Ben Jealous’s Victory Is Proof the Democratic Party’s Left Flank Is Winning Concrete Power

Jealous’s victory in Maryland shows the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is ascendant—and that bold progressive ideas are the path to victory.

Theo Anderson June 26, 2018

Jealous ran—and won—on a strikingly progressive platform. (Ben Jealous 2018 via Facebook)

It’s easy to be hyper­bol­ic about Ben Jeal­ous’ vic­to­ry in Maryland’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic guber­na­to­r­i­al primary.

Jealous’ win offers a glimpse of how progressives might translate party-shaping power into concrete political power.

Last win­ter, Moth­er Jones called it maybe the most impor­tant elec­tion of 2018.” In truth, it isn’t even the most impor­tant race that Ben Jeal­ous, the win­ner, will com­pete in this year. That will take place in Novem­ber, when Jeal­ous faces the incum­bent Repub­li­can, Lar­ry Hogan, whose approval num­bers are in the low 70s even though Mary­land is a heav­i­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic state.

But the excite­ment around the Jeal­ous can­di­da­cy is under­stand­able. We are a lit­tle past the mid­point of the pri­ma­ry sea­son, and the media nar­ra­tive has coa­lesced around the idea that pro­gres­sives have suc­ceed­ed in mov­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty left, but not in actu­al­ly win­ning primaries.

Jeal­ous’ win over Prince George’s Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Rush­ern Bak­er doesn’t only under­cut that nar­ra­tive. It also offers a glimpse of how pro­gres­sives might trans­late par­ty-shap­ing pow­er into con­crete polit­i­cal power.

It’s not just that Jeal­ous — for­mer pres­i­dent of the NAACP — has a strik­ing­ly pro­gres­sive plat­form, though that’s true. His plan for crim­i­nal-jus­tice reform, for exam­ple, is a 26-page doc­u­ment that goes way beyond the scope and depth of typ­i­cal plat­form boil­er­plate. It has elab­o­rate sec­tions on top­ics like reduc­ing the incar­cer­a­tion of women by address­ing the unique roles played by vic­tim­iza­tion, care­giv­ing, race, and pover­ty.” It notes that Jeal­ous will expand access to ade­quate men­tal health and addic­tion ser­vices by fund­ing com­mu­ni­ty treat­ment cen­ters as an alter­na­tive to incar­cer­a­tion,” and calls for legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na and end­ing cash bail. On health­care, Jeal­ous has called for insti­tut­ing a state-lev­el Medicare for all sys­tem, sim­i­lar to Bernie Sanders’ nation­al sin­gle-pay­er plan. 

What’s notable about the Jeal­ous cam­paign is the way he is using this vision, and the tra­di­tion­al and emerg­ing machin­ery of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, to ener­gize and expand the Demo­c­ra­t­ic coali­tion in a way that could change the game in 2020 and beyond.

His list of endorse­ments, for exam­ple, includes some of the key play­ers in the bur­geon­ing pro­gres­sive elec­toral infra­struc­ture — People’s Action, Our Rev­o­lu­tion, and Jus­tice Democ­rats for exam­ple — as well as broad union sup­port, includ­ing endorse­ments by teach­ers’ and postal work­ers’ unions, Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed, and the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union. He has also been backed by Sanders him­self, who made mul­ti­ple appear­ances with Jeal­ous on the cam­paign trail.

As the Wash­ing­ton Post recent­ly not­ed, the Jeal­ous cam­paign had three field orga­niz­ers who coor­di­nat­ed a team of more than 1,000 vol­un­teers, rely­ing heav­i­ly on unions to mobi­lize their mem­bers,” and tar­get­ing black and Lati­no voters.

Much of this is nuts and bolts Demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics, or used to be. What’s new and promis­ing is the bring­ing togeth­er of a rad­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive plat­form with boots-on-the-ground sup­port from a diverse coali­tion. It includes new and tra­di­tion­al elec­toral infra­struc­ture, a grass­roots base of vol­un­teers, and a plan to reach out to under­rep­re­sent­ed minori­ties who tend vote at low­er rates than the gen­er­al population.

That com­bi­na­tion helped Jeal­ous make up ground quick­ly on Bak­er, the fron­trun­ner for much of the race. As recent­ly as Feb­ru­ary, Bak­er had near­ly dou­ble the sup­port of Jeal­ous in polling — 26 per­cent to 14 per­cent. Bak­er had endorse­ments from much of the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment and, until Jeal­ous’ surge through the spring, led his near­est chal­lenger by more than 10 points.

Bak­er took pro­gres­sive posi­tions on some key issues — a $15 min­i­mum wage and free col­lege, notably — but didn’t sup­port Medicare for all. But the main dif­fer­ence between the can­di­dates didn’t involve a par­tic­u­lar pol­i­cy. It was more about the scope of their vision and the con­vic­tion behind it.

As the Bal­ti­more Sun not­ed in its endorse­ment of Jeal­ous, we looked for the can­di­date who is best able to artic­u­late a cohe­sive pro­gres­sive vision to con­trast with Mr. Hogan’s cen­ter-right poli­cies so that vot­ers can send a clear mes­sage in Novem­ber about the direc­tion they want the state to take, and we looked for the can­di­date who would best be able to gov­ern if he or she wins.”

A com­mon com­plaint about the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, espe­cial­ly in the Trump era, has been that it offers plen­ty of crit­i­cism but has few solu­tions. The Jeal­ous cam­paign, with his com­pre­hen­sive vision of where he wants to take Mary­land, is a force­ful rejec­tion of that notion. He shows that party’s pro­gres­sive wing, at least, has plen­ty of pol­i­cy ideas — bold, ambi­tious, detailed ones.

More than that, though, the Jeal­ous cam­paign is evi­dence that hav­ing an ambi­tious agen­da — and being equal­ly ambi­tious in artic­u­lat­ing it — is the only way to build a move­ment that can push that agen­da through. This is the heart of the ongo­ing strug­gle for the soul of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which has tepid move­ment sup­port because so often the par­ty seems to have lost its soul, or sold it.

The last two years have shown that cre­at­ing fun­da­men­tal change will be a long game. Plen­ty of pro­gres­sives have lost, and plen­ty will lose, their cam­paigns. Yet some­times things come togeth­er in a way that hints at the pos­si­bil­i­ties of some­thing stir­ring. Hyper­bole aside, the Jeal­ous cam­paign is one of those moments.

Democ­rats should take note. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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