where the shared experience of economic fear and insecurity is far more defining than the party registration on a piece of paper.
It's unclear what direction this will take -- as the elections show, post-partisan populism is firing in all directions. But it may explain why the 99% movement is simultaneously spreading like wildfire and vague as to its long-term agenda. After all, the 99% of everyday Americans aren't just protesting the status quo, they're building a new political vision for our nation.