The insurgent progressive movement has good reasons to celebrate as primary season comes to an end, much to the dismay of the corporate wing of the Democratic party. The victories of young, fresh insurgents get the most attention, but equally important is the beginning of reform within DNC, which gives state and local progressives a roadmap for party reform – and a mandate to get reforms done.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, having posed as a “man of the left” as he sought to fend off the primary challenge of Cynthia Nixon, scorned the “progressive insurgent wave” as “not even a ripple,” dismissing the stunning Congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “fluke.”
Cuomo’s victory strut, purchased with millions in special interest money, gets it wrong as even the New York results suggests. Insurgent Democrats are on the rise, winning far more than expected.
Winning the War of Ideas
As we hurtle towards general elections on November 6, the progressive insurgency is winning the battle of ideas in the Democratic Party. Increasingly, Democratic candidates are embracing big ideas from the insurgent platform – Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15.00 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, getting money out of politics, abortion rights, the Dream Act and more.
Former President Obama provided the greatest tell when he returned to the political fray, noting that Democrats were running on “good new ideas like Medicare for All, giving workers seats on corporate boards, reversing the most egregious corporate tax cuts to make sure college students graduate debt-free.” A Brookings Institute study this summer found that ½ of all Democratic candidates for the House endorsed Medicare for All.
Bernie Sanders' agenda in his 2016 presidential bid is the source of much of this. Senator Elizabeth Warren has added curbing corporate power and cleaning up corruption. A good jobs guarantee is beginning to gain traction. Potential contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 – Sanders, Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jeff Merkley – jockey to prove their insurgent credentials, ensuring that fundamental reforms like these will gain even greater traction after the November elections.
Ironically, Andrew Cuomo himself succumbed to the lure of progressive ideas. Faced with a primary challenge, he tacked to the left, in what became known as the #TheCynthiaEffect, seeking to smudge the differences between them. He also began taking credit for the passage of the $15.00 minimum wage, and paid family leave and legalizing gay marriage -- reforms he resisted for years.
Remarkable Electoral Success
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary victory over Queens incumbent Joe Crowley, which ensures her a seat in the incoming Congress, was the most-noticed of this season's remarkable victories, as underfunded, young, fresh insurgents knocked off establishment candidates. These include Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes in Connecticut, and Kara Eastman in Nebraska and gubernatorial candidates Ben Jealous in Maryland, Andrew Gillum in Florida, and David Garcia in Arizona.
A Brookings Institute study of Democratic House and Senate primaries found that 81 progressives had won Democratic House primaries in the first 31 states, a 25-percent increase over six years ago.
Down the ballot, the margin of victory was even greater, with progressives making remarkable strides in states from New Hampshire to Wisconsin to Washington. The results are, as the New York Times reported, “a sea change in the Democratic Party,” making it younger, more progressive and more diverse.
Again, the primaries in Cuomo’s New York accentuate this point, as progressive insurgents knocked out six of the eight Democratic state senators of the Independent Democratic Conference, a bloc which essentially caucused with Republicans and – with Cuomo’s tacit blessing – served as a roadblock to progressive reform. Cuomo’s going to deal with more than “a ripple,” when the state Senate reconvenes.
Some of these are already guaranteed victory in the fall: Pressley, Hayes and Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota are shoo-ins or running unopposed for the House. Others have tough races ahead of them, like Eastman in Nebraska, Jess King and Scott Wallace in Pennsylvania, Jared Golden in Maine, and Katie Porter in California. State races from governor on down will be fiercely contested, as Republicans double down on efforts to keep control of statehouses and legislatures in the runup to reapportionment after 2020.
What’s clear is that a new generation of leaders is emerging on the left.
New Electoral Strategies
By necessity, progressive insurgents have begun to develop new ways to be competitive with far less money. Crowley outspent Oscario-Cortez by 10 to 1. She countered with both the old - knocking on doors, legions of volunteers, and the new – aggressive use of social media, using technology to help interact with citizens.
Many insurgents have also targeted the infrequent voters – particularly the young and people of color –who the political pros write off as a waste of their time and money. With the added boost of the Orange Menace in the White House, the result has been dramatic increases in turnout in primary after primary.
Cuomo may have bested Cynthia Nixon by 30 points, but she received more votes than he won in his last contested primary in 2014. Turnout in New York was at the level of a presidential primary, more than twice its previous level.
One part of the new form of politics is the growing development of organizations on the ground – People’s Action, Indivisible, Our Revolution – that are organizing both around issues and elections and plan to stay in place and continue to build.
Even the insurgent candidates that lose contribute to the growing experience, membership and sophistication of the continuing groups. This is new and extremely important. These structures could in some ways grow to become the equivalent of the evangelical churches on the Republican side, beginning to do what a real party and a vibrant labor movement would have done in previous eras. Whether this is sustainable remains to be seen, but it is beginning to build.
A Roadmap for Remaking Democrats
A less-noticed but equally important victory during this primary season was the beginning of reform in the Democratic Party. The DNC finally adopted rules curbing the role of Superdelegates in the nominating convention. Importantly, DNC members passed guidelines for state parties, recommendations designed to open parties up, to encourage new voters and new energy. Each of the state parties, remarkably, is a separate legal entity, so the DNC can only recommend, not direct reforms. What they have done, however, is give state and local progressives a roadmap for party reform – and a mandate to get reforms done.
Again, Cuomo’s New York Democratic Party is a classic example. In few parties are the rules so blatantly rigged to consolidate the power of the insiders and keep out new energy and new voters. NYPIRG’s Neal Rosenstein calls it “institutionalized voter suppression.” The state allows no early voting, has no provision for same day or automatic voter registration. It has dual primaries- one for federal offices and one for state offices on different days.
Worse, it has the earliest cutoff date for declaring party affiliation. If you wanted to vote in last week’s primaries, you would have had to declare your affiliation by October 13, 2017. The young, unaffiliated voters or the disaffected Republican voters excited by fresh candidates are effectively locked out of the voting. In state after state, progressives are running for local and country Democratic Party posts. And now, the new DNC rules give progressives a mandate for driving reform at the local level.
The insurgency has only just begun. Big money still speaks with a loud voice in the Democratic Party. The party committees still seek out candidates who can give or raise big bucks. The party’s consultants still make their living running old style campaigns, pouring money into TV and radio ads.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is already the largest value-based caucus in the Congress, but Blue Dog and Wall Street Democrats are still able to hold a Democratic majority hostage.
But Cuomo has it wrong. The insurgency is already a wave and growing. New energy, new leaders, and new capacity are emerging. The insurgency is not yet a flood, but it certainly is no fluke. Now the pre-lims are over; the main event is beginning. Republicans, desperate to hold their majorities, have already turned to vicious, personal attack ads. Trump promises to stump “six or seven days a week” to rouse his base. The progressive surge must continue to build.