The jockeying for position in 2020 presidential campaign began long before Tuesday’s balloting ended. For the party out of power, first comes the silly season: Polls—breathlessly registering name recognition—begin to rank potential contenders. Not surprisingly, former vice president Joe Biden and perennial candidate Hillary Clinton top the returns. Both chose to inflate the bubble: Joe offering a timeline for deciding to run; Hillary announcing a road tour with her husband. Both would be well advised not to run, and neither will fare well if he or she decides to. The attention they capture symbolizes the real peril: that the resistance will lead to a restoration, rather than the political revolution the country and the party needs.
There are legions of Beltway veterans and Wall Street bankers devoted to this proposition. Their arguments will flood the mainstream media. The resistance has been roused by the Orange Menace; Trump is the target, as if he were the source of our troubles and not merely a particularly cankerous symptom of them. For all the energy on the left, the core of the resistance—particularly in what the media call Trump Country—is “older white women,” according to Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol. The resistance, she argues, isn’t a left revolt parallel to the Tea Party on the right. Democrats will capture formerly Republican seats largely in suburban districts largely because of a Trump-generated gender chasm driven by college-educated women.
While progressive candidates made remarkable gains, establishment-backed candidates still outnumbered them. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continued to recruit and favor candidates that could raise—or give—big bucks, along with a perverse penchant for those with backgrounds in the intelligence or the military. The Brookings Institution’s Primaries Project, headed by Elaine Kamarck, an establishment stalwart, reports that non-incumbent establishment Democrats fared better than progressives in primary races, winning 140 compared to 101 for progressives. (And many of the latter ran in deep-red Republican districts where Democrats would otherwise not compete). “[T]here is not much evidence that the [progressive movement] is taking over the Democratic Party or pulling it far to the left,” concluded Kamarck, with evident relief.
By-elections, such as this year’s midterms, feature many messages as candidates appeal to different constituencies, but the default Democratic agenda has been cautious to the extreme: defense of Obamacare, particularly protecting coverage of preexisting conditions, scorning the Republican tax breaks for the rich, and vowing to protect Medicare and Medicaid.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s announced agenda, if victorious, is also notably modest: going after the pervasive corruption in the administration, lowering health-care costs, rebuilding infrastructure, giving the Dreamers legal status, and strengthening background checks for gun purchases. Democratic fervor will focus on investigating, if not impeaching, Trump—his taxes, his self-enrichment, and of course Russia, Russia, Russia. And virtually the entire foreign-policy establishment of both parties is up in arms in defense of the “rules-based international order” against Trump’s “America First” posturing.
No doubt, a clutch of centrist candidates—Cuomo, Klobuchar, Hickenlooper, Holder, Biden, and Clinton, if they run—will argue that now is the time for a broad, popular front to get rid of Trump and punish the spineless Republicans who have covered for his venom. Much hand-wringing will be done while warning progressives against dividing the party or pushing radical reforms that might alienate college-educated women in middle-class suburbs, independents, and “squishy Republicans” that Democrats must consolidate. “Focus on Trump’s grotesqueries, and offer up a middle-class tax cut, action on prescription-drug prices, investment in infrastructure, and a return to America’s global responsibilities,” will likely be the mantra. America Restored.
Fat chance. Establishment Democrats control the party, and have the money, and prominence in the media—but they still don’t have a clue. The progressive revolution that began building long before 2016 isn’t about to roll over. It’s enjoyed remarkable success in past years. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, progressives have dominated the ideas debate. Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a 15-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, and criminal-justice and immigration-reform have gained ever-greater traction within the party. More and more Democratic candidates found it necessary to forgo taking corporate PAC money, even as small-donor contributions soared. Progressives will win victories up and down the ballot on Tuesday. The signature upsets of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley over Democratic incumbents put the rest of the party on notice. Progressive electoral capacity—from traditional groups like Moveon.org, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Democratic Socialists of America, to newcomers like Indivisible, People’s Action (where I serve as a senior adviser), and the Movement for Black Lives—has expanded exponentially. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, already the largest values-based caucus in the Congress, is gearing up to push for major reforms.
Even more-centrist presidential contenders already pay tribute to this growing force, entering into a virtuous competition in floating bold reforms. Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker followed Bernie Sanders in supporting a jobs guarantee. Booker also calls for “baby bonds” for every infant in a low-income family. Warren and Sanders have continued to drive the debate. Warren released noteworthy bills on cleaning up corruption, empowering workers, and providing affordable housing. Sanders has broken new ground by laying out elements of an alternative foreign-policy position.
Restoration is both bad politics and bad policy. Despite continued economic growth and low unemployment, the economy still doesn’t work for working people. Inequality grows worse; political corruption deepens; endless wars continue without victory, real security threats like catastrophic climate change are ignored. Repudiating Trump’s vile racist politics is necessary, but far from sufficient.
Moreover, a restoration candidate gives Trump a stronger hand, allowing him to cast himself once more as the populist agent of change against an entrenched and failed establishment. And even if successful in ridding us of Trump, the result would be a Democratic administration that will once more fail working people, a failure that will surely feed an even uglier political reaction.
To avoid this, the progressive movement needs to continue to build independently, inside and outside the party. Voters are looking for answers. They are just beginning to be introduced to bold ideas like Medicare for All and tuition-free college. That agenda needs to be expanded—and defended. In Congress, anything that passes from a Democratic-controlled House will die in the Republican Senate, so progressives should use the opportunity to hold hearings that detail bold reforms, and pass “message bills” that frame the alternative. Similarly, at the state and local level, progressives should use advances to drive bold reforms on everything from big money in politics and holding corporations accountable, to criminal-justice reform. One focus should be on the jobs and growth that can be generated by public investment in a Green New Deal, modernizing America while rebuilding it. Progressives should be pushing at every level to empower workers—and to curb a perverted capitalism that rewards CEOs for plundering their own companies.
This year’s elections gave lie to those fanning fears that progressives would tear the party apart by challenging favored establishment choices. Fierce arguments over policies and primary challenges did not hinder coming together in unity against Trump and his Republican enablers. Movements—from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter to the Dreamers to the stunning teacher strikes in red states—helped move opinion, not alienate it. Bold ideas like Medicare for All grew more popular, not less, even under scabrous Republican attacks. Progressives have made great advances over the last two years. Now is the time to push harder, to challenge those standing in the way, and to build not a restoration, but the political revolution that has just begin.