Suppose an insurgent movement with a sharp critique of Wall Street and a determination to end the Democratic Party’s compromises on core economic issues was taking shape across the country. Suppose the candidates associated with this movement were winning tough primaries and developing the outlines of a fifty-state strategy that rejects the self-interested calculations of party elites. Would that count as big news? Not yet, perhaps, since most mainstream pundits are still obsessed with the wrangling over which extremes the Republican Party will embrace. But while GOP insiders were busy beating back their Tea Party wing, the progressive populist tendency within the Democratic Party was going from strength to strength.
This developing movement, now often referred to as “the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party” (a variation on the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s declaration, “I’m from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”), is focused on many of the issues that Warren raised in her electrifying July speech at Netroots Nation, where she vowed to fight for wage hikes, fair trade, pay equity, affordable education, and ironclad protections for Social Security and Medicare. “This is a fight over economics, a fight over privilege, a fight over power,” the Massachusetts senator said. “But deep down, it is a fight over values. These…are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.”
Democratic Party elites—who dream of a return to the triangulating days of Bill Clinton, perhaps with another Clinton in the White House—still resist this kind of values-based politics. But the party’s base is yearning—and voting—for something bolder. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who, like his Massachusetts colleague, has been talked up as an alternative to Hillary Clinton in 2016, has taken an economic-populist message to every corner of the country—including the red states of the Deep South. “When you get outside the Beltway,” Sanders notes, “and when you get outside political gossip and speculation, what you find is massive frustration and anger at both the political and economic establishment.”
That sentiment has led to the rise of candidates like Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey legislator who won a hard-fought June primary with an economic-justice campaign that talked not about raising the minimum wage, but about the need for a living wage. Refusing to soft-pedal her determination to address “the gap between the wealthiest and [those] most in need,” Coleman says “the equivocation of Democrats has created confusion for people. People need to know what their choices are and why.”
On the same day that Coleman was winning her primary, Pat Murphy won in Iowa. Murphy’s labor-farm coalition beat out better-financed candidates with a pledge to oppose “any effort to privatize or cut Social Security,” including the “chained CPI” reduction in benefits entertained by President Obama. This pattern continued throughout the summer, with Wisconsin progressives like Rob Zerban and Kelly Westlund securing primary wins with blunt populist messages, such as Westlund’s assertion that “people—not dollars—ought to have the strongest voice in our government.” Late August saw Arizona Democrats nominate Ruben Gallego, who highlighted his family’s immigrant roots and his legislative work to expand Medicaid. Speaking of the social safety net, Gallego said, “There is no way it will be weakened on my watch.”