The year 2021 demanded every bit as much from progressives as the difficult years that preceded it. Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump only after the outgoing president urged on a coup attempt and was impeached for the second time. In the face of an ongoing pandemic and the economic uncertainty extending from it, Biden found himself struggling not just with Republicans but also with corporate-aligned “centrist” Democrats who were disinclined to govern boldly. That set the stage for a year that saw progress come slowly and presidential approval ratings decline. Progressives had to fight to keep the administration from missing historic opportunities, while at the same time they championed an urgent racial justice agenda that faced a growing backlash, defended abortion rights, and struggled to save the planet. It wasn’t an easy year, but these leaders fought the good fight—and gave us hope for 2022. John Nichols
historian who explains now
The Emory University professor employs deep historical analyses to identify the roots of current crises, and in 2021 her voice was vital. In her latest book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (Bloomsbury), Anderson revealed how the Second Amendment has been used to arm and empower white supremacists from the founding of the republic to the night Kyle Rittenhouse started shooting in Kenosha, Wis. And in a column for The Guardian on impunity, titled “White Supremacists Declare War on Democracy and Walk Away Unscathed,” Anderson explained why the Capitol insurrectionists felt so confident that they could attack the very underpinnings of our democracy. “American democracy’s most dangerous adversary is white supremacy,” Anderson wrote. “Throughout this nation’s history, white supremacy has undermined, twisted and attacked the viability of the United States. What makes white supremacy so lethal, however, is not just its presence but also the refusal to hold its adherents fully accountable for the damage they have done and continue to do to the nation. The insurrection on 6 January and the weak response are only the latest example.”
When Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke before the House’s approval of the Build Back Better agenda in November, she gave a shout-out to Ai-jen Poo, the Domestic Workers Alliance executive director who in 2011 launched Caring Across Generations to address the nation’s crumbling care infrastructure. A decade after the campaign’s launch, its call to action, “Care Can’t Wait,” echoes throughout the halls of Congress, as legislators propose to invest in a too-long-delayed expansion on the promises of the New Deal and the Great Society. And President Biden has embraced that campaign’s proposals for federal investment in Medicaid—which would expand access to home- and community-based services for people with disabilities and aging adults and provide caregivers with fairly compensated, union-protected jobs.
Robin Rue Simmons
The House Judiciary Committee took historic action in April when it marked up HR 40, the bill by Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee to establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to Black Americans. But less than a month earlier, on March 22, Evanston, Ill., became the first US city to create a government-funded reparations program. The plan to provide grants to Black residents to address historic patterns of housing discrimination and segregation was spearheaded by Rue Simmons, who represented the city’s predominantly Black Fifth Ward. “We’re not a unique city in Evanston,” she said. “We reflect the racial disparity across the nation. What makes us different is that we decided to take this first step—not perfect, not complete.” Now the executive director of FirstRepair, which advocates for local reparations, Rue Simmons explained in August that “actual reparations, not just their study, can be enacted by cities nationwide. All it takes is determination, humility and an unwavering commitment to reparatory justice.”
fighting covid on a global scale
When Covid vaccines began to be widely distributed, this veteran fair-trade activist recognized that getting Americans vaccinated, while essential, would not be enough to end the pandemic. People around the world would have to be vaccinated. Utilizing knowledge gained from her decades of work as director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division (a position she left in December to launch the Rethink Trade program for the American Economic Liberties Project), Wallach worked with the Our World Is Not for Sale network and others to advocate a waiver of global intellectual property rules that would allow for ramped-up vaccine production in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And she’s continued to put the pressure on the World Trade Organization, which she’s argued must “get out of the way.”
fighting at the epicenter of the abortion battle
For the past 20 years, Brewer has worked at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi clinic at the epicenter of the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade. Should the Supreme Court reverse Roe—and we have no reason to believe it won’t—Brewer, who took the helm of JWHO in 2010, just might be the last director of the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, which serves people from across the South, where access has been decimated in recent decades. But Brewer is far from alone. As she defends the Pink House, as the clinic is known, from a steady stream of anti-abortion zealots outside its building and a dizzying number of targeted restrictions on abortion providers (or TRAP laws), she does so with the support and admiration of next-generation activists from far and wide. As she acknowledged to hundreds of demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court as the justices heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on December 1: “I’m realizing that even when you think you’re doing this by yourself, there are so many people out here, fighting with us and continuing to fight with us.” Regina Mahone
urgent climate activism
The Sunrise Movement
According to Bill McKibben, “The Sunrise Movement is the most supple and smart political crew in the country,” and these young activists proved him right in 2021, demanding that Democrats make climate justice a priority. When Biden moved in the right direction, Sunrise activists urged him on. When the administration wavered, or when West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin undermined efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, they answered with protests and hunger strikes. The historic commitments to fund climate-sustaining projects in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better plan illustrate Sunrise’s effectiveness. This movement won’t bend to compromising Democrats or slow down until it wins approval of the Green New Deal, which New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey have reintroduced.
global climate truth-teller
The unignorable voice on planetary climate catastrophe, Greta Thunberg, started early and has kept up her commitment. With statements as clear as they are persistent, she has returned us again to the facts when we avert our eyes. We don’t have another world to live in if we lose this one, and for many the loss has already begun. “We don’t just need goals for 2030 or 2050,” Thunberg said in a speech last year. We need them for every month of every year, starting now. David Bromwich
caucus chair who kept the pressure on
Holding up the progressive cause while negotiating with centrist Democrats became crucial in 2021 as the Build Back Better Act wound its way through Congress, and that task fell to Washington Representative Jayapal. Some concessions to corporate-aligned centrists were inevitable, but progressives needed to hold the line long enough to make clear that their votes counted. Jayapal combined a moral vision—especially in advocating for immigrant rights—with astuteness and dealmaking skills. While the Build Back Better Act was stalled in the Senate by Manchin, its progress through the House remains a major achievement. Jayapal deserves credit for that as much as anybody. Jeet Heer
The Brennan Center for Justice
From revealing the anti-democratic impact of gerrymandering and voter suppression to identifying new threats to election integrity, Brennan Center staffers such as Wendy Weiser, Wilfred Codrington III, and Michael Li have been essential advocates for democracy during a year when it was under threat in states nationwide. Especially vital in 2021 was their exposure of how “legislation enabling partisan interference in election administration is part of a broader ‘election sabotage’ or ‘election subversion’ campaign, a national push to enable partisans to distort democratic outcomes,” as they described in a groundbreaking report. As usual, the Brennan Center is anticipating the next fight, even as it wages the current one.
The Maryland representative led the charge to impeach and convict Trump for high crimes against the republic, with a depth of knowledge that extended from his decades as a professor of constitutional law, and with a righteous passion grounded in his faith that no one is above the law. The tally of Senate votes for conviction was the highest in a modern-day presidential impeachment trial—with seven Republicans joining all of the Democrats. Do not doubt for a moment that this level of support for accountability reflected the legal and moral power that Raskin and his team brought to the prosecution of Donald Trump.
best idea for disempowering trump
Free Speech For People
Although the Senate failed to remove Trump from office for inciting the January 6 insurrection, that doesn’t change the fact that the former president violated Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which disqualifies from public office any individual who swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and then engaged in insurrection. Free Speech For People has launched a national “14point3” campaign demanding that secretaries of state and other election officials bar Trump and his fellow insurrectionists from appearing on state ballots in 2022, ‘24, and beyond. Constitutional lawyer John Bonifaz, FSFP’s president, promises, “If [Trump] runs in 2024, we will go into court and argue that he has disqualified himself.”
Of all Joe Biden’s best appointments, the most electrifying was that of legal scholar Khan, who has taken over as chair of the Federal Trade Commission. Her groundbreaking 2017 paper “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”—which The New York Times described as having “reframed decades of monopoly law”—and her academic advocacy for taking bold steps to address the emergence of new monopolies in the 21st century influenced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and spurred a revival of interest in antitrust enforcement. Now, Khan is in a position to turn theory into practice. Katrina vanden Heuvel
there is power in a union
The UAW Workers Who Struck John Deere
The pandemic and its disruption of the economy are sparking the biggest surge in labor activism in decades. This welcome resurgence of labor power is essential for redressing the core problem of American democracy: economic inequality. In a five-week strike, UAW workers from John Deere showed fortitude and solidarity and won major concessions, including cost-of-living increases. Jeet Heer
activist inside (and outside) the capitol
Too many members of Congress are satisfied to say the right thing and then bemoan the barriers to actually getting the job done. Not Bush, the first-term Democratic representative from St. Louis. In July, she was fighting inside the Capitol to extend the federal moratorium on evictions that was established in September 2020 and previously extended four times. When Congress failed to act, Bush joined activists who slept overnight on the steps of the Capitol in order to convince the Biden administration to extend the protections. The White House responded, temporarily saving millions of Americans from the threat of losing shelter during a pandemic. When the Supreme Court overturned the moratorium, Bush teamed up with Elizabeth Warren to write legislation that would give the Department of Health and Human Services permanent authority to enact eviction bans during public health crises. “We didn’t sleep on those steps just to give up now,” Bush said.
newest delegate showing up for the people
When Clark beat three-term conservative Democrat Steve Heretick in Virginia’s House of Delegates primary this past June, his victory in November’s general election seemed preordained, given the heavy Democratic tilt to his district, which encompasses parts of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Chesapeake. Endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Clark ran on a thoroughgoing platform of health care, education, and police reform. But then came the red tide, which swept away even the few incumbents perceived to hold safe seats. Clark won nonetheless, 56 to 44 percent. At 26, he is the youngest Democratic delegate in Virginia’s history and the first African American to serve the 79th District. He is also the opposite of the losing former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe—who is, of course, white, wealthy, and more than twice Clark’s age. Clark won’t criticize McAuliffe or other Democrats. Still, his message carries an implicit critique of campaigns conducted from on high. “Being deep in your community, you can combat lies,” he told me. “We don’t teach ‘critical race theory’ in our schools.” Education was nonetheless his top issue, he added. “We did something our district hasn’t seen,” including knocking on more than 40,000 doors between the primary and the general election. “You have to show up,” Clark stated. Joan Walsh
song every american should hear
“The Rise of Dreama Caldwell,” by Joe Troop
A banjo-wielding social justice activist, Troop writes songs in the tradition of Woody Guthrie. As the Grammy-nominated leader of the folk ensemble Che Apalache, which includes players from Argentina and Mexico, Troop has always written songs that are musically and intellectually compelling. That was surely the case with his 2021 single “The Rise of Dreama Caldwell,” a searing indictment of the cash bail system told through the eyes of a real-life Alamance County, N.C., woman who could not afford to pay bail and ended up in jail. Caldwell eventually became a criminal justice reformer, an activist with the Down Home NC rural organizing project, and a county commission candidate, as Troop recounts in this story of how “she stared a sick system point blank in the eye, / And vowed come hell or high water, one day she’d watch it die.”