A Democratic Spring: 12 Left Challengers Taking On the Party Establishment in 2018

The scattering of challenges to the Democratic establishment after Bernie Sanders’ run has become a tidal wave.

Theo Anderson

Art Direction/Design by Rachel K. Dooley, Illustration by Lorelyn Medina

The shock of Donald Trump’s election inspired an organized, determined resistance on many fronts and in many forms. One could be called a democratic spring”: a long-germinating rebellion within the Democratic Party that gained strength with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid and might just save the withered institution from itself.

Primaries, more than general elections or party conventions, are the soil in which party transformation takes root.

The Left has sprouted an independent electoral infrastructure, including the formation of new groups like Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Indivisible and Brand New Congress; the invigoration of existing political organizations like the Working Families Party; and a shift toward greater electoral engagement by groups like People’s Action and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Another trend, propelled by Trump’s grotesque misogyny and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, is a surge in the number of women running for office. As of mid-April, 331 women had filed to run, easily beating the old record of 298, set in 2012. Of those, Democrats outnumber Republicans 248 to 83.

Yet another is the galvanization of young people. A March survey by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 37 percent of people under 30 definitely plan to vote this fall, the most interest ever recorded in the poll, with Democrats driving the surge. In 2014, only 23 percent of respondents under 30 had definite plans to vote.

Removing Trump from office, whether through the impeachment process or the next presidential election, is a high priority for progressives. But when Trump is finally gone, an even more daunting challenge will remain: creating a political system that represents the people and the public interest.

This goal will not be achieved overnight, to say the least. It’s worth remembering that the current incarnation of the GOP began to take shape in the mid-1970s, with the fusion of corporate interests and a resurgent Christian Right. At the time, the Republican vision of breaking unions, redistributing wealth to the wealthiest, slashing corporate taxes, gutting the public sphere and privatizing public education must have seemed an impossible mountain to climb. Reforming the Democratic Party into a vehicle for a progressive agenda is no less daunting, given the way corporate money has swamped and deformed our democracy.

But a key lesson of the GOP’s radical shift to the right is that party transformation is possible, and primaries, more than general elections or conventions, are the soil in which party transformation takes root. Primary candidates often offer competing visions for the future, and challengers to an incumbent must either affirm or deny the party’s status quo.

Sanders’ 2016 bid is a case study on the effect a serious challenger can have. His relatively narrow loss to an icon of establishment politics, Hillary Clinton, suggests the depth of anger and desperation for reform within a broad segment of the party. The implications of the Sanders campaign will unfold for many years, but one clear effect is the spread of policy ideas pushing the party left, including Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, free or subsidized child care, criminal justice and campaign finance reform, progressive taxation, and policies addressing economic inequality.

The 2016 Democratic Party platform at least nodded to many of these ideas, largely because of Sanders’ influence. Over the past 18 months, in a series of state party conventions and special elections, these ideas have been the distinguishing mark between progressives and establishment Democrats. The current midterm contests are the most forceful and comprehensive expression of this ongoing challenge and will set the stage for epic battles to define the party in 2020 and far beyond.

The national news media have spotlighted and obsessed over a few races, most notably Marie Newman in Illinois, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Randy Bryce in Wisconsin, Cynthia Nixon in New York and Ben Jealous in Maryland. All merit the attention, but the focus on a few high-profile candidates obscures the passion for change and the range of issues inspiring a plethora of progressives to run — in defiance of Trump, surely, but also in response to the failures of the Democratic Party.

The dozen candidates for state and federal offices profiled in the following pages have attracted relatively little national press, but they offer a wide window on the multi-dimensional movement to transform the party. In a U.S. House race, for example, Sarah Smith prioritizes an antiwar stance. In state legislature races, Jovanka Beckles focuses on affordable housing and Alessandra Biaggi calls out campaign finance corruption. Some will win and some will lose, but all are aiming to help grow organizations, coalitions and a grassroots base that have the power to fundamentally change the status quo — beginning inside the Democratic Party and radiating out.

Whether this momentum will amount to a political revolution is unknowable. One painful truth underscored by the Trump era is that, though the arc of history is long, it doesn’t bend toward any definite conclusion. And yet, primary by primary, issue by issue, perhaps progressives can bend it ever so slightly toward justice once again.

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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