How do you cover an insurgency like the one now roiling the Democratic Party? The mainstream media’s treatment would give readers a severe case of whiplash. The 2018 primaries had barely started when The New York Times announced the virtual demise of the movement sparked by Bernie Sanders. Then, when newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez eviscerated Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, in a New York primary, the Times ran a story headlined There Is a Revolution on the Left, warning that “a new generation of confrontational progressives has put Democrats at the precipice of a sweeping transition.” Then, when some of the candidates that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders stumped for lost, Politico declared Down Goes Socialism (without bothering to tell us when “socialism” had been up), while The Washington Post concluded Liberal Insurgency Hits a Wall.
There is clearly a powerful reform movement building on the left. It is spearheaded by activists inspired by the Sanders campaign, but also by movements like Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, #MeToo, and growing environmental activism. What is surprising—and what should be exciting to Democrats—is that much of the energy is focused on electoral politics, on remaking the Democratic Party rather than leaving it.
This upheaval is a long-overdue response to the failure of the Democratic establishment. The policy failure is expressed in stagnant wages, rising insecurity and inequality, widespread corruption, and unchecked climate change, to name a few calamities. The political failure is undeniable, with the loss of the White House to the most unpopular candidate in modern times, control of Congress to a remarkably reactionary Republican Party, and a thousand seats in state legislatures across the country.
To date, the reform movement has made its greatest gains in the war of ideas. This shouldn’t be surprising. The reforms that the activists are championing are bold, striking, and address real needs: Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, a $15 minimum wage, universal pre-K, a federal jobs guarantee, a commitment to rebuild America, a challenge to big-money politics, police and prison reforms, and a fierce commitment to liberty and justice for all.
These ideas aren’t “radical.” They enjoy broad popular support—even the Koch brothers’ own polling demonstrates that. Not surprisingly, these ideas are increasingly championed not just by progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but by more mainstream liberals like Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker as they gear up for the 2020 presidential race.
Almost without exception, the leaders of the reform movement—from Ocasio-Cortez and Warren to Sanders and Ben Jealous—dismiss the much-ballyhooed tension between “identity politics” and economic populism. That supposed choice was driven by the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party, which hoped to use social liberalism as a cover for a neoliberal economics that doesn’t work for working people. Insurgent candidates of all races and genders have no problem championing social progress and economic populism.
The insurgent candidates have fared remarkably well, given the odds. They are, almost by definition, fresh and inexperienced. They face opponents who start with more money, more experienced operatives, and greater name recognition. Deep-pocketed outside groups line up against them. Many are seeking to build small-donor and volunteer-driven campaigns from the ground up.
The victories in the various House primaries—Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, Katie Porter in California—are impressive. But less well-known is the remarkable surge of insurgent candidates in down-ballot state and local races. One that did get attention was the upset victory of Wesley Bell for St. Louis County prosecutor, ousting a 27-year incumbent who had failed to even charge the officer involved in the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Moreover, the media too often assume that if the movement candidate has lost, a “moderate” has won. In the Michigan gubernatorial primary, for example, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez stumped for Abdul El-Sayed, who wound up with 30 percent of the vote. But the victor, “establishment favorite” Gretchen Whitmer, was hardly a conservative Democrat. A strong advocate for working people, Whitmer ran with the support of the United Autoworkers and campaigned on a $15 minimum wage, universal preschool, the creation of a state bank, and the legalization of pot. Similarly, Brent Welder narrowly lost his primary in Kansas; the victor, Sharice Davids, is a lesbian Native American veteran running as a feminist on an economic-populist platform.
The media need to focus less on the horse races and more on what’s being built and what’s being discarded. The insurgency is neither on its deathbed nor about to sweep out the old. Indeed, Democrats are still in the early stages of a huge debate on the party’s direction. Insurgent candidates are only starting to build the capacity to run serious challengers. But there is new energy in the party and a new generation demanding change. This reality is forcing more established Democrats to adjust. In the face of Trump’s venom, Republican reaction, and the failure of the party leadership, that is surely a good thing.