One telling result was Jamaal Bowman’s rout of incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th Congressional District. Bowman, an African American public-school educator for the past 20 years, was recruited to run by Justice Democrats, the same group that propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over Joe Crowley in 2018. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman embraced the full progressive agenda, from racial justice to Medicare-for-all to the Green New Deal. Democratic establishment stalwarts rushed to endorse Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee seeking his 17th term in office. Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer backed him; so, too, did Hillary Clinton, in her first public endorsement in a Democratic House race this cycle. Bowman was embraced by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as key progressive groups. With the choice clear, Democratic voters swept Bowman to victory.
Bowman’s victory mirrored other progressive successes in New York. In the Democratic primary in the state’s 17th Congressional District, Mondaire Jones, a 33-year-old gay black man,handily won in a field of eight. Among the defeated was Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under Barack Obama. Once more, voters chose the candidate of change over establishment favorites. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez herself blew away a challenger lavishly supported by Wall Street barons, including the CEOs of Blackstone and Goldman Sachs. “Their money,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “couldn’t buy a movement.” Progressive insurgents also won down-ballot races for city councils and state legislatures — even county sheriffs — and have many more impressive candidates competing in primaries yet to come.
In the Senate primary in Kentucky to take on Mitch McConnell, the establishment candidate — Amy McGrath — amassed a war chest of more than $40 million and the endorsements of virtually every party leader. Although most absentee ballots have yet to be counted, preliminary results have her in a surprisingly close race with Charles Booker, an African American who embraced much of the Sanders agenda, from Medicare-for-all to the Green New Deal to criminal justice reform, and who preached like an old-time, kitchen-table Democrat focused on health care and jobs. Booker’s campaign surged as the Black Lives Matter protests grew, and was backed by Sanders and much of the progressive electoral network.
These campaigns benefited from the recent social uprisings — more than 1 in 10 Americans participated in a demonstration by mid-June — and from a left infrastructure that is growing in sophistication and clout. Groups such as Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee offer a counter to the establishment-party coffers and consultants. And Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez provide national recognition and outreach to activists looking to support progressives.
The victories shatter the conventional wisdom that treated presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s victory over Sanders and Warren as a death knell for the left. They also dispel the newly fashionable notions that the emerging left movement has, as New York Times columnist David Brooks argued, no “theory of politics,” and can be easily co-opted because it is focused on symbols such as tearing down statues and not on substantive political change.
In fact, what is extraordinary about the movement in the streets — and across much of the country — is its sophistication. While the killing of George Floyd triggered the outrage that brought millions into the streets, the movement leaders understand the interrelationship of what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three major evils — the evil of racism, the evil of poverty and the evil of war.” And there is a broad awareness, as Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell, told The Post that “the power of social movements is essential, but insufficient, to secure victories that these cries from the street demand. You need the power to govern, and you need to ensure that that power is accountable to social movements.”
Polls show voters prefer Biden’s calm competence over Donald Trump’s calamitous, divisive and incompetent presidency. But voters are also putting Biden and Democratic Party leaders on notice not to ignore the need for bold, structural change nor the progressive insurgency that grows ever more sophisticated and strategic. As McGrath discovered, it isn’t enough to be against Trump or McConnell. Biden now says the times demand the modern version of a New Deal, although that has yet to be reflected in his platform. What’s clear is that a growing movement — and new leaders — will demand nothing less.