Progressives Should Focus on Local Activism

Editorial Board

Members of Congress returned to their districts this week for Congressional recess met by hordes of angry constituents. Of Oberlin’s three representatives, only Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown made it through the week relatively unscathed. Protesters accosted 4th District Representative Jim Jordan at a public event in Marion, Ohio, Monday, turning a routine appearance into an impromptu town hall. More Ohioans lined the streets outside a private Republican fundraiser featuring Senator Rob Portman as a keynote speaker Wednesday night in Fremont, Ohio. Yesterday, hundreds of constituents in Cleveland held a mock town hall in Portman’s name, since he failed to schedule one for the week.

These actions are one prong of local activism that has been newly invigorated in the month since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Progressives who feel that they have no voice in Congress are doing all they can to shift their elected officials even slightly to the left, particularly on key issues like the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s cabinet nominees. These local actions aimed at producing change at the federal level have proven effective, as evident in the slow and contentious confirmation process, during which several Republican senators broke party lines after getting hammered by constituents.

While local organizing to shift national politics has dominated the news this week, we cannot lose sight of the potentially more important form of activism: local actions to produce local effects. Human rights issues are determined at local levels just as much as they are in Washington. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person.”

It is in the districts themselves that true progressive action can occur during Trump’s tenure, not in D.C., where Democrats lack agenda-setting power and are desperately clinging to existing legislation like the ACA. Trump’s new executive order that transgender students must use the bathroom matching their assigned sex, for example, will be rendered largely irrelevant if school boards install single-use stalls instead. Similarly, Oberlin City Council is attempting to protect immigrants from deportation raids by reinforcing its resolution to make Oberlin a sanctuary city, vowing not to request residents’ immigration statuses. In op-eds this week, Jackie Brant explains different methods cities can use to protect immigrants and Johan Cavert suggests modes of grassroots environmental activism, since the Environmental Protection Agency may soon be gutted with Scott Pruitt at its helm. All of these are critical social justice issues and cannot be overlooked with all eyes on the Capitol and White House.

Those opposed to the Trump agenda also cannot afford to ignore local elections. Over the past 10 years, the Democratic Party and the left more broadly have failed to run candidates in many state legislative seats, giving Republicans free reign in state capitals across the country. While Republicans undermine voting rights and leverage gerrymandering in their favor, Democrats have been slow to the game. However, it’s encouraging that President Obama and Vice President Biden have both turned to organizing around local elections in recent weeks.

From protecting the right to choose to labor laws to energy policy, what happens in state government matters. Progressives must not become so distracted by the ghastly circus in the White House that they forget to focus on where they can make the most impact — the places they live. This dismal state of affairs cannot stand.