The past month has delivered a series of devastating blows to the progressive soul. In late June, in the span of 24 hours, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s travel ban and undercut public-sector unions, the latter of which was followed almost immediately by the announcement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement. The onslaught of dreadful news, on top of the controversy over Trump’s cruel family-separation policy, left many feeling a sense of overwhelming despair.
Yet as Columbia journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin writes, “The left has known demoralizing, mind-bending, gut-wrenching times” in the past and has endured. The past month has undoubtedly been bleak, but the same news cycle that brought terrible news from the court also delivered thrilling Democratic primary victories by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District and Ben Jealous in the Maryland gubernatorial race. And these victories are powerful evidence of the young, progressive energy that is propelling the Democratic Party — and the country — into the future.
Running on bold progressive policies, including Medicare for all, Ocasio-Cortez and Jealous, former president of the NAACP, both soundly defeated opponents backed by the party establishment. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was particularly stunning. Most insiders didn’t view the 28-year-old democratic socialist — who had worked as a bartender prior to her campaign — as a serious threat to Rep. Joseph Crowley, a 10-term incumbent who outspent her 18-to-1. Nonetheless, Ocasio-Cortez spent months knocking on doors in Queens and the Bronx with a platform that includes tuition-free college, a federal jobs guarantee, a green New Deal, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and an unapologetic rejection of the military-industrial complex. She won by 15 percentage points.
Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence is a huge story — one the Trump-obsessed media establishment largely missed. Outside of outlets on the progressive left such as the Intercept and the Nation, most mainstream news coverage ignored or dismissed Ocasio-Cortez until voters in her district forced them to pay attention.
Yet many media outlets still refuse to learn from their mistakes: Since the election, many pundits have misinterpreted her unlikely victory, chalking it up to local demographics, or sensationalizing her embrace of socialism without seriously considering her policy views. A cold-eyed look at the race shows clearly that Ocasio-Cortez didn’t simply ride demographic trends to victory. Rather, she connected with voters across racial and gender lines by running a grass-roots campaign that revolved around the challenges working people face. As Ocasio-Cortez put it, “We beat a machine with a movement.”
Critically, that movement was built on ideas, not just identity. Despite the persistent debate over the value of “identity politics,” Ocasio-Cortez understands that economic and racial justice are fundamentally intertwined. “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications,” she recently told the Nation. “The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas have inspired some predictable pushback — and more than a bit of panic — from the Democratic establishment. There are those who argue her bold platform would alienate voters in other parts of the country. But polls show that progressive ideas such as Medicare for all and a federal jobs guarantee are popular in rural America, too. As Ocasio-Cortez put it, “strong, clear advocacy for working-class Americans isn’t just for the Bronx.”
That’s the kind of advocacy that progressive insurgents are taking to voters nationwide. Along with Jealous, gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Cynthia Nixon are shaking up races in Georgia and New York. Congressional candidates such as Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Cori Bush in Missouri are among those hoping to join Ocasio-Cortez and Kara Eastman, who defeated a conservative Democrat in Nebraska. Added to this is an exciting crop of state-level candidates that includes Julia Salazar (New York) and Emily Sirota (Colorado). Bolstered by grass-roots groups, these candidates are finding new and creative ways to spread their progressive message.
For their movement to succeed, progressive strategist Mike Lux, author of the new book “How to Democrat in the Age of Trump,” argues that “the bridge between grassroots progressives and the party’s leaders need to be rebuilt.” That means insurgents who win will have to work to bring traditional Democrats into the movement. “All shades of blue need to be at the table,” Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb recently told me, “and as we run more progressive candidates, we can’t make the mistake of creating some type of club that you need to check off certain things before you can join.” Of course, it also means that Democratic leaders “need to genuinely listen to their grassroots rather than battling or ignoring them,” as Lux writes.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Democrats have been seeking a message that can pierce the cacophony of Trumpism. While party leaders have vaguely promised a “better deal” for working people, Ocasio-Cortez speaks of “economic dignity” while stating clearly that “no person in America should be too poor to live.” The past month has been a painful reminder that Americans are not merely politically divided; we are engaged in a moral battle that will define the country for years to come. Democrats would be wise to embrace the passion that progressive insurgents are bringing to the fight and the universal principle that working people’s voices need to be heard. As Ocasio-Cortez put it, “There’s nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.”