Virginia was a wave election, but without real change, the tide will turn again

Virginia was a wave election, but without real change, the tide will turn again
© Greg Nash

By 11:00 on Election Night 2017, the results had been universally summarized in a single emoji: a wave. Pundits and activists from Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE to Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP MORE — and everyone in-between — saw the results as a validation of their own particular interests, but everyone seemed to agree that this represented a new reality.

I’ve been around for long enough not to read too much into an Election Day wave. In the early morning hours after Election Day 2006, I sat in a hotel room with Democratic Sens. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' Medicare for All is disastrous for American seniors and taxpayers Senate Dems race to save Menendez in deep-blue New Jersey MORE and Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMajor overhauls needed to ensure a violent revolution remains fictional Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees GOP has always been aggressive in trying to weaponize the system of judicial nominations MORE as we watched the unanticipated scale of that year’s wave carry them into the majority. Four years later, a counter-wave washed away the gains Democrats had made. 

In elections, waves happen every few years — but most often, without making lasting changes to our politics or breaking policy stalemates. If state governments do not act differently in the wake of the results in Virginia, New Jersey and Washington, politics may be headed for the same old outcome.


The most important factor that powered Tuesday’s wave was not a realignment in public opinion at large, it was a change in the electorate: those who chose to vote. Democrats and progressives were motivated to turn out in greater numbers than they normally do in odd-year elections.


To be clear, the increase in turnout among Democratic voters and (and likely decrease among Republican ones) was no accident. It was pushed along by a combination of great candidates and new and established organizations funneling broad energy into electoral power. As the executive director of Future Now Fund, I am proud that our new effort supported 10 challengers, who were all ahead on Election Night. 

But I also know that the effort will lead to the same political stalemate and cycle by cycle tidal shifts we have seen for a decade or more, unless something more changes. Without progress for regular people, the ones who get discouraged and stay home or vote against power whatever its party affiliation, last night’s wave will recede back into the sea of frustration. 

A clear agenda with measurable results can change that, giving voters and elected officials an affirmative vision for accountability in office. Nearly one-fifth of the hundred incoming Virginia Delegates (almost 40 percent of Democrats) have signed onto America’s Goals, an ambitious blueprint for our country’s renewal launched with Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia. America’s Goals has measurable targets in seven areas:

  • good jobs,
  • affordable quality healthcare,
  • investing in children,
  • equal opportunity for all,
  • empowering people over special interests,
  • better infrastructure, and
  • clean, safe air, water and energy.

These shared values garner broad support across the political spectrum. If these elected officials achieve progress, they could deliver a much more lasting wave than any we have seen in a decade or more.

But they need help now as much as they needed it before Tuesday. To break the grip of special interests in statehouses, activists and constituents must have a plan after the election is won — not just in the heat of a campaign.

If we stay focused on outcomes, we can make lasting political change. Election days would no longer be a predictable rejection of the status quo, a reflection of frustration and a measure of which side is more discouraged. They would again become a reflection of people’s hopes and dreams, a measure of the accomplishments achieved by elected officials that impacted their constituents.

That is the point of setting bold targets for our future, and it is the potential that was created on election night. Now, it is up to the newly elected representatives, and all the rest of us, to transform these electoral victories into meaningful results for these states and our country.

Daniel Squadron is the co-founder and executive director of Future Now and Future Now Fund. Squadron is a former New York State senator and aide to Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).