I don’t smoke and won’t recommend it, but damn, after yesterday, I feel like I need a cigarette.
Like many of you reading, I am sated with satisfaction, having watched Donald Trump finally get arraigned for some of his (numerous, myriad) crimes. Just hours later, progressive Brandon Johnson beat opponent Paul Vallas in Chicago and liberal Janet Protasiewicz successfully flipped the Wisconsin Supreme Court back to sanity.
But before I become too complacent with all of this contentment, it’s worth noting that none of this would have been possible without people willing to push the envelope.
In each of the electoral contests, conventional wisdom said to tack to the “middle” and avoid being overtly liberal. This has been the political instinct for more than 50 years, since Nixon’s “silent majority” beat the holy hell out of Democrats in 1968 and 1972. But both Brandon Johnson and Janet Protasiewicz campaigned openly on their progressive principles: minimizing the role of police and expanding the power of public education in Chicago for Johnson, and supporting labor rights, fair districting, and bodily autonomy in Wisconsin for Protasiewicz.
In the Second City, Johnson had to contend with an aggressively pro-police media narrative and the broad assumption that armed officers mean safety in a city that has struggled with the consequences of illegal guns. Protasiewicz faced attacks on her fairness as a judge and her alignment with the state’s liberals from the massive suppression machine built to silence the majority of citizens by allotting a supermajority of seats to a minority of voters.
Both candidates were told in no uncertain terms that messages like theirs were out of bounds, unappealing, and dangerous. They were warned they were alienating voters and opening themselves up to be called extremists. They were warned how much it would cost them to advocate the way they did.
And then they took on the political machines and won.
Because it turns out that there are a lot of us questioning the usefulness of the status quo, and we want representatives who will do the same thing. It’s not enough to say and do what’s been done before; many of us are ready for something new. And we’re looking to support people courageous and radical enough to pursue it because they believe it’s worth it.
Like, say, indicting a former president.
Despite the crimes of Watergate unfolding within living memory, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Dick Nixon means that Donald Trump is the first former president to be brought up on charges (may these be the first of many). It’s been said by about a thousand talking heads at this point, but this is a pretty extraordinary departure from normal protocol, which generally looks “forward, not back” at the misdeeds of a chief executive. For a long time, it felt like the chances of accountability for any of the very blatant and obvious crimes Trump committed would be slim to none.
It’s only because Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg took the opportunity to pursue the case that his predecessor dropped that we have the sweet, sweet experience of watching Trump submit to the rule of law — such as it is. The 34 felony counts of falsifying business records aren’t the strongest or sexiest of the potential cases against him, but they are the only ones that rely on the actions of pre-presidency Trump, denying him the shield of “executive privilege” that he’s used to evade responsibility. But beyond the strength of the case itself, it’s daring to say that no one is above the law in practice rather than posturing.
So regardless of the doubts, the narratives, the threats and all of the naysayers who promote them: radicalism works. Once we work for it, make space for it, and accept it, we can use new ideas to break the old rules. All we need are people willing to ask us.
Whew—yeah, that hits.