On the national level, the 2014 elections sent mixed signals: widespread success for living wage ballot measures and criminal justice reform, but also widespread victories for conservative candidates at every level of government. Similarly, Oregon saw a potentially huge win on criminal justice and drug policy reform with the legalization of marijuana, but also saw the emphatic defeat of driver cards and the (very) narrow defeat of genetically modified food labeling.
As people committed to building an Oregon where people, cultures, and ecosystems can thrive, what are we to make of these wins and losses? Because of inclement weather, MRG cancelled our post-election event in Eugene that was set to answer exactly that question, but we still wanted to hear the insights of some of Oregon’s thoughtful social justice leaders.
In December, we talked with Causa Oregon’s Executive Director Andrea Miller about how immigrant rights unfolded for Oregonians in 2014. Now we’re sharing a conversation with Daniel Martinez HoSang, a professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon, an expert on racialized public policy, and a long-time supporter of MRG Foundation.
We asked Dan to talk about what we’re seeing unfold on the national and state level, and to share his thoughts on where elections fit into our movement for justice.
MRG: What are the most important lessons of the 2014 elections?
Dan: One of the central challenges that the 2014 elections raised concerned how to use elections and advocacy strategies in a moment of political retrenchment. And it raises the question, “What are elections for?”
MRG: Before you answer that question, say more about what you’re describing when you say we’re living in a moment of “political retrenchment.”
Dan: We’ve seen a lot since the beginning of 2014—including protests against police violence in Ferguson, the “crisis” of unaccompanied minors, and the rise of ISIS and the conflict in Syria. Together, these events have provoked a kind of white American nationalism and political retrenchment.
In 2014, the idea that the nation is “under attack,” and that we face some sort of vulnerability, permeated the conversation. It is distinct from 2008, when there was a greater sense of optimism on the part of the national electorate.
Which brings us back to what are elections for? To win, sure, but they can have other roles.
MRG: If we look at the other roles of elections, does that offer the possibility of a positive takeaway from the defeat of Measure 88?
Dan: There has been a strong movement in Oregon for immigrant rights, a strong movement for fighting for civil rights and for people’s humanity, but when you are forced to go to the ballot, those messages can get muddled. And that muddled message doesn’t invigorate or engage the base and isn’t going to bring new people in. You wind up with a politically moderate framing that doesn’t really move anyone. We knew that in this election, voters who support civil rights were not going to turn out in huge numbers.
There were clear signs early on that Measure 88 would face an uphill battle, and that the resources weren’t there. Given that it seemed clear it would be a loss, what could we at least use that loss for? For one, we can at least be glad that we were able to build the experience and skills of leaders.
MRG: Which brings us back to, “What are elections for, if not to win?”
Dan: Elections can define political visions. They can give concrete skills to leaders and volunteers. They can be used to build organizational capacity or to set up new organizations.
Look at Proposition 8 in California [MRG: the 2008 state ballot measure denying recognition of same-sex marriage]—it lost on Election Day, yet it galvanized tens of thousands of people. The fight for it gave us a vision, and paved the way for future activism on marriage recognition and equality.
There’s a lesson there about how a short-term loss can be used to build a long-term win. They can be used to frame and define competing political visions, and to identify, train and put into motion people who have historically not been involved in the political process.
MRG: With those longer-term wins in mind–what do you think we can be looking forward to in 2015?
Dan: There are at least three issues that are circulating now and have potential to not just pass as policy but to move people to action:
- The president’s move on deferred action in immigration enforcement — it presents the idea that another way is possible. For a long time, the national debate has been premised on the idea that an aggressive removal policy is the necessary anchor of a national immigration policy. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the latest deferred action have the potential to begin to unravel a claim that’s been the underlying assumption of immigration policy for 20 years. [MRG: Read more about the latest deferred action in our interview with Andrea Miller of Causa Oregon]
- Police violence—the questions are growing beyond the accountability and actions of individual officers into: What is the role of the state as a perpetrator of violence? This is also true in light of the release of the torture report in December. This line of questioning could lead to more awareness of the prison system and its destructive roles.
- New awareness about gender violence and sexual violence — the possibility of returning to a vision of gender justice that isn’t just about arrests and prosecutions for sexual assault but also visions of gender freedom and justice and institutional accountability.
These are places where it’s not just about policy wins, but possibilities for ideological shifts and alternative frames to what we have now.
In this moment, there are multiple points of view emerging about the source and solutions to state violence. In this time of economic austerity, the state’s role has increasingly become limited to punishing people in order to enforce that order. When the role of government is limited to enforcement alone, it can open up space for us to talk about a much different vision of government and its role in our lives.
MRG: Anything else you’re hopeful about for 2015?
Dan: In addition to those three issues I mentioned before, there’s a budding economic justice agenda — you see “The Fight for 15” over minimum wage, the movement for paid sick leave, which was successful in Portland and Eugene, and the fast food workers movement.
Even in more conservative jurisdictions, you can see that there is some acknowledgement of the need for change here. There’s more attention to low wage jobs, more attention to corporate profits and CEO pay.
When thinking about drivers’ cards and the labeling of GMO foods, we can ask ourselves: to what extent are these elections building movements for justice in Oregon? How can these local fights, if we sustain them, turn into an alternative or even transformative political vision for the future?
And we can be encouraged by a growing movement in Oregon that is demanding solutions to police violence and mass incarceration, including a new legislative campaign focusing on racial profiling by law enforcement.
Even in moments of political retrenchment, there are always opportunities for resistance, for alternative visions, and for transformation. Individual elections don’t necessarily signal long-term trends. We need to continue to develop the capacity to imagine different political futures.