You’d have thought that, by now, the Democrats would have their house in order. But even now, 18 months into Trump’s presidency, there’s no consensus on where the party is headed or who should run in 2020.
There’s a schism in the US Left and it’s proving to be a problem. The split is between an emboldened progressive movement that never believed in Hillary Clinton, and those centrists who believe that her adopting large swathes of Bernie Sanders’s platform in the election was a big mistake.
Even though the next presidential election is still some years away, the Democrats’ current drive to flip the House of Representatives their way in the mid-terms, and perhaps opening the door to impeaching Donald Trump, is betraying the divide. While the party’s leftie avatars—like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—are endorsing progressive candidates, especially in New York and the American West, the establishment is spending millions in a bid to defeat them.
Tuesday night’s race between Congressman Joe Crowley, the 4thhighest ranking Democratic in the House, and newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can be seen as the latest proxy war of this Democratic primary season — a season which had, until now, seen the establishment largely prevail. But in New York, on the electoral season’s biggest stage yet, centrists were dealt a sobering blow.
Ocasio-Cortez beat the incumbent Crowley with nearly 58% of the vote. If previous establishment victories had been seen as the ship correcting itself, this was the blue wave progressives have been thundering about. For those watching to see how effectively the Democratic Party had adapted their gameplan following the 2016 catastrophe, the actual outcome wasn’t nearly as alarming as the surprise of the establishment.
If, on Tuesday morning, you had asked any Democrat on Capitol Hill who they expected to succeed the House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, ten-term New York congressman Crowley would have been top of everyone’s shortlist. Even when I recently asked a progressive California representative that question, Crowley’s was the only name he mentioned. But in a matter of hours the heir apparent had been vanquished – suggesting that while Democrats in Congress still respect the pecking order, voters in Queens and the Bronx certainly do not.
“This is not an end, this is the beginning,” first-time candidate Ocasio-Cortez, 28, told supporters during her victory speech. “This is the beginning because the message that we sent the world tonight is that it’s not okay to put donors before your community.” Her last remark was a dig at Crowley, who was criticised in a New York Times op-ed for failing to show up to debate Ocasio-Cortez (he blamed a scheduling conflict and sent a representative in his place). While Ocasio-Cortez lives in the district she’s very likely to represent after November’s general election, Crowley has a house outside Washington, DC where his children attend school. But there was more to Ocasio-Cortez’s seismic victory than local resentment towards an establishment lawmaker who had taken his district’s loyalty for granted.
In an electorate of which 70% is voters of colour, Ocasio-Cortez is a young woman of Puerto Rican descent; Crowley is a white-haired, white guy. She’s a former organiser for Bernie Sanders and ran a progressive platform against the long-standing boss of the Queens party machine. She refused donations from corporate PACs and raised only $300,000, mostly from small donors; Crowley spent five times that much trying to defeat her.
So what did swing it? Maybe Ocasio-Cortez won on the strength of her ground-game, knocking on the doors of the Right demographic — young voters and working-class people of colour — with the right message. Maybe it’s because she’s the fresh blood an aging Democratic Party (House leadership is currently headed by three reps over 75) has been calling for; even next-in-line Crowley, 56, is old enough to have not faced a primary challenger since Ocasio-Cortez was a teenager. Maybe she was just “the right candidate”; maybe, as the community evolved and his connection to it weakened, Crowley was just the wrong one.
Or just maybe Ocasio-Cortez, who calls herself a Democratic socialist and campaigned on universal healthcare and abolishing ICE (the law enforcement agency responsible for separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border), embodies the liberal insurgency that scorned ‘Bernie Bros’ have been calling for since Trump’s win.
For years, Democrats of all stripes were told to swallow centrism because it was the only path to victory. But that strategy decisively failed — the safest pair of hands the Democrats could imagine was defeated by a radical insurgent who wrested control of the Republican party from its own establishment players.
The effect has been to disrupt the notion that pragmatism and idealism can’t coexist in the same candidate. If a moderate choice doesn’t work, it stands to reason that ‘Democratic socialists’ — or whatever you want to call a far-left insurgency to mirror what happened on the right — really do represent the party’s best chance. Understood this way, groundswell for progressivism isn’t just an expression of frustration. It’s a move to unseat Trump from the outside, much as he ascended.
A central feature of Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive campaign was, like it was for Sanders in 2016, the refusal of corporate donations. “We’ve got people; they’ve got money” read one of her viral campaign slogans, effectively eliding centrist Democrats like Crowley with their corporate backers. And while the staggering popularity of the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives have signaled that liberal voters are exceptionally engaged right now, it’s worth noting that neither event was led by the Democratic Party itself. They were grassroots campaigns that invited the party to share the stage, not the other way around.
Not that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has changed anything as far as House Democratic leadership is concerned. Even now it’s happened, the establishment is refusing to take notice. At a post-election press conference, Pelosi downplayed Ocasio-Cortez’s win as nothing more than an outlier. “They made a choice in one district,” said Pelosi. “The fact that in a very progressive district in New York it went more progressive — Joe Crowley is a progressive, but more to the Left than Joe Crowley — is about that district. It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.”
It didn’t take long for pundits to start drawing the comparison between Crowley and former Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, the then-House Majority leader who was ousted in 2014 by a Tea Party-supported candidate in a race that pitted the moderate GOP base against conservative idealogues. Against that backdrop, it’s easy to see why Pelosi would take pains to minimise the significance of what happened in New York – to reduce Ocasio-Cortez’s victory to an isolated win rather than an emblem of a larger shift within the Democratic Party.
Ocasio-Cortez, for her part, has been more gracious than Pelosi. Asked by CNN if she would support the minority leader’s bid for Speaker of the House, the candidate was diplomatic. “It’s too early,” she told CNN. “We need to focus on winning in November.” But regardless of who wins the Democrats’ civil war, Ocasio-Cortez vows to support whoever the party nominates to run against Trump in 2020, progressive or centrist: “There are so many ways to be a Democrat.”
It seems more likely than ever that Pelosi will hold on to her leadership position. But the election of the outlier Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only progressive win on Tuesday. There were other unexpected insurgents claiming victory: a progressive professor bested a Navy vet with the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in central New York State. In Maryland, a former NAACP president, Ben Jealous, took the nomination off an establishment moderate.
Yes, Pelosi might hold on to her post for a while longer, but considering her refusal to seriously engage with progressive victories, what’s less obvious is that she’ll hold on to the direction of the party she purports to lead.