Kentucky legislator Charles Booker, who hails from the poorest ZIP code in Kentucky, was the first truly inspiring progressive running in a Kentucky statewide election that I can remember, and his “from the hood to the holler” rallying cry was the best I’ve heard from any Kentucky Democrat. He got young, old, black, and white voters alike in all four area codes energized and excited to participate in the Democratic process. And his narrow 16,000-vote loss to the very uninspiring centrist Amy McGrath, out of more than a half-million ballots cast, still stings.
Mitch McConnell is unquestionably the most evil, most corrupt, most powerful person in Washington.
It’s tempting for progressive Kentuckians to want to check out of this election, as many of us have after the corporate wing of the Democratic Party threw a wet blanket on Bernie Sanders’ post-Nevada momentum to circle its wagons around Joe Biden. After all, the party already decided on its nominee before more than a dozen states—including the commonwealth of Kentucky—got to have their say.
But unlike presidential elections, US Senate elections are still decided by popular vote. And Mitch McConnell is unquestionably the most evil, most corrupt, most powerful person in Washington. His lasting legacy will be the slew of far-right judges he rammed through at breakneck pace, giving President Trump the most judicial appointments of any president over the last 60 years other than Jimmy Carter. Last year, McConnell bragged about his theft of what would have been President Obama’s third Supreme Court justice as “the most consequential thing I’ve ever done.”
Thanks to McConnell, progressives will have to lawyer up in order to keep any laws passed over the next several decades from being blown up by Trump-appointed, McConnell-confirmed judges. And thanks to McConnell, any potential Coronavirus relief legislation that has any hope of passage in the midst of double-digit unemployment will have to include legal immunity for employers who force their employees to risk their lives to come back to work.
Unless Kentucky progressives find a way to reconcile their differences with McGrath, the man who proudly billed himself as “the grim reaper” of Democratic-sponsored bills will get six more years to obstruct any legislation progressives hope to pass, whether it’s single-payer healthcare, a Green New Deal, or even a left-of-center judicial appointment.
As a native Kentuckian, I’m familiar with the graveyard of Democratic challengers who McConnell easily dispatched. Then-Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes wouldn’t even say if she voted for President Obama in 2014. Businessman Bruce Lunsford was dogged in 2008 by a scandal in which his nursing home company fleeced Medicare out of millions of dollars. Lois Combs’ only notoriety in 2002 was due to her being the daughter of a governor. Amy McGrath will join them unless she gets every vote possible from every registered Kentucky voter.
I understand progressives’ hesitation to vote for McGrath, who unsuccessfully sought a legal judgment that would have invalidated thousands of absentee ballots, and who once said she’d be a better choice for conservative Kentuckians than McConnell, suggesting the incumbent Senate Majority Leader wasn’t zealous enough in enacting Trump’s legislative agenda. As Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones has said, “no one knows what [McGrath] stands for.”
“[S]he is running for office by trying to avoid tough stands and align herself as more favorable to Trump than McConnell is,” Jones wrote in his book Mitch Please. “That is an insanely stupid strategy that no one believes is authentic or real, and if she utilizes it, she will lose by fifteen points or more.”
But at the end of the day, Amy McGrath is a politician, not a leader. And as most seasoned activists know, politicians are rarely leaders—they change their positions as the wind blows. Change always comes from the grassroots, and if the grassroots takes the lead on an issue, politicians will follow. The most recent example of this happened in Colorado last week, in which Governor Jared Polis (D) ordered a new investigation into the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, an unarmed man killed by police last year, after a petition calling for such an investigation garnered more than two million signatures. Coloradans also last month successfully managed to pass legislation that bans the use of tear gas on protesters, institutes criminal charges for officers who fail to intervene when their colleagues use excessive force, and other provisions drafted directly by civil rights activists.
As Angela Davis said recently on Democracy Now, electoral politics is not the end-all, be-all of activism—it’s merely one of many tools in the box, all of which must be used strategically in order to create the world in which we want to live:
“[I]n our electoral system as it exists, neither party represents the future that we need in this country. Both parties remain connected to corporate capitalism. But the election will not be so much about who gets to lead the country to a better future, but rather how we can support ourselves and our own ability to continue to organize and place pressure on those in power. And I don’t think there’s a question about which candidate would allow that process to unfold… [T]he electoral arena is not the best place for the expression of radical politics. But if we want to continue this work, we certainly need a person in office who will be more amenable to our mass pressure.”
November of 2020 will undoubtedly be a hard month for progressives, who will have to vote for disappointing centrists like Amy McGrath in Kentucky, John Hickenlooper in Colorado, Steve Bullock in Montana, Jon Ossoff in Georgia, and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, and even Joe Biden in swing states. But we have to remember that while voting is critical, it’s only part of the strategy for achieving progressive change. And only by ousting obstructionists like McConnell and freeing the Senate from Republican control can that vision be achieved. The stakes are simply too high for us to not participate in the voting process this time.