The Democratic establishment is clearly flustered by the stunning upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the person who was considered to be the likely next Democratic leader of the House, Congressman Joe Crowley. Former DCCC Chair Steve Israel, in a quote I found entertaining as a former Iowan who has knocked on a lot of doors in Brooklyn, Iowa, opined that “What sounds good in Brooklyn, New York, doesn’t work in Brooklyn, Iowa.”
Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is at least a Midwesterner, said in response to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory that a political platform “too far to the left” could not win in the Midwest. Other Democratic insiders are insisting that this upset isn’t that big a deal, making the case that Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are actually no different than mainstream Democratic Party stuff, she just wraps it in the label “socialism.” Which of course is a direct contradiction of the first two quotes. Meanwhile, AOC (as people are calling her now) has become a rock star to progressive insurgent activists and other candidates, becoming a major fundraiser for the candidates she has endorsed and the groups affiliated with her. What is going on in Democratic politics?
As I write in my new book How To Democrat In The Age Of Trump, the answer to that question, as well as to the more vexing question of how Donald Trump came to be our president and the Republicans came to control every level of government, can be explained by looking at the way Democrats drifted from their historic identity as the party of working people over the last decade.
After the 2008 economic collapse, blessed with dominant majorities at every level of state and federal government, a demographic edge that was expanding across the board, and a thoroughly discredited Republican economic philosophy, Democrats could have passed into law a series of big, bold, fundamental reforms that would have both thrilled their growing political coalition and solidified their credibility with working-class voters angered at the way Wall Street had destroyed the Main Street economy. Had they fundamentally restructured the financial industry, immigration, energy policy, the criminal-justice system, and the way campaigns were financed, Democrats could have built as sustained a governing majority as the New Deal had created in the 1930s. When they failed to deliver on restructuring how the economy worked for working people, and, importantly, failed to prosecute the Wall Street bankers whose fraud had led to the economic collapse, they lost credibility with working-class swing voters and the enthusiasm of their base. Democrats broke their own political coalition, and it remains broken to this day.
It didn’t help that party leaders were invested in a top-down party structure and were determined to control what happened to congressional candidates. Over the past decade, it has been painful to watch party leaders in DC deciding to support primary candidates that were unexciting to grassroots Democrats, frequently without any dialogue or consultation with local folks whatsoever. Progressives around the country are so electrified by AOC’s shocking victory precisely because of this pattern of national-party big-footing in local races.
So how do we reunify the Democratic Party and create a message that plays in both the big-city East Coast version of Brooklyn and the small-town Iowa version? First, the bridge between grassroots progressives and the party’s leaders need to be rebuilt. Party leaders need to genuinely listen to their grassroots rather than battling or ignoring them. Democratic leaders need to learn what the Republicans have understood for decades now: that to win, a political party needs enthusiasm from its activists and base voters. That means a message that embraces the passions, values, and agenda of grassroots leaders.
Some party leaders will say, that will alienate swing voters. That is where the DC conventional wisdom gets it the most wrong. We have to have the courage to talk directly about the tough issues facing us like the racial divisiveness Donald Trump is trying to stir up, and connect that to the economic hardships most of working America is still facing. We have to be willing to say: You know why Trump is attacking immigrants and the black folks upset about the criminal-justice system? It’s because he wants to pick your pocket.
We have to lay out an agenda that boldly takes on the powers that be—the monopolistic companies and “too big to fail” banks who want to dominate the American economy and weaken the power of consumers, workers, and voters. We have to remind people that Trump is all about looking backward, but that the Democratic agenda is about the future. And we need to have the definitional debate with Republicans about what the word “freedom” means. Is it the kind of freedom that Trump wants, to be able to do anything to anyone any time, regardless of the consequences—to pay your workers a poverty wage, to poison the air and water, to engage in the kind of reckless financial speculation that brought down our economy in 2008? Or is it the freedom to build a good life for yourself and your family, on your own terms, with a decent income, the choice to live how you want to, and the freedom to chart your own course?
That message plays in Queens and the Bronx, where Ocasio-Cortez is from, but it also plays in Omaha, where Kara Eastman won an equally surprising victory against a former congressman who was the Democratic-establishment candidate in the primary, and in Kentucky, where Amy McGrath beat the mayor of Lexington, who had been recruited by national party leaders to run in the congressional primary. It’s a message that has won in special elections in mostly white districts carried heavily by Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and a message that Ocasio-Cortez rode to victory in the melting pot of her district in New York City.
Democrats will win by returning to their roots as the party of the people—all the people, not just swing voters or base voters, not just people who live in one region or another. We will win if we tell people directly and without fear what we believe, what we value, and what we will fight for—fairness, the future, freedom, and the working people of this country. Not everyone will want to run the exact kind of race Ocasio-Cortez ran—every candidate needs to define themselves in a way that makes sense in their local district and state. But if Democrats think a working-class-oriented economic message doesn’t work because it is too “left,” they will be making a grave mistake and once again cost themselves a victory that should be theirs.
I close How To Democrat In The Age Of Trump with a call to arms for the Democratic Party that explains how we square the circle and have a message that resonates in Brooklyn, Iowa, as well as in Brooklyn, New York:
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not a post-truth era. If we fight the good fight, if we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people and go toe-to-toe with the foes of democracy, the truth will come out. If we organize, friend to friend and neighbor to neighbor, our message will be heard. Our party needs to rediscover its roots and its soul. We need to remember how progressive warriors fought throughout history to build a nation dedicated to freedom, fairness, and a better future for the generations that follow. If we return to being the party of the people, we will start winning elections again. It really is as simple as that. And if we start improving the lives of regular folks in a tangible way that they can see and feel, we can heal this nation, reap the benefits for generations to come, and build a new progressive future.