This blog post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.
Tuesday's elections have left us with a dismal political landscape in Washington, D.C. and exposed the deep dissatisfaction many Americans feel with the economy and the functioning of government.
The results also, let's be frank, pay sad tribute to the dishonest genius of Republican Party strategists, who coached candidates to hide clear records of extremism, and who spent six years laser-focused on making Congress dysfunctional while managing to convince voters it was the fault of President Obama and the Democrats.
By cloaking their extremism, and by evading responsibility for anti-government and anti-governing obstructionism, Republican leaders kept voters from having a clear sense of the real contest this year's elections represented. In 2008 and 2012, there was no denying that the elections were between two very different systems of values and ideas about the role of government in promoting and protecting the well-being of its people. This year's election was largely a failure to the extent that it was not about values and policies but the personal unpopularity of President Obama, any and all government failings, and the dysfunction in Washington.
In fact, there's a troubling paradox in the election results: some of the best news for progressives is also some of the most depressing, because it points to the depth and cost of our political failures.
Here's what I mean. Voters in red states and blue cities alike voted to raise the minimum wage, which polls show has majority support across the political spectrum. But those same voters elected Republican candidates who have opposed efforts to raise workers' wages. Colorado and North Dakota both rejected anti-choice "personhood" amendments, but voters elected officials in favor of "personhood" laws and hell-bent on closing down health clinics. Polls show support for equal rights for LGBT people way up, but many voters still supported candidates who are committed to resisting any gains toward legal equality.
Voters are rightly dissatisfied with an economy that leaves so many workers and families with stagnant or sinking wages and opportunities. Yet they voted for candidates most likely to make those problems worse. Americans who are hurting are not the ones who will benefit from further tax cuts for the rich, policies that give wealthy corporations and shadowy political groups more influence over elections than voters and ordinary people, and the gutting of regulations that protect consumers and communities from wrongdoing by unaccountable corporations. They're concerned about climate change yet their votes yesterday hand the gavel of the Senate committee responsible for dealing with it to a climate change denier.
The deck was clearly stacked against progressives this year. Democrats faced contested races in a number of conservative states. There was seemingly no end to the bad news overseas, some of which found its way home. And President Obama's popularity dwindled even as the economic picture brightened, because so many people were not feeling any of the benefits in their own pockets.
But that's no excuse for the wave of defeats. Too many Democrats did not make a clear and convincing case about the consequences of policies pushed by far-right activists and promoted by Republican elected officials. And that allowed the debate to become a referendum on voters' feelings about Barack Obama — and on an insider's squabble about where the buck stopped on the lack of effective action in Congress.
We must not let Republicans continue to get away with the sleight-of-hand they used to distract voters from their extremism this year. Progressive leaders must make clear what values are at stake in the upcoming policy debates — and whose policies are aligned with the American values and the interests of American families. We must push Democrats to draw clear distinctions between the values of the far-right lawmakers who will make this the most ideologically extreme Congress in memory and the voters who believe our nation's future depends on prosperity that is broadly shared, not funneled only to those at the very top. This also requires Democrats to have a clear agenda that excites the people who sat out this week's elections.
Moving forward, the most important mission for President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders is not to show how well they can work with Republican congressional leaders, but to show voters that they can and will take principled stands when core values are at stake, and to help Americans understand how the policy agenda of far-right Republicans undermines the kind of communities and country they want to live in.