Yes, the election results were generally awful. But the untold story of 2016 is that grassroots activists, bold campaigners, and the movements they embraced frequently prevailed—and their successes showed progressives how to press forward even in the most frustrating and difficult of times. Our 2016 honor roll of the most valuable progressives is a chronicle of the fight that has already begun, and a road map for the resistance yet to come.
Most Valuable Campaign
“So, are you guys ready for a radical idea?” the Vermont senator asked as he kicked his 2016 presidential campaign into high gear. Sanders was speaking about creating “an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.” But he could have been referring to the idea of a presidential bid by a seventysomething democratic socialist from a small state that began, as Sanders likes to point out, at just 3 percent in the polls. “We had no campaign organization and we had no money. And we were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America,” the senator recalled. Yet his rallies would soon fill the largest halls in the country, and he would go on to win more than 13 million votes, 23 primary and caucus contests, and more than 1,800 delegates. That wasn’t enough to clinch the nomination, and Sanders is the first to admit that his campaign made strategic mistakes in its initial outreach to key Democratic constituencies and superdelegates. Yet he won overwhelming support from young people; he forged a coalition that energized Native Americans, Arab Americans, rural voters, and displaced and disappointed workers across the country; he opened up transformational debates about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and about pipelines and climate change; and his supporters played a crucial role in writing the most progressive platform in the modern history of the Democratic Party. Most important: Sanders encouraged his backers to build an organization, Our Revolution, to extend the energy of his progressive populist campaign beyond 2016.
Most Valuable Struggle
Stand With Standing Rock
By the time most Americans had heard about the Dakota Access Pipeline project, it was close to completion. But the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota kept raising objections to the project’s plans to tunnel under the Missouri River, which would threaten not just sacred lands but access to safe drinking water for the Sioux and for millions of people living downriver. Tribes from across the country and indigenous peoples from around the world recognized the importance of the struggle to prevent completion of the oil pipeline as planned. They were joined by Bill McKibben, 350.org, and other climate-change activists in standing up to the fossil-fuel industry. Against daunting odds, this intersectional movement delayed the project and, in early December, the US Army Corps of Engineers refused to issue the permits needed to complete it. The feds will now consider “alternative routes.” Despite this major victory, the struggle is far from over, as Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer, has powerful allies in Congress and the incoming administration. Yet, as Naomi Klein says, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline has shown “people everywhere that organizing and resistance are not futile.”
Most Valuable Strategy
A Day Without Latinos and Immigrants
As Republican presidential candidates were outdoing one another giving voice to anti-immigrant bigotry last February, Wisconsin Republican legislators suddenly backed off a plan to penalize municipalities that respected the rights of immigrants in their interactions with police. The announcement that the scheme was “not a high priority for any of [the GOP] members” came just hours after the “Day Without Latinos and Immigrants” protest, which saw 20,000 restaurant, grocery-store, warehouse, and dairy-farm workers leave their jobs to surround the Capitol. “The mass general strike was an undeniable statement of the essential and positive contributions that immigrants make to our economy and our society,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the activist group Voces de la Frontera. That statement was heard, loud and clear, by the state’s Republican legislators, who finished the session without taking up the bill.
Most Valuable Senator
Within hours of Donald Trump’s announcement that he would appoint Steve Bannon as his White House chief strategist, Merkley declared: “There should be no sugarcoating the truth here: Donald Trump just invited a white nationalist into the highest reaches of the government.” Others may have reacted with shock at Trump’s election, but the Democratic senator from Oregon was ready to fight. He ripped the Republican’s cabinet picks and promised scrutiny and opposition. Along with close allies Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (whose presidential candidacy the Oregonian had backed), Merkley was in the forefront of successful efforts to block the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016. Now he’s objecting to Trump’s empty sloganeering and cheap gimmickry when it comes to the serious work of renewing American manufacturing and investing in infrastructure. As a veteran legislator who served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives before defeating a Republican senator in 2008, Merkley has emerged as an essential opposition leader—someone who knows how the Senate works and pulls no punches when it comes to taking on racism, sexism, economic inequality, climate change, and Trumpism.
Most Valuable Senator-Elect
California’s attorney general celebrated her landslide election as the state’s new US senator by visiting the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Choking back tears as she recounted stories of children who asked after Trump’s election whether they would be deported, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica declared, “You’re not alone. We’ve got your back.” That’s not just rhetoric; it’s who Harris is. “I grew up with a stroller’s-eye view of the civil-rights movement,” says the next senator from America’s most populous state. “Often I joke that as a child, I was surrounded by adults marching and shouting for this thing called justice.” In the Senate, she’ll be the one raising her voice for social and economic justice, and she will be heard.
Most Valuable US House Caucus
Congressional Progressive Caucus
The question of how Democrats in Congress plan to respond to Republican hegemony was answered immediately by the House of Representatives’ most progressive activist group. “With every new staff announcement and cabinet appointment, Donald Trump makes it clear that his government is going to look exactly like his campaign: racist, Islamophobic, and totally unfit,” declared Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raúl Grijalva and Keith Ellison and first vice chair Mark Pocan in a statement after the president-elect tapped Senator Jeff Sessions as his nominee for US attorney general. “As Democrats, we will never bow to intolerance and we will meet these appointments head-on by standing firmly on the side of victims and doing everything in our power to protect them and our democracy.” The CPC is setting the right tone: Ellison and Pocan are leading the drive for a “Right to Vote” constitutional amendment that addresses voter suppression and the decay of the democratic process. And along with California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, they continue to challenge “a disproved consensus that favors recklessly militaristic approaches to handling current international conflicts and has yet to reckon with the grave consequences of its errors.”
Most Valuable New Agenda-Setter
When newly elected House Democrats gathered in Washington, they chose Raskin to serve as their representative on the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the influential body that sets the party’s agenda. The move recognized Raskin’s remarkable background as a constitutional-law professor with a history of national leadership on voting-rights and civil-rights issues, and as a Maryland state senator who helped lead successful efforts to abolish the death penalty, establish marriage equality, restore voting rights to former prisoners, pass the Dream Act, lower carbon emissions, and hike the minimum wage. Raskin knows the work will be harder in the Republican-controlled Congress, but he says he’s determined to “guarantee that the House Democratic agenda reflects the diverse voices of hard-working Americans who need government to be on the side of the people.”
Most Valuable Inside/Outside Strategist
When permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline were denied, Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal tweeted: “YES! The people’s victory! Moral Resistance works!” Though her title as of January will be “US representative,” the Seattle Democrat is a heart-and-soul advocate who knows how to link struggles in the streets to struggles inside the corridors of power. And she’s good at it: As a veteran immigrant-rights and civil-liberties campaigner, Jayapal brings a wealth of grassroots experience to the House. Savvy Democrats will take her counsel as they seek to build a moral resistance to Trumpism.
Most Valuable New State Official
While Democrats were struggling to figure out how to reconnect with rural Americans following 2016 election setbacks in most of the country, family farmer David Zuckerman was preparing to take office as Vermont’s second-highest-ranking state official. Elected as lieutenant governor with the support of Democrats and the state’s independent Progressive Party, Zuckerman campaigned on his record as a state legislator who led fights for sustainable development, GMO labeling, cannabis-law reform, and progressive tax policies that benefit working families in rural and urban areas. Elected on the same day that a Republican won Vermont’s governorship, Zuckerman ran 20,000 votes ahead of the top of the Democratic ticket—piling up votes in rural regions that don’t always back the party.
Most Valuable New State Legislator
Donald Trump made one of his last campaign stops in Minnesota, where he tried to win the state by stirring up fears of the large Somali-American community in the Twin Cities. Trump lost—and on the same day, Minneapolis voters elected Ilhan Omar to the state’s House of Representatives. Raising a clenched fist and pledging to struggle for unity and justice, the first Somali-American Muslim woman elected to public office in the United States declared: “It matters that I am a woman. It matters that I am a Somali-American woman. It matters that I am a Muslim and immigrant woman. It matters that our campaign won…by creating a multicultural coalition.” She is so very right.
Most Valuable Mayor
Dr. Karen Weaver
A clinical psychologist who defeated the incumbent mayor of Flint, Michigan, in November 2015, after a campaign in which she vowed to address that city’s water crisis, Weaver declared a state of emergency upon taking office and began demanding accountability and aid. Complaining that “the people weren’t put first; the health of the people was not put before profit and money,” she urged visiting politicians—from President Obama to Hillary Clinton to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Donald Trump—to recognize the damage done to urban centers by corporations and government agencies that have neglected basic duties owed to humanity. Seeking access to clean water and infrastructure investments to replace the corroded pipes that leached lead into the city’s tap water, this activist mayor declared: “We’ve got to get this fixed.”
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Most Valuable Activist
The media outlets that so badly bungled coverage of the 2016 campaign imagined that Donald Trump made the Trans-Pacific Partnership an issue. Wrong. Lori Wallach and the mass movements with which she has long been aligned made the TPP an issue well before Trump began to consider a presidential run. As the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, Wallach has for decades exposed and challenged race-to-the-bottom trade policies, and she has worked with labor, farm, environmental, and human-rights groups—as well as congressional allies like Bernie Sanders—to establish a fair-trade ethic that respects workers and the planet. “Americans have become aware that our trade agreements have been hijacked by corporate interests that use the free-trade brand to Trojan-horse into place special protections,” the veteran of the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” against the World Trade Organization said during the 2016 campaign. That awareness wasn’t forged by a “billionaire populist”; it was forged by movement builders like Wallach.
Most Valuable Activist Campaign
The hashtag on the “Jews Reject Trump” signs was stark and haunting, and the Bend the Arc Jewish Action campaign made sure that it was seen outside Trump Tower, at the Republican National Convention, and at events across the country, where activists announced: “We have seen this kind of hate and political violence before. And we won’t let it happen again.” An offshoot of the movement’s broader work on social justice, Bend the Arc Jewish Action developed the “We’ve Seen This Before” campaign in 2015 to sound the alarm “about Donald Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, and violent agenda.” The campaign did not end on Election Day: In November, Bend the Arc Jewish Action CEO Stosh Cotler and Muslim Public Affairs Council president Salam al-Marayati circulated a joint letter urging Trump to withdraw his appointment of Steve Bannon, because “Hate has no place in the White House.”
Most Valuable Union
National Nurses United ?
Bold, loud, and fiercely committed to transformational change, National Nurses United has always campaigned for single-payer health care, adequate hospital staffing, and labor rights. But the union extended its reach in 2016, emerging as a key backer of the Sanders campaign and the People’s Summit that sought to build on its momentum, as well as a California initiative to control prescription-drug prices; the national “Robin Hood Tax” campaign to fund social needs; efforts to combat climate change in communities across the United States; and the movement to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. NNU actually seeks out causes to join, urging Americans to “Tell Us Where It Hurts” as part of its Nurses’ Campaign to Heal America.
Most Valuable Commentator
CNN commentator Van Jones came into his own during the 2016 campaign. Unlike the pundits who responded to every unsettling development by resorting to shallow talking points, Jones was informed and insightful in his approach. The veteran environmental and human-rights campaigner, who once served as President Obama’s green-jobs adviser, argued that “a bipartisan political consensus” forged by elites in both parties had sold out working Americans. Yet Jones was never willing to settle for simplistic explanations regarding the response to that sellout. Jones recognized the “rebellion against the elites” that defined much of the 2016 campaign, but he demanded that others recognize the racial component in what he described as the “whitelash against a changing country.” With equal measures of intellect and humanity, Jones wrestled ably and honestly with what he referred to as “the messy truth” of American politics in the 2016 election.
Most Valuable Free-Press Campaigner
Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman played a pivotal role in drawing attention to the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance—so much so that, after she chronicled the brutal treatment of activists, she found herself charged by local authorities with participating in a “riot.” Goodman wasn’t the only journalist targeted by North Dakota prosecutors, but she was particularly outspoken and effective when it came to pushing back. The award-winning broadcaster returned to North Dakota to challenge the charge; after she prevailed in court, Goodman used the attention she was accorded to declare: “I wasn’t trespassing, I wasn’t engaging in a riot—I was doing my job as a journalist by covering a violent attack on Native American protesters.”
Most Valuable Radio Show
Letters & Politics With Mitch Jeserich
Veteran broadcaster Mitch Jeserich started a radio program called Letters From Washington to chronicle the first 100 days of the Obama administration. That program evolved into Letters & Politics, which airs daily on Berkeley’s pioneering Pacifica station KPFA. Erudite and adventurous, Jeserich can jump from a discussion about how civilization has changed over a thousand years with historian Ian Mortimer, to an examination of Islamophobia with international human-rights campaigner Arsalan Iftikhar, to a review of Trump’s conflicted cabinet picks with Pratap Chatterjee, the executive director of CorpWatch. This is talk radio that makes you smarter.
Most Valuable National Electoral Reform
National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
Despite assaults on voting rights and the very infrastructure of democracy, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by roughly 3 million votes. But Trump narrowly prevailed in enough swing states to claim an Electoral College win—the second time in less than 20 years that a Democrat has lost to a Republican with fewer votes. California Senator Barbara Boxer is right: The Electoral College should be abolished. But the constitutional amendment Boxer proposes will be a hard sell in a GOP-controlled Congress. Luckily, there’s another way to let the people choose their president: The bipartisan National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, proposed by the National Popular Vote campaign, would require states to “allocate their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all fifty states and DC.” The compact goes into effect after states with 270 electoral votes have signed on. So far, 10 states (and the District of Columbia) are in, and the movement is growing.
Most Valuable State Electoral Reform
On November 8, Maine voters approved a ranked-choice (or instant-runoff) system to elect US senators, US representatives, the governor, and state legislators. Under the new plan, voters will rank candidates in order of preference, with the votes of losing candidates being reassigned to more viable preferences until a clear winner emerges—no spoilers, no wasted votes. State Representative Diane Russell says this system “allows [Mainers] to vote their hopes.” That freedom and flexibility will advance the promise of democracy, and the group FairVote is working to get other states to embrace that promise.
Most Valuable Rappers and Rockers
Prophets of Rage
Formed by members of Rage Against the Machine (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk), Public Enemy (Chuck D and DJ Lord), and Cypress Hill (B-Real), this rap-rock supergroup has been described by Morello as “an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election-year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.” They did just that in 2016, touring the country to rally opposition to corporate power and political reaction. Outside the Republican National Convention, the group performed a raucous set at an “End Poverty Now” rally and then marched the crowd through downtown Cleveland to a protest in the city’s Public Square. Thundering against Trumpism, the Prophets promise to “Make America Rage Again.”
Most Valuable Music Magazine
Under the Radar
The magazine that dubs itself “the solution to music pollution” has in recent election years also been the solution to political pollution. Instead of interviewing politicians, Under the Radar publishes a fall “Protest Issue” in which prominent musicians are photographed “holding protest signs of their own making.” The point is to highlight issues and ideas that might be neglected during the quadrennial cacophony of presidential politicking. The fall 2016 issue rocked, with Amanda Palmer’s cover-shot poster explaining that “Radical Empathy Is the Only Way to Gender Equality.” Inside, Thurston Moore’s sign demanded “Free Chelsea Manning,” while Kristin Kontrol’s declared “Black Lives Matter” and Billy Bragg’s proclaimed “Death to Cynicism.” “My job is to take people who want to change the world and punch through their cynicism,” Bragg told the magazine. That’s precisely what Under the Radar’s protest issue did.
Most Valuable Movie
Oliver Stone’s Snowden isn’t the first great film about the NSA whistle-blower; that would be Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, the making of which Stone depicts in the film. But Snowden was a gripping return to form for the director, who, The New York Times noted, used the project to “circle back to the grand questions of power, war and secrecy that have propelled his most ambitious work.” It was also a call to action: Linking art and activism, Stone used his promotional appearances for the film to urge President Obama to pardon Snowden. And as the film hit the theaters, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and dozens of other groups stepped up their own campaigning on the issue, with ACLU executive director Anthony Romero explaining: “Cases like Edward Snowden’s are precisely the reason the president’s constitutional pardon power exists.”
John Nichols is The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent. He is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, published in March 2016 by Nation Books.