It’s like clockwork. When progressives are gaining ground, the big-money wing of the Democratic Party often chooses to turn its fire on the left — as if progressives represented the real threat, and not President Trump, the GOP and their billionaire backers. It’s why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has chosen to blacklist vendors who work for progressive primary challengers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) instead of, for example, vendors who also work for corporate polluters or union busters.
This dynamic is particularly stark in blue states where Democrats control the levers of power and political machines are strong. In the past month, several local Democratic machines have declared war on the Working Families Party for backing progressive candidates and causes.
In Philadelphia last month, the city’s Democratic Chairman Bob Brady threatened Democratic elected officials and city committee members who dared to endorse Working Families Party City Council candidate Kendra Brooks, who was running to unseat a Republican. Despite the crackdown, Brooks won her seat, becoming the first elected official in Philadelphia’s history to win on the WFP ballot line.
In New Jersey, the Democratic machine literally had the WFP’s state director, Sue Altman, dragged from a committee room floor by state troopers for her dogged opposition to the corrupt pay-to-play schemes that have enriched Democratic party boss George Norcross and his friends with $1 billion in corporate welfare. The overreach backfired — and brought yet more attention to Norcross.
But perhaps the most glaring example is New York state, site of the latest chapter in the years-long war between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his opponents in the WFP. Until 2018, a group of breakaway Democrats in the state Senate called the “Independent Democratic Caucus” propped up Republican control of the chamber. The arrangement benefited Cuomo, as he could move forward legislation he favored while sidelining anything that threatened his real estate and Wall Street donors. In the 2018 primaries, the WFP and its allies defeated six corporate-backed Democrats in the state Senate, nominating insurgents who ran pledging not to take a penny from the real estate industry. And in the general election, progressives picked up even more seats, helping to flip the state Senate to Democratic control.
This year, the new legislature shocked the political establishment and real estate industry power players by passing a raft of progressive legislation, including the biggest expansion of renters’ rights in a generation. Much to Cuomo’s chagrin, he was unable to block it.
Cuomo doesn’t like to lose — what politician does? — and he began privately telling allies he wanted to destroy the WFP. His plan was the creation of a commission to design a system of public financing of elections that also empowered to make unilateral changes to minor party ballot access laws. For the price of ending the dominance of big money in New York’s elections, Cuomo’s appointees on the commission forced other Democrats and progressives to swallow the most onerous party qualifications laws in the country.
But it’s the WFP and the progressives who will likely have the last laugh. Though the new party qualifications thresholds are onerous, the WFP and its allies are likely to be able to exceed them — if the rules even hold up in court. Meanwhile, the public financing plan will become progressives’ most potent weapon in the years to come. In jurisdictions that have implemented robust systems of public financing of elections, small donors become a counterweight to the power of big money. With public financing, progressives will be able to compete with big-money candidates head-to-head, cycle after cycle. That will fundamentally alter the balance of power and make every other progressive goal easier.
There’s an old saying often misattributed to Mohandas Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” A rising progressive movement is vying for power with the corporate class inside the Democratic Party and outside of it. Collectively, progressives are creating a muscular political constituency that would have seemed impossible even a decade ago. And even as those groups and leaders don’t always perfectly align, they’re all, as Ocasio-Cortez said of Sanders and Warren, “on the same team.”
It wasn’t long ago that ideas such as a wealth tax, a Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all, universal childcare or free college would have been ignored or laughed out of the room. Progressives, take heart. If the fights are getting fiercer as those issues dominate the 2020 ideas primary, it’s because we’re that much closer to winning.