How do you cover an insurgency like that now roiling the Democratic Party? To date, the mainstream media’s treatment would give regular readers a severe case of whiplash. The primaries had barely begun when some in the media announced the virtual demise of the movement spawned by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Then, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez eviscerated Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House and possible heir to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a New York primary, the New York Times headlined, “Democrats brace as storm brews far to their 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 whom Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders stumped for lost in Kansas and Michigan, Politico declared “Down goes socialism” (not bothering to tell us when “socialism” had been up); and The Washington Post concluded the “liberal insurgency hits a wall.”
It’s worth sorting this out. There surely is a powerful reform movement building on the left. It is spearheaded by activists inspired not only by the Sanders campaign but also by movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, the plight of the “dreamers” and growing environmental activism. What is surprising — and should be exciting to Democrats — is that much of the energy of a new generation of activists is focused on electoral politics, and largely on remaking the Democratic Party rather than leaving it.
Fears about this movement dividing or weakening the Democratic Party are overblown. President Trump rouses and unites progressives. The White House plans to put Trump on the stump this fall, hoping to rescue the Republican majority by nationalizing the election. That provocation will help heal any wounds resulting from bruising primary battles among Democrats.
The upheaval in the party is a long-overdue response to the failure of the Democratic establishment. The policy failure is expressed in stagnant wages, rising insecurity and corrosive calamities — inequality, corruption and climate, to name a few — that continue to worsen. The political failure is undeniable, with the loss of the White House to the most unpopular candidate in modern times, as well as control of Congress 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 the activists are championing are bold and striking and address real needs: Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, $15 minimum wage, universal pre-kindergarten, a jobs guarantee, a commitment to rebuild the United States, a challenge to the corruptions of big-money politics, criminal-justice reform and a fierce commitment to liberty and justice for all.
These ideas aren’t “radical.” They enjoy broad popular support. Not surprisingly, they are increasingly championed not simply by progressives such as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren but also by more-mainstream liberals, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker as they potentially 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 party, hoping to use social liberalism to cover for a neoliberal economics that doesn’t work for working people. Insurgent candidates of all genders, races and sexual orientations have no problem championing social progress and economic populism.
Electorally, 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 often, greater name recognition. Outside groups with deep pockets line up against them. Many are seeking to build small-donor, volunteer-driven campaigns from the ground up.
The victories in House primaries — Ocasio-Cortez, Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, Katie Porter in California — and many more are impressive. Harder for the national media to cover is the remarkable surge of insurgent candidates in down-ballot state and local races. One that did get attention was the race in Missouri for St. Louis County prosecutor, where Wesley Bell ousted the 27-year incumbent who had failed to get indictments in the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Moreover, movement challengers often drive the debate even when they are defeated. The media too often assumes that if the movement candidate has lost, a “moderate” has won. In the Michigan gubernatorial primary, however, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez stumped for Abdul El-Sayed, a remarkable candidate who ended with 30 percent of the vote. The victor, “establishment favorite” Gretchen Whitmer, was hardly a conservative Democrat. A strong advocate for working people, she ran with the support of the United Automobile Workers. She backs a state bank to rebuild Michigan, a $15 minimum wage, statewide universal preschool and legalization of marijuana. Similarly, Brent Welder narrowly lost his Kansas congressional primary despite the support of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. The victor — Sharice Davids — is an openly gay Native American, running as a feminist on populist economics. The Sanders candidate may have lost, but the reform movement keeps on building.
The media needs to focus less on horse-race coverage and more on what’s building and what’s left behind. The insurgency in the Democratic Party isn’t on its deathbed, nor is it about to sweep out the old. It is only just beginning. Democrats are still in the early stages of a big debate on direction. Insurgent candidates are only starting to build the capacity — in ideas, in small donors, in supporting institutions — to run serious challengers. But there is new energy and a new generation that is demanding change. That reality is forcing more-established Democrats to adjust. In the face of Trump venom, Republican reaction and establishment Democratic failure, that surely is a good thing.