These victories came in campaigns that had no candidates — no Democrats, Republicans or other party designations. Rather, they were ballot initiatives — policy ideas put to a vote of people themselves. This is an exercise in direct democracy that was first proposed by the historic Populist movement of the 1870s. It's presently available to citizens in 26 states and hundreds of cities — and in this past year, it produced some serious progressive wins.
Unfortunately, corporations and super-wealthy individuals have now glommed onto this democratic innovation with deep-pocket vengeance, using their silos of money and expertise in PR deceit to pass some awful proposals and kill some great ones. Still, though, progressives are making good use of the initiative alternative to build winning coalitions around many big issues that the power structure refuses to address. They achieved several important public policy victories in November, even in red and purple states, showing again that populist issues can open minds, shove aside right-wing orthodoxy and overcome corporate money.
Many of these came in grassroots efforts to overturn Citizens United. This Supreme Court-sanctioned daylight robbery of the people's democratic authority should have been at the center of Barack Obama's campaign against Mr. "Corporations-Are-People" Romney. It certainly warranted a presidential push, and it would have been a winning issue, even among rank-and-file tea partiers — but, zilch.
Beneath the national radar, however, democracy organizers in two states and dozens of cities built formidable campaigns this year to pass initiatives that say "no" to the court's edict allowing a tidal wave of corporate cash to engulf our elections. Here are just a few of the successes:
- A whopping 72 percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 65, directing their legislature to demand that Congress draft a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and send it to the states for ratification.
- An even-more-whopping 76 percent of Montanans said "yes" to Initiative 166, declaring that corporations do not have constitutional rights.
- Seventy-four percent of Chicago voters (including 73 percent of Republicans) approved a local initiative demanding that Congress propose an amendment reversing Citizens United.
- Citizens of the burg of Brecksville, Ohio, had to battle their own city hall just to get Issue 25 on the ballot. Theirs was a unique proposal, requiring that city officials convene a biennial "Democracy Day" for residents to express themselves on the impact of corporate cash in their elections. It then required the mayor to send a letter to Congress detailing the people's objections.
Sometimes you can win on your own initiatives, and sometimes by not losing on theirs. Progressives were engaged in both kinds of big fights in this election. A terrific victory for union rights and political fairness was scored this go 'round on California's Proposition 32 — a wad of ugliness put forth by the Koch boys and their malicious cadre of big-money, anti-union ideologues.
Gussied up as a good government reform, the proposition essentially would have gutted labor's participation in political campaigns. It cost unions and their grassroots allies tens of millions of dollars, but they effectively exposed Prop 32 as a right-wing corporate sham — and voters rejected it with a solid 56 percent.
And in the "red" states of Idaho and South Dakota, teachers came out on top. In Idaho, teachers won big with three initiatives to boost teacher rights and education funding, and South Dakota voters repealed an anti-teacher state law that GOP legislators had passed earlier in a burst of ideological idiocy.
Likewise, marriage equality for gays and lesbians gained landmark victories, with wins on all four proposals put on the ballot (Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington). Also, the nation's absurdly expensive and ineffective "war on drugs" took a drubbing, with voters OK'ing medical use of cannabis in Massachusetts and Montana, and with Colorado and Washington becoming the first states to legalize marijuana for personal recreational consumption.
An old bumper sticker declares, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow." In 2012, the people were way ahead of the "leaders."