Ed Markey Has a Message for Democrats: ‘The Age of Incrementalism Is Over’

Ed Markey Has a Message for Democrats: ‘The Age of Incrementalism Is Over’

Ed Markey Has a Message for Democrats: ‘The Age of Incrementalism Is Over’

“Now,” says the senator who won an unprecedented primary victory, “is our moment to think big and take bold and urgent action.”


No Kennedy had ever lost a Democratic primary, or a general election, in Massachusetts. From June 18, 1946, when a young World War II vet named John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the Democratic nomination to fill a congressional seat representing Cambridge and parts of Boston and Somerville, Kennedys had won every race they entered in the state.

Until September 1, 2020, when Representative Joe Kennedy III failed in his Democratic primary challenge to Senator Ed Markey by a 55-45 margin statewide. Markey won 60 percent of the vote in Boston and 80 percent in Cambridge and Somerville. Political narratives, at least as they have been written by pundits and political insiders, don’t usually end that way. Kennedys aren’t supposed to lose in Massachusetts. And 39-year-old challengers with “star power,” 100 percent name recognition, and mounds of money—and who start their campaigns with double-digit poll leads—aren’t supposed to get crushed by earnest 74-year-old veterans of the state legislature, the US House, and the US Senate who have spent decades focusing on the complexities of issues like nuclear disarmament and net neutrality.

What happened?

When the future of Democratic Party politics took shape in 2016 and ’18, Markey understood that everything was changing. He had always been a liberal with an instinct for reform. But Markey saw a new politics emerging, and he was ready to embrace it.

That was not typical of other long-serving Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to the excitement over the nomination of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—in a June 2018 New York primary where the 28-year-old activist upset a top House Democrat—by saying it was merely “a choice in one district.” A lot of other senior Democrats reacted in the same way. Just as they were slow to recognize the transformational role that the 2016 presidential bid had played in reframing the issues, many senior Democrats were dismissive of the significance of congressional wins in 2016 by California’s Ro Khanna and in 2018 by New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, and Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley

“When I first got to Congress, the reception I got was (very) chilly,” AOC recalled Tuesday. But, she added, “Ed Markey wasn’t afraid. He offered his expertise and partnership. He wasn’t scared of big policy and he didn’t use kid gloves.” The unlikely duo introduced a groundbreaking Green New Deal resolution in the House and Senate, and they found common ground on a host of issues concerning economic, social, and racial justice. A year ago, at a point when pundits were predicting that a challenge from Kennedy would force Markey out of politics, Ocasio-Cortez provided a critical endorsement for the senator:

In so many conversations that I have had with Ed, it is so abundantly clear the path that he has paved for all of us to be here in this moment and to continue to push for change in the future, as well.

When I first got to Congress and we started to discuss big, bold plans—a solution on the scale of the crisis—many members shied away. A lot of people said we can’t do too much, we can’t go too fast in order to pursue change for the American people. And Ed Markey was one of the few people that had the courage to stand up and take a chance—take a chance on a freshman Congresswoman. And take a chance on this plan.

Instead of “resting on his record of the past,” AOC argued, Markey has been “aggressively pursuing an agenda for the future.” That, she explained, is “what a progressive is, and that’s what progressivism is all about.” And what the Democratic Party must be about.

There will be pols and pundits who try to compartmentalize Markey’s unprecedented win this week, to narrow its import and its message for Democrats. That’s a mistake. Yes, he won a Democratic Party primary in a Democratic state. But he did more than that. He won with a campaign that abandoned the drab centrist caution that has for so long burdened so many Democratic contenders—and that threatens to burden Democratic candidates this year, including presidential nominee Joe Biden. That caution plays into the hands of Republicans like Donald Trump, who delight in running against tepid Democrats. Trump wants his Democratic rivals to be afraid of making big proposals that might be labeled “radical.”

Markey says that Democrats should stop stepping into the traps that the Republicans set for them.

So while Kennedy conducted an oddly predictable mainstream Democratic campaign this year, Markey abandoned caution and mounted a reelection bid that did not merely champion the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and real responses to the shootings of unarmed Black men that he decried as “murders at the hands of the police.” The senator, who ran his first election campaign in 1972, mounted a thoroughly modern 2020 campaign that embraced the policies, the tactics, and the vision of a new generation of progressives—many of them aligned with the Sunrise Movement—who formed the campaign’s “Markeyverse,” and who, as The Boston Globe observed, “powered his campaign at the ballot box, over the phones, and—perhaps most of all—in ebullient, meme-filled online organizing.”

Along the way, Markey showed Democrats how to respond when Republicans claim that advocacy for necessary change represents some sort of capitulation to a “far-left agenda.”

Recalling when he and Ocasio-Cortez introduced their Green New Deal resolution in 2019, Markey told Massachusetts crowds: “The Republicans, Fox News, they called the Green New Deal when Alexandria and I introduced it ‘socialism.’ Well, what do you call tax breaks for 100 years for the oil, for the gas, for the coal industries—the wealthiest industries in America shaking our money out of our pockets for tax breaks for them? What I say is: Give us some of that socialism for wind, and solar, and all-electric vehicles, and plug-in hybrids and storage battery technology. And we will be looking at the fossil-fuel industry in the rear-view mirror of history.”

No cowering. No apologies. That was Markey’s strategy. And it worked. Brilliantly.

So brilliantly that Democratic candidates and strategists really should pause and listen to what Ed Markey said Tuesday night, when he claimed his victory in a race by explaining that “justice was on the ballot.… economic justice.… racial justice.… environmental justice.”

Urging on his young supporters, Markey said, “March in the streets, protest, run for school committee or the city council or the state legislature—and win. But don’t just challenge the status quo, dismantle it. Take things over. When they say ‘slow down,’ go faster. When they say ‘not now,’ start that day. When they say ‘not that way,’ redraw the map. When they say you’re too young, show up with your friends. Every reason the critics and cynics offer to give up or give in is proof positive that you should push forward—and hard. The time to be timid is past. The age of incrementalism is over. Now is our moment to think big, to build big, to be big. This is what this election is all about. This is what this moment demands.”

That is the next politics speaking. And it is a winning politics for 2020 and for the future.

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