The past month has delivered a series of devastating blows to the progressive soul. In the span of 24 hours in late June, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban and undercut public-sector unions, the latter of which was followed almost immediately by the announcement of Justice Anthony 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 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.
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 with a platform including 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. 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 grassroots campaign that revolved around the challenges working people face. As Ocasio-Cortez put it, “We beat a machine with a movement.”
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 told the Nation.
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.
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 needs 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.”
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. 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.”