Tuesday night was Evening in America, if you consider yourself a supporter of progress or an opponent of letting our fears dictate who we elect to represent us. Republicans, ever the masters of conjuring the dark side of the moon, painted an electoral picture of ISIS-reared, undocumented children slipping across the border to live in our spare bedroom if we didn’t vote GOP. During a midterm election with a larger share of anxious, older, whiter voters, that was enough.
But while they could demonize party and personality, they couldn’t do the same to Americans’ values, which were clearly represented in a number of smashing victories for progressive ballot initiatives across the country. On a night when those still squatting in the reality-based community lost almost everything else, the overwhelming passage of these measures, to quote a past statement by our vice president, was a “big fucking deal.”
In Washington State, where the growing gun-safety movement placed a strong universal background check measure (I-594) on the ballot after the state legislature failed to pass legislation twice in the past two years closing the private-sale loophole, the people acted, with 60 percent of voters supporting the measure. If this is not frightening to the National Rifle Association, affiliated gun fundamentalists, and various other right-wing loony tunes organizations, it should be.
Washington is not just any state, or even a blue state. Sure, it regularly supports Democrats for President, but it also just reelected is Republican state senate and has a nearly evenly divided congressional delegation. There’s a strong hint of purple to it, anchored by the eastern part of the state that’s more Cliven Bundy ranch than Starbucks mochaccino.
Additionally, it has a place in NRA lore, as the spot where the NRA—singlehandedly, of course, like the Green Lantern, but with guns—took out Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994. Washington also has a strong gun ownership tradition, and the NRA spent more on political activity there in 2013 than any other state in the country, by a country mile. Yet, even with all of these factors, a strong majority of voters, just as polls said they would, supported this common sense measure. It turns out you can give all the campaign contributions you want to state legislators, but that won’t buy off the public.
Nearly half of U.S. states have ballot initiatives, and an additional few that lack this particular direct democratic mechanism have referenda, which allows the people to overturn an act of their state legislature. So you could call this strategy portable (already there are signatures being gathered in Nevada, where state legislators passed a bill only to see it vetoed by their governor). Even in deep red, rural states, universal background checks enjoy overwhelming support. Perhaps this is why an NRA spokesperson told The Olympian newspaper in Washington, while apparently in the mood to over-share, “…we will have ballot initiatives like this one across the country… That is why we are so concerned.”
They should also be unsettled that just by sticking their heads up out of their holes and opposing something so popular as background checks, their numbers have plummeted. According to a new poll released by the Gun Truth Project, the NRA now only has a 38 percent approval rating nationally, and has seen a 20-point drop in favorability since just after Newtown, when Wayne LaPierre was going on live TV talking about arming just about anything organic. Nicely played, boys.
Gun regulation, of course, was not the only successful initiative, not by a long shot. Minimum-wage ballot measures passed with ease where they were on the ballot, and we aren’t talking Hawaii and Massachusetts here. Try Nebraska, South Dakota, Alaska, and Arkansas; what you might call a crimson tide. In Arkansas it passed with 65 percent of the vote, and in Alaska, 7 in 10 voters supported it.
Meanwhile marijuana was legalized in Oregon and Alaska, with the District of Columbia decriminalizing it (Florida only failed to meet the 60 percent threshold needed for a medical marijuana amendment to pass, but it still received a rather healthy 58 percent support). Paid sick leave, personhood, you name it, all of them went in the progressive direction, most of them by overwhelmingly margins. What this means is that if Mitch McConnell’s tortoise shell of obstruction should appear once again, as well as similar maneuvers in state legislatures, there is a game plan to get around this in much of the country.
There’s also one other group that should have a big bout of indigestion over this. The center-right hedge fund clique known as Third Way, and associated Blue Dogs and hangers on. Because when economically populist measures pass by huge margins and “radical centrist” Senator Mark Warner of the cut-Social-Security-and-kowtow-to-the-NRA crowd almost loses a sure-thing Senate seat, it is pretty clear where the country stands; not with him (PDF).
When Blue Dogs—or conservative Democratic House members—of the John Barrow, cocking-my-guns-and-cutting-budgets variety try and claim a mandate for their shopworn policies, these ballot initiatives will be right there to remind Americans that there’s a consensus for the un-Barrow. If you think these are just two examples, plug in Third Way Honorary Co-Chairs Mark Udall and Kay Hagan, Blue Dogs Nick Rahall and Pete Gallego, or the most conservative Democratic Senator, Mark Pryor, into this equation instead (Pryor was going down to an ignominious double-digit defeat while the minimum wage was crushing it in his home state). It’s pretty easy to follow: Third Way Kills.
Progressives, during our last Gilded Age, championed these measures for exactly the role they played Tuesday—to go around bought-off legislators and unpopular-yet-powerful, right-wing corporate interests like the NRA. So the people would still have at least some say in their fate. While our system remains broken, this is a roadmap for the near future. And yeah, it’s a big fucking deal.