The 2017 Progressive Honor Roll
“Resistance” was the watchword for 2017. Resistance not just to Donald Trump, but to a status quo that gave our most powerful bully pulpit to an actual bully. Progressives not only refused to go backward in 2017; they demanded a new conversation that challenged old orthodoxies. The hashtag #MeToo became the bellwether for a national dialogue about sexual abuse, workplace discrimination, and equal rights that is opening the way for societal transformation. The stunning electoral victories of nontraditional candidates in unexpected places signaled that a new politics really is possible. What began as a frightening and frustrating year ended with Alabama voters rejecting one of Trump’s most vile allies in favor of a decent Democrat, Doug Jones, who claimed his victory in that state’s senatorial contest by citing one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite quotations: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Here are some of the progressives who bent the arc in 2017.
Most Valuable Senator
When Steve Bannon declared last February that the Trump administration was working toward “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” Warren recognized precisely what was at stake. The senator from Massachusetts knew that while the Trump agenda might frequently be hobbled by GOP disarray in Congress and judicial pushback, it would be advanced by the president’s appointees to cabinet posts and regulatory panels. Warren made it her mission to challenge Trump’s picks. Her diligence (along with that of the unions) helped prevent one of Trump’s worst nominees, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, from becoming labor secretary. Her probing questions in confirmation hearings and searing speeches on the Senate floor so rattled Republicans that they tried to shut her down.
When Warren opposed Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general by reading, from the Senate floor, a 1986 statement by Coretta Scott King opposing Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to serve on the federal bench, majority leader Mitch McConnell rushed to silence her. Charging that she had “impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” the Republican got his colleagues to bar Warren from participating in the remainder of the debate. “She was warned,” McConnell announced. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The majority leader had unwittingly created a meme; the “she persisted” line, which now adorns T-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers, became the preeminent rallying cry of 2017.
Warren plays defense brilliantly, as was evident when she shredded administration moves to derail the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But she’s best on offense: making monopolization of the economy a political issue, working with Senator Bernie Sanders to get Democrats on board for single-payer health care, and successfully amending the National Defense Authorization Act to require an annual report detailing civilian casualties resulting from US military operations.
Most Valuable Reading of the Constitution
Gillibrand started 2017 by opposing 20 of Trump’s 22 major cabinet and White House picks—more than any other Democrat. In a year that saw the New Yorker take more than her share of courageous stands—as scrutiny of sexual harassment mounted, she was well ahead of the curve in calling for the resignations of both Democratic Senator Al Franken and President Trump—Gillibrand bravely cast the sole vote against confirming James Mattis as defense secretary. Objecting to easing the ban on recently retired generals taking charge at the Pentagon, she declared: “I still believe that civilian control of our military is fundamental to the American democracy.” That dissent may have been lonely, but it was based on a proper reading of the Constitution that too many of her fellow senators neglect when issues of war and peace arise.
Most Valuable Senate Watchdog
Sherrod Brown spent 2017 calling out senators who did not share—or, in some cases, even understand—his economic populism. When the Senate moved in October to prevent the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from banning “mandatory arbitration clauses” that favor big banks and credit-card companies, the Ohio Democrat let rip. “What Congress is trying to do today is, frankly, outrageous,” he thundered. “Our job is to look out for the people we serve—not Wall Street banks and corporations trying to scam consumers.” A few weeks later, as Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch was engineering a late-night vote on the GOP’s tax-overhaul plan, Brown said: “I just think it would be nice, just tonight, before we go home, to just acknowledge, ‘Well, this tax cut really is not for the middle class—it’s for the rich.’” Hatch was furious. Brown was right.
Most Valuable House Progressive
The Illinois Democrat finished 2017 by ripping GOP tax policies with seasonally appropriate verse (“’Twas the Night Before Tax Scam”) that concluded by warning Paul Ryan, “There’s nowhere to hide, / There’s no ‘cover your ass,’ / When you choose to take sides / Against the middle class.” A product of the Prairie State’s rough-and-tumble politics, Schakowsky knows how to fight—but she does so with a humor and humanity that’s often missing from congressional clashes. This has made her a leading figure in both the House Democratic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She kept her party united on votes to preserve the Affordable Care Act and to protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But Schakowsky didn’t stop there; she waded into every debate, leading the charge to protect the Children’s Health Insurance Program, cut prescription-drug prices, preserve net neutrality, defend immigrants, and expand protections for women in the workplace.
Most Valuable House Newcomer
Capitol Hill’s steadiest champion of congressional oversight on war-making, Representative Barbara Lee always needs allies. She got a great one when Khanna arrived in January. Lee’s fellow California Democrat jumped into a leadership post with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (as did two other outstanding newcomers, Washington’s Pramila Jayapal and Maryland’s Jamie Raskin) and emerged as a savvy champion of net neutrality. But the law-school instructor made his boldest mark as an advocate for the restoration of constitutional checks and balances. Khanna decried the use of tax dollars to “bomb and starve civilians” in Yemen and—working with CPC co-chair Mark Pocan and libertarian-leaning Republicans—drafted legislation to block US support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault on that country. In November, Khanna and his allies forced a debate on the issue, getting the chamber to vote 366–30 for a nonbinding resolution stating that US military assistance for the Saudi war was not authorized by Congress. That was a small step. But with support growing for Lee’s effort to overturn the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has served as an excuse for military adventurism, Khanna says the Yemen vote signals that the project of “re-orienting our foreign policy away from our Saudi alliance and away from neocon/neoliberal interventionism” is finally beginning.
Most Valuable House Speech
Joe Kennedy III
Infuriated by the empty statements and inaction of House Republicans after the October 1 massacre in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and more than 500 injured, Representative Kennedy took to the floor of the chamber as the grandson of a presidential contender who was murdered by a gun-wielding assassin, as the great-nephew of a president who was felled by bullets from another assassin, and as an ardent advocate for all families who have lost loved ones to guns. “Ending gun violence isn’t political. This is personal,” said the Massachusetts Democrat. “We are not powerless. We are not helpless. We are not hostages to some political organization. We are not bystanders, as bullets tear through concerts and prayer circles and elementary-school classrooms and nightclubs and military compounds and quiet neighborhoods. This is up to us—to every single American. This is our country and our home and our families. We can decide that one person’s right to bear arms does not come at the expense of a neighbor’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Most Valuable New Governor
The headlines reporting off-year Democratic election wins highlighted Ralph Northam’s important victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest. But Northam held a Democratic seat, while New Jersey’s Phil Murphy flipped one. And he did so by running as a progressive on a host of issues. Chris Christie’s replacement describes gun violence as “a public health crisis,” calls for “ending the era of high-stakes testing” in public schools, and promises to defend immigrants’ rights by opposing “any efforts to use state and local police to assist in mass deportations.” He also wants to create a state-run public bank. “It is time to bring the money home so it can build our future,” says the former banker. “We will do this by redirecting resources to a bank that is committed to making investments in and for New Jersey because it will be owned by the people of New Jersey.”
Most Valuable Legislators
Gilda Cobb-Hunter and Other Women Who Say “We, Too…”
“It’s apparent that leadership to address sexual violence and harassment will not come from the federal level under the current administration,” read an October 31 letter by South Carolina state legislator Gilda Cobb-Hunter, along with Colorado’s Daneya Esgar, California’s Cristina Garcia, Oregon’s Sara Gelser, Georgia’s Renitta Shannon, Rhode Island’s Teresa Tanzi, and Illinois’s Litesa Wallace. “But in the states, there are concrete steps we can take to support survivors, hold offenders accountable, and prevent this behavior in the first place.”
The legislators explained that “we, too, have experienced harassment or assault. And we are saying enough. We, too, want to see change. And we are taking action to transform #MeToo from a social media movement into real change.” They proposed specific legislative initiatives, but they also suggested an electoral response: “Today, women make up just 24.8 percent of all state legislators in the nation, but after the 2016 election, more than 20,000 women are considering running for office. We have faith that these women can win and will join those of us who are working every day to demand solutions.”
Most Valuable Mayor
Carmen Yulín Cruz
Puerto Rico is not allowed to send voting representatives to the US Congress. But after Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean, San Juan’s mayor refused to allow the federal government to neglect the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Her objection to claims that bumbling recovery efforts were somehow going smoothly drew the ire of President Trump, but Cruz did not back down. “The Trump administration can’t handle the truth,” she declared. Addressing the president directly, Cruz said: “Mr. Trump, do your job. Lives are at stake. This is not about politics. This is not about your ego. This is about the people of Puerto Rico and the [Virgin Islands].” Her advocacy got national attention and helped secure vital aid, as officials recognized the truth of Cruz’s assertion that “survival cannot be our new way of life.”
Most Valuable Inside/Outside Progressive
Polls identify him as the nation’s most popular prominent political figure, and Sanders used that popularity to build movements in 2017. The Vermonter did plenty of work in the Senate: introducing Medicare for All legislation that drew unprecedented support, and grilling Trump cabinet picks like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whom he asked: “Do you think, if you were not a multibillionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?” Outside Washington, Sanders rallied red-state voters against Trump’s agenda, defending the Affordable Care Act at “Care Not Cuts” rallies in Kentucky and West Virginia; barnstormed across Pennsylvania and Ohio on a “Protect Working Families” tour sponsored by MoveOn.org and Not One Penny to oppose the GOP tax bill; and helped Indiana steelworkers expose the administration’s failure to advance fair trade. Sanders also marched in favor of union rights in Mississippi with thousands of United Auto Workers activists, civil-rights campaigners, and members of the new Good Jobs Defenders coalition.
Most Valuable Protest (National)
Women’s March on Washington
January 20 was the most dispiriting day of 2017. Donald Trump didn’t just assume the presidency; he did so with an ominous rumination on “American carnage” that confirmed the worst fears about him. But within hours of his swearing-in, Trump was checked and balanced. The Women’s March—brilliantly organized and promoted by a network of activists that included co-chairs Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland—filled the capital’s streets with crowds dramatically larger than those drawn by the new president. Sister marches stepped off from Maine to California and from Florida to Alaska, as millions joined what political scientists called the largest single-day protest in US history. The massive, multicity uprising so unsettled Trump that he is still sputtering about crowd sizes. Marchers maintained momentum by pulling together more than 5,000 huddles to advance their “10 Actions for the First 100 Days” agenda—putting women at the center of a nationwide resistance.
Most Valuable Protest (Local)
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba
After his landslide election in June as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Lumumba announced that he planned to make his hometown “the most radical city on the planet.” He has kept that promise with an ambitious agenda that includes cooperative development, citizen budgeting, and social and economic policies inspired by the activist movements of the 1960s and ’70s. So when Trump arrived in Jackson in December to attend opening ceremonies for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Lumumba was not on the dais but outside with NAACP leaders. “It is my appreciation for the Mississippi martyrs not here—the names both known and unknown—that will not allow me, that will not allow many of us standing here today, to share a stage with a president who has not demonstrated a continuing commitment to civil rights, a continuing commitment to human rights, a continuing commitment to women’s rights,” explained Lumumba, who spoke of his desire to “write a new narrative” for Mississippi, America, and the world. By refusing to appear with a president who keeps reading from the old script, Lumumba did just that.
Most Valuable Union
American Postal Workers Union
If you want to see solidarity in action, consider the response of the union that represents more than 200,000 US Postal Service employees and retirees to last summer’s Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. APWU president Mark Dimondstein explained to his members that rallying “for equality and against the hate-mongers” is essential union work. “What does all this have to do with the APWU? Everything!” argued Dimondstein. “Fascists are bitter enemies of workers and our unions. Their race and religious bigotry, intimidation, and violence are a direct threat to our unity and ability to stand up and fight back to save the public Postal Service, win good contracts, gain better working conditions, enjoy a better life, and live in a more just society.”
Most Valuable Grassroots Activism
ADAPT and Disability Action for America
The greatest credit for blocking repeated attempts by congressional Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid goes to disability-rights activists, who rely on the ACA and Medicaid for their survival and for that of their families. They traveled to Washington at great physical and economic expense to save the ACA—and to argue for a health-care system that provides all Americans with the care and dignity they deserve. Called to action by ADAPT, a grassroots disability-rights organization with chapters in more than 20 states, as well as Disability Action for America and other groups, and supported by passionate allies such as Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org, they took the lead. “While it’s important to work with our allies fighting against [ACA repeal], the importance of disability-led efforts cannot be overstated,” ADAPT said. “We are the ones who will be harmed first, and most, by this bill. We are responsible for getting our message through. Nothing about us without us!” These activists were everywhere in Washington, and they never backed down. In saving the ACA, they taught us all a lesson in resistance.
Most Valuable Arts Publication
Founded 50 years ago, Cineaste provides cutting-edge commentary regarding filmmaking and smart, incisive reviews of new movies. But that’s just the beginning of the contribution this magazine makes to the broader discourse in the United States. Cineaste editor in chief Gary Crowdus has assembled a team of editors and writers who are determined to explore the role that films play in shaping our understanding of race, class, gender, and more. For decades, this journal has challenged the status quo in the film industry and in our culture—celebrating mavericks and independents, objecting to stereotyping and dumbed-down commercialism, and highlighting the contributions of women and people of color in Hollywood and around the film world. As the lines between entertainment and politics blur, Cineaste provides clarity.
Most Valuable Media Intervention
Public News Service
When journalist Dan Heyman was arrested at the West Virginia State Capitol in May after he questioned visiting Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on whether victims of domestic violence would be protected under one of the GOP’s “repeal and replace” health-care schemes, we were all reminded of the essential role of statehouse reporters. Heyman was able to fight back against the charge of “willful disruption of governmental processes”—which was eventually dropped—because he is part of a network of state-based reporters organized by the Public News Service. Developed to fill the void created by declining newspaper, radio, and television coverage of public-policy issues, PNS gets coalitions of organizations to fund journalism that covers neglected state issues. The reports are aired by commercial and community radio stations and often end up in print and online. PNS manages news services in 37 states, including West Virginia—where Heyman is still on the beat.
Most Valuable Local Radio Show
Rose Aguilar’s Your Call
Every weekday morning on San Francisco public-radio station KALW, Rose Aguilar hosts one of the finest hours of political and cultural discussion in the country. An accomplished journalist and author, Aguilar comes prepared with probing questions and deep analysis. This is smart, serious radio that emphasizes new voices and new issues—with regular appearances by activists, authors, and callers from around the world. Aguilar’s Media Roundtable program (which features many Nation writers) highlights the work of journalists who are on the ground from the Midwest to the Middle East, and she’s never afraid to ask why other outlets aren’t covering the stories that matter most.
Most Valuable Song
“I Give You Power,” by Arcade Fire & Mavis Staples
Protest music made a comeback in 2017. Fiona Apple wrote an anthem for the Women’s March (“We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants…”). Bruce Springsteen and former Iron City Houserockers leader Joe Grushecky ripped the new president on “That’s What Makes Us Great” (“I never put my faith in a con man and his crooks…”). Joey Bada$$ spoke truth to power with “Land of the Free” (“And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over…”). Eminem delivered a freestyle anti-Trump rap that declared: “Any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his / I’m drawing in the sand a line: You’re either for or against.” But there was something epic—and refreshingly optimistic—about the collaboration between Mavis Staples, who’s been singing freedom songs since the civil-rights era, and indie rockers Arcade Fire on “I Give You Power.” Released on the eve of Trump’s inauguration (with proceeds directed to the American Civil Liberties Union), the song asked, “Who gives you power? Where do you think it all comes from?” It answered: “I give you power. I can take it all away.”
Most Valuable Book
Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean
Donald Trump did not turn the Republican Party into the debacle it has become, and Paul Ryan did not squeeze the conscience out of conservatism. They simply took advantage of the dirty work done by the Koch brothers and their co-conspirators. The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America—as MacLean’s book is subtitled—puts today’s crisis in context, describing the six-decade project of the elites who have used their billions to warp academia, the media, and democracy itself. MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University, explains how the far right created the conditions in which it’s become easier for billionaires to buy elections and harder for voters to cast ballots in them. Her book is a powerful indictment—and an even more powerful call to action.
Most Valuable Modern Pamphleteer
When no one else seemed to get it, Moyers embraced and amplified the work that Bob McChesney and I have done on media issues; his support for reform was a huge boost to groups like Free Press. Countless other movements could say the same. Moyers, 83, announced in December that the last of his many media platforms, BillMoyers.com, would “go into archive mode.” It’s a good bet he’ll keep speaking out, but his decision inspired an outpouring of appreciation, reminding us that, as his pamphleteering hero Tom Paine did in the 18th century, Moyers has popularized revolutionary ideas, radical proposals, and transformational movements that will come to be seen as the common sense of the 21st century.