No presidential candidate had hit 270 electoral votes by the close of Election Day, which was more or less expected. Other outcomes were cleaner while holding true to prediction: Republicans were still trying to get tens of thousands of votes tossed in Texas, and they’d be in court again in Pennsylvania challenging ballots. The president had tweeted numerous times about how he won, which he did not—at least not yet, if at all.
The rest, well that became harder to tell a tidy story about: a $15 an hour minimum wage passed in Florida as the state went to the president; people with felony convictions who are on parole in California had their voting rights restored, while gig workers had their labor rights stripped; and Colorado voters protected the right to an abortion and Louisiana voters amended their state constitution to deny that right. Progressive candidates won, and they lost. Republicans held most of their seats. Your preferred narrative was there for the taking.
It is entirely fair to ask: What led some Florida voters to apparently choose to live under a Trump presidency but with a pay raise? Or why did more or less the same percentage of white women tell exit pollsters that they voted for Trump in 2016 and in 2020, despite what we were told would be an exodus? Why did a progressive who backed Medicare for All—with a rare showing of support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—lose to a Republican incumbent in a district that went for Biden? None of these stories are the full story—or maybe just not the only story. There was no resounding defeat of Trumpism, but white supremacy didn’t make a clean sweep, either. Anyone who has done the slow, incremental work of organizing can recognize what happened here: You lose, you win, you lose by a mile. The kind of fight we are in is won day by day, not with one decisive gesture.
On the morning after the election, I had messages on my phone from Franklin County, Ohio: The prosecuting attorney, Ron O’Brien—a two-decade incumbent who had proved himself more or less immune to public pressure when he repeatedly failed to indict cops who kill—had lost. The Columbus Dispatch called it a “blue wave,” sweeping out the longtime prosecutor, leaving the county with just one Republican in office. (He had run unopposed.) This didn’t register on the cable networks, but then, the police killings in Columbus rarely had, either—even as popular uprisings against police killings nationwide had been the story of the last six months.
One election night story was right there, one of many: Whatever hope there was for a broad, countrywide rebuke of Trumpism was misplaced. If it was coming, we would have seen some evidence on the streets. Voters were not going to produce it in one day. As in the lead-up to the election in places like Harris County, Texas, for every energizing progressive win, there was swift backlash from the right, both the Republican Party and the Trump- and Back the Blue flag-waving truck processions. The red state/blue state electoral map is a fiction, but what if we redrew it along those lines? The co-existence of possibility and foreclosure, living side by side, struggling with and against one another.
I was in Columbus last April, when soon-to-be-former prosecuting attorney O’Brien indicted a Columbus police officer for murder, a first. Activists—led by the surviving family members of young people, mostly Black men and boys, killed by police—had wanted O’Brien out for years. I don’t think anyone seriously thought it was going to happen; there wasn’t a big push in favor of O’Brien’s opponent, retired judge Gary Tyack. (One headline in the Columbus Free Press: “Progressives Should Hold Gary Tyack’s Feet to the Fire If He Becomes Franklin County Prosecutor.”) Adrienne Hood, whose 23-year-old son Henry Green was killed by Columbus police in 2016, has worked more or less ever since to find a way to hold police accountable. I asked her this morning, was she surprised by the O’Brien loss? “Absolutely,” she texted me back, “but we were giving him a run for his money. He had so much money BUT I kept telling people it’s the VOTES that matter!!!!” The momentum from the summer’s protests may have helped connect the years of police killings in Columbus, even when they were receding into memory, to the reality of O’Brien’s role and what could be done now.
O’Brien’s loss reminded me a little of former Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who lost her seat after young Black organizers from groups like Assata’s Daughters and BYP100 launched a #ByeAnita campaign. They weren’t supporting her opponent; they just wanted the prosecutor who they said made it “nearly impossible” to indict police who kill, because she either failed to or was incredibly slow to charge them, out. The pitch to get Alvarez out of office wasn’t contingent on getting people to support her opponent, so much as to understand their vote as a way to hold a top member of law enforcement accountable for failing to hold police accountable. As one of their banners hanging over a highway that election read, they saw “Blood on the ballot.”
These changes are a small chipping-away at a system that destroys lives but that can be broken down into its constituent parts. When it’s clear that breaking that system down is a matter of survival, that there is also a way out to fight for, people will fight. As my colleague Kate Aronoff pointed out, 72 percent of voters said in exit polls that they were somewhat or very worried about climate change and broadly support policies to address it, yet we don’t have them. But that’s not really all on the voters, she writes. “There’s a gap between policies voters claim to want and the politicians they’re choosing (albeit off a limited menu).”
When the stakes can be so clearly stated, progressive and even radical victories feel more possible—but never inevitable. They give people a way to see the stakes in their own lives, to see the fight as something they are already in. There is no one-day way to defeat the politics and might of the strongmen. The forces stacked against majoritarian politics are powerful. The work is often slow and rarely straightforward. “These exit polls require more analysis than what is currently circulating on this website,” the writer and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observed on Wednesday morning. “It’s not ‘economic anxiety’ but it’s also not just ‘white supremacy.’ Keep blaming voters while ignoring the disastrous strategy of the Dem Party at your own peril.”
You can tell yourself all kinds of stories about what the results of the election mean, but this was true yesterday and it’s true today: If you want to win, you have to know where to take the fight. And get ready to lose as much, if not more, than you win.