In the 1980s, with Reaganomics in full force, presidential candidate Jesse Jackson saw the need for a unified voice for the millions of disenfranchised Americans. As a result he initiated a political organization known as the Rainbow Coalition, a movement that transcended party politics and touted leftist policy initiatives to transform social programs, voting rights, and affirmative action. Jackson’s “big tent” coalition garnered support from an array of communities: African American, Jewish, LGBT, disabled veterans, farmers, and many more were able to unite under a common goal. The Coalition revived, if only for a moment, a sense that mass movement could change the political discourse on social and political issues from a platform that ran much deeper than the Republican-Democrat dichotomy. However, the momentum was short lived. Jackson was running as a Democrat, and was stiffly opposed by members of his own political establishment. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young said, “The major task of Black America today is to get rid of Ronald Reagan. We cannot afford to support a black candidate who cannot win” .
Fast forward to June 24, 2018. Joe Crowley, a New York congressman who had not been contested in the primaries for 14 years, lost to 28-year-old self-described Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Crowley was a 10 term incumbent and the fourth highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. Ocasio Cortez was a waitress until she decided to challenge his seat. A media maelstrom followed her victory. While many were energized by her grassroots, unapologetically left-wing, anti-corporate approach, the Democratic higher-ups were less energetic. Even Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and a self-proclaimed “progressive” was critical of Ocasio Cortez’s victory, stating, “They made a choice in one district… So let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that within the caucus or outside the caucus” .
These are not isolated events. Rather, they highlight a subversive relationship between the Democratic establishment and any political movement to its left. Pelosi and Young’s sentiments echo a deeply held belief within the mainstream Democratic party that pushing progressive or revolutionary ideas, especially when facing tough right-wing opposition, is politically infeasible. They assert that continued support for Bernie-style politicians like Ocasio Cortez and growing factions within the party are what led to Hillary Clinton’s demise in 2016 and fuel a continuation of right-wing nationalist insurgency. I agree that the ever-expanding divisiveness of the Democratic party will be its downfall. The party that claims to be “for the people” is certainly due for a re-evaluation of where its tent lies on the ideological spectrum. However, I believe these writers and politicians are wrong in their assertion that the answer lies in status-quo centrism in order to entice voters in the middle. Instead, the Democratic party needs to employ a unified and inexorable platform that appeals more to progressives than centrists.
In order to understand where the Democratic party should build this platform, they need to understand the ideological and political drives of their prospective voters. These new progressive candidates excel in their understanding of what that platform should be in order to reflect the views of their constituents. While Pelosi believes that the Democratic party is “capitalist, and that’s just the way it is” , Democratic voters are starting to think differently. A recent Gallup poll shows that support for capitalism among Democratic voters is at a record low at 47 percent, while a dependable majority of the Democratic base has a positive view of socialism at 57 percent . A vast majority — 70 percent — of all Americans, regardless of ideological belief, support Medicare for All. Support for free college tuition is also appealing to 79 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans .
Among democratic millennial voters we also see a disenchantment with the current party establishment. Millennials, who still feel the constant sting of the 2008 recession, are tired of a party that seems to only champion identity politics and social issues with very little unification and assertion of economic policy. A Reuters poll shows that while millennials continue to prefer the Democratic party over the Republican party, their support is diminishing. From 2016 to 2018, support dropped from 55 percent to 46 percent, while Republican support remained constant at 28 percent . Millennials may have been inspired by Barack Obama’s populist platform in 2008, but they were much less enchanted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign targeted at the illusory “moderate Republican” of the white middle class. Democratic voters and millennials want more than a politician who will simply “resist” the Trump administration; they want someone who offers a viable alternative.
It is the progressive and Democratic Socialist candidates who offer just that. While it may be hard for a typical Democratic voter to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with the current system, they can see the growing economic disparity, their houses foreclosed on, family members going without the medical care they need, and the Democratic establishment standing idly by, tweeting about the Mueller investigation. Democratic Socialist and progressive candidates are effectively putting words to this growing frustration. In a sense, they’re utilizing the same populist techniques that Trump used in his campaign, but instead of inciting reactionary nostalgia, they’re implementing the theories of anti-capitalist intellectuals like Marx and Chomsky. These candidates push concise platforms focused on working-class voters concerns, such as Medicare for All, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and progressive tax rates. The Democratic Socialist discourse is less interested in Republicans vs. Democrats and more interested in addressing inherent flaws in American economic and political framework that hurt the silent majority. Refusal to accept corporate PAC money in campaigns has become the progressive candidates’ litmus test and to show their sincere belief that people really do come before profit.
While the victories of progressive candidates are still not commonplace they are and I believe will continue to be more frequent. In 2014, there were 60 self-described progressive non-incumbent candidates in house elections. In 2018 there are 280.  The victories and campaigns are not confined to a single district or state. Candidates endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), such as Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan won huge congressional primary elections, upsetting long-standing incumbents. Even states that primarily voted for Trump in 2016, such as Texas, North Dakota, and Arizona are seeing victories backed by the Democratic Socialists of America .
While liberal and conservative critics scoff at these candidates’ reclamation of socialism and leftist policies, the importance of left-wing ideology in American political discourse can not be understated. It is critical to remember that cherished moments in American history, such as the Civil Rights movement, were organized by unapologetic radicals, critical of the basic foundation of American beliefs. It was because of their persistence that politicians listened. Without radicals and revolutionaries, there would be no change. The implementation of legislation that enacts systemic transformation isn’t found in the middle.
The campaigns of candidates today are not necessarily novel, but part of a longstanding American tradition. I am not arguing that these candidates will instantly or single handedly transform the face and platform of the Democratic party. I don’t believe they’re above criticism from anyone to their left or their right. But they represent a growing demand for working class voices and values in government. I believe the Democratic party will be able to rejuvenate its base by embracing and supporting the platforms of the new Democratic Socialists and progressives in the House and Senate. A unification within the party is far more beneficial to the voters who put their trust in them than a half-hearted attempt to shake hands with Conservatives. If Republican politicians are willing to get behind Trump to maintain unity, Democratic Socialism should be a cakewalk for Democrats.
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