Illustration by Ryan Sowers

Move Over, Corporate Democrats. A New Wave of Left Populists Is on the Rise.

It's 2018. Candidates don't need the establishment anymore.

January 4 | January 2018 Cover Story

“Five, 10 years from now … you’re going to have a workers’ party …. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years. That are angry.”

In spring 2016, a U.S. presidential candidate made the above prediction to Businessweek. That candidate was none other than Donald Trump, and he was speaking of the GOP. His words seem ludicrous, but Trump’s anti-corruption pose, populism and vaguely left-sounding economic rhetoric would ultimately take him all the way to the White House.

Trump was also openly racist, misogynistic and unencumbered by facts. But he foregrounded economic decline and corruption—and the tight link between them—with a rhetorical force and consistency that always eluded his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

From the January 2018 issue

In a campaign speech in a small Pennsylvania town in June 2016, Trump noted that Pittsburgh’s steel had built much of the nation. But “our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal,” he said. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization—moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas. Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.” Political corruption, in other words, was the root of the nation’s economic stagnation. “I alone can fix it,” he famously thundered at the 2016 GOP Convention.

Of course, Trump’s policies bear no relation to his rhetoric. He stocked his administration with members of the corporate elite who pursue tax breaks for the corporate elite. He put the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration under the control of the industries they are tasked with regulating. Trump has, in short, infected our politics with new doses of corruption while posing as the antidote.

Trump’s 2016 campaign against the rigging of our politics drew from a deep well of righteous fear and anger that neither major party was prepared to tap—because neither would rise to the moral challenge. Had it chosen to, the Democratic Party might have occupied the populist vacuum filled by Trump. But the party’s New Deal-era critique of concentrated wealth and power has been supplanted by a corporate-friendly worldview.

To cite one of endless examples: In the 2017–18 election cycle, 11 of the top 20 recipients of financial sector donations have been Democrats. That sector is easily “the largest source of campaign contributions to federal candidates,” according to House Speaker Paul Ryan ranks first, and Republicans take in more donations overall. But three Democratic senators place second, fourth and fifth: Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio). In November 2017, Kaine was among nine Senate Democrats to support a bill that proposes to roll back key banking industry regulations imposed by Congress in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. Notably, the bill would raise the threshold of “too big to fail” institutions from $50 million in assets to $250 million, meaning a wide swath of the financial industry would be deregulated. As Trump said at the second GOP presidential primary debate in September 2015: “The donors, the special interests, the lobbyists have very strong power over these people.”

Trump’s ironic and unintentional gift to American democracy may be that—by crashing through the traditional party battle lines, and saying what the major parties weren’t free to say—he has created a space in our politics in which the seeds of genuine reform, planted by actual reformers, have taken root and are beginning to grow. Victories by independent, anti-corporate Democrats in the November 2017 off-year elections demonstrated that the Democratic Party has the potential to again put forward a vision that inspires voters. But that slim hope depends on the creation of a progressive electoral infrastructure separate and independent from the party establishment, and thus relatively free of the influence that corporate donors wield over both parties. The 2018 elections will provide an early, formidable test of that new infrastructure’s power to upend the status quo.   

Crooked politics

It is impossible to know precisely how any single issue affects voting behavior, but the corruption of U.S. politics clearly shaped the 2016 election in important ways—in part because Trump forced it front and center. In spring 2016 the left-leaning Guardian asked U.S. readers to name the “one issue—that affects your life—you wish the presidential candidates were discussing more.” Only climate change and economic inequality ranked above “campaign finance/political corruption.”

“We received 1,385 responses from across all 50 states,” the Guardian reported, “many expressing anger and skepticism that the presidential candidates were motivated by anything other than private gain.”

Exit polling from the 2016 election also hinted at deep anger and skepticism about the corrupt state of our politics. A Washington Post poll gave respondents four choices regarding “what quality of leaders matters most.” Clinton easily won in three of the categories—“cares about people like me,” “has good judgment” and “has the right experience.” But she lost to Trump by a devastating margin—82 percent to 14 percent—in the fourth category, “can bring needed change.” Unfortunately for Clinton, that was the quality that a plurality of voters, 39 percent, thought was most important in a president.

Trump’s tenure in office has done little to soothe those concerns. In October 2017, Chapman University released its annual survey of Americans’ fears. The most common fear, by far, was “corruption of government officials,” cited by 74 percent of respondents. By contrast, only about half of respondents feared money troubles and high medical bills. Since the election of Trump, fear of government corruption has risen 13 points.

That fear of corruption is easily justified—a point that progressives have made with increasing alarm and urgency since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010, which not only vastly increased the influence of wealthy donors and corporations in politics but also allowed them to hide from public scrutiny. A 2016 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that “dark” and “gray” money—political donations impossible or extremely difficult to trace—have spiked dramatically. In the six states covered in the analysis, donations by dark money groups to super PACs skyrocketed from about $190,000 in 2006 to more than $9.2 million in 2014. Meanwhile, the percentage of outside spending—spending not coordinated with a candidate—that is “fully transparent” fell from 76 percent to 29 percent. The report quotes former Arizona Republican state Rep. Chris Herstam saying that, in his 33 years of government service, dark money is “the most corrupting influence I have seen.”

For progressives, there is the bitter irony that the primary potential vehicle for reforming the system—the Democratic Party—is entrenched in and dependent on that system, and deeply suspect among not only progressives but the general public. A CNN poll released in early November 2017  showed that 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the party—its worst showing since 1992. (Sixty-one percent had an unfavorable view of the GOP.) Only 36 percent of registered Democrats said they were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in 2018, one point lower than the level of enthusiasm expressed by registered Republicans.

Recent revelations about the party’s tilting of the presidential primary in Hillary Clinton’s favor, in particular, have produced waves of spectacle and disgust. It’s often difficult to see how the party might pull itself together enough to win elections, much less pursue deep reform of American politics.

But what if all the attention on the party establishment misses an important, bigger-picture development?

Be the change

In November 2017, Lee Carter won his race for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Though he ran as a Democrat, the party cut off support, saying he had not provided them with proper data about his campaign work. Carter, a 30-year-old member of the Democratic Socialists of America, says that he stopped reporting his information because of several security lapses by the party. And he suspects that there were other reasons for the party to be less-than-fully supportive of his campaign. Dominion Energy, the biggest corporate political donor in the state, gave the party $125,000 in 2016. Carter opposed the company’s plans for a natural gas pipeline and a high-voltage transmission line running through residential areas, and his platform called for a ban on corporate political contributions. “I’m openly fighting against the large corporate interests,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “For-profit corporations exist to make money, so if they’re giving money to a politician, it’s not out of the goodness of their heart. It’s because they’re getting something in return every single time.”

Carter’s story, and the off-year election in Virginia more broadly, points to the emergence of a new model and a new infrastructure for redefining the Democratic Party.

The traditional model has been for progressives to try to “push the Democrats left” by focusing on certain issues—a higher minimum wage, for example, or single-payer healthcare—and using donations, volunteer efforts, organized protests, in-person and virtual lobbying campaigns, and votes as leverage over politicians and the party. That model remains powerful in the era of Trump.

It’s the model used by Indivisible, for example, the largest of the core “resistance” groups that have emerged since Trump’s election. The Guardian recently reported that the loose network of locally led progressive groups consists of more than 6,000 registered chapters, six times the number associated with the right-wing Tea Party in its heyday.

But the election of Carter and other left insurgents reflect a new model: an infrastructure that’s capable of recruiting, grooming and supporting candidates already committed to a strong progressive platform and who, though they often run as Democrats, have only marginal allegiance to or need for the Democratic Party. In other words, it’s about running progressive candidates and offering them a network of independent support, rather than pushing the party establishment left.

Our Revolution (OR) and the Working Families Party (WFP) are two of the most active organizations devoted to running progressives for political office. OR was founded in August 2016 and emerged from Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. WFP was founded in 1998 but has intensified and expanded its work substantially in the past two years. At a basic level, their endorsement is a seal of approval that candidates can use in campaign materials. On a case-by-case basis, the groups also offer digital trainings, help with fundraising drives, media work, volunteer mobilization and campaign management.

OR endorsed about 59 candidates in the November 2017 elections, of which 26 won. WFP endorsed a total of about 1,000 candidates in 2017. Of those, it identified about 300 as especially strong progressives and devoted significant resources to their campaigns. More than 200 of these “progressive heroes” won.

In the Virginia House of Delegate elections, both groups endorsed Carter, and both endorsed Elizabeth Guzman, a Latina who won her race. WFP was particularly involved in the campaigns of Guzman and another winner, Hala Ayala, also Latina. Staff and volunteers knocked on more than 20,000 doors on their behalf.

With the backing of the Working Families Party, in November 2017 Hala Ayala unseated a Republican in the state delegate race in Virginia’s 51st district, a suburb of Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Hala Ayala)

These efforts helped make Virginia the biggest and most hopeful surprise of the 2017 elections. Going into the election, the GOP controlled the state’s House of Delegates with a strong majority, 66-34. Democrats flipped at least 15 seats, leaving Republicans with a bare majority—though contests were marked by voting irregularities, and Democrats were still contesting the results as of late November 2017. Upset wins by Carter, Guzman, Ayala and others were crucial to the the party’s success.

But the progressive groups that made the surprise victories possible have a tense relationship with the Democratic Party establishment. They aren’t pushing the party left in the normal sense. Instead, they’re simultaneously operating inside of it, by working to take over the leadership of state chapters (in OR’s case), and acting as an outside gravitational force, pulling the party in a progressive direction by helping win long-shot races where the Democrats would normally struggle or not field a candidate at all.

“The Democrats anticipated winning three or four or five delegate seats,” says Joe Dinkin, WFP’s communications director. “But some of the second-tier races that were seen as less likely pick-up opportunities were places where more boldly progressive candidates ran. Ayala and Guzman ran as full-throated progressives and Latina women in Republican-leaning districts. It shows the weakness of the Democratic strategy of running ‘don’t offend anyone’ moderates there. These two progressive women of color won by pretty healthy margins in some of the toughest races.”

“Establishment Democrats didn’t give [Carter] a snowball’s chance,” says OR president Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator. “Voters are hungry for leaders who are going to be authentic. Leaders who run on platforms that say, clearly, that when I get this power—whether it’s in the Virginia House of Delegates or the Minneapolis City Council—that I’m going to stand up for you, your family and your community. And I’m not going to be ashamed to say so.”

Building an electoral infrastructure powerful enough to reshape the Democratic Party, much less challenge the corruption in U.S. politics, is in the early stages. But the work is hardly limited to OR and WFP.

People’s Action, a network of progressive and community organizing groups, has recently begun offering support and trainings for political candidates. As of November 2017, 70 of its members planned to run for office at all levels in 2018. People’s Action is particularly focused on increasing the progressive cohorts in 14 statehouses. Brand New Congress (BNC) and Justice Democrats (JD), both founded in the past two years and devoted to federal races, have recruited and are training and supporting dozens of candidates for the House and Senate. Like the other organizations that make up this infrastructure, JD and BNC are intentional about cultivating a diverse slate. One of JD’s endorsed candidates, Fayrouz Saad of Michigan, would be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. Another, Brianna Westbrook of Arizona, would be the first transgender woman.

JD and BNC are distinguished from the other groups by their exclusive focus on Congress. They envision their work in terms of building a unified bloc of progressive votes that will transform the institution in a relatively short timeframe. Both will likely endorse between 30 and 50 candidates in the 2018 cycle (many of them cross-endorsed).

In November 2017, Justice Democrats announced its endorsement of Alison Hartson as a challenger to Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the California Democratic primary in June. Before entering the race, Hartson was the director of a PAC devoted to passing a constitutional amendment banning corporate money in elections. Five states have passed a resolution endorsing the amendment so far. Hartson is making corruption the centerpiece of her platform, which calls for full public financing of elections.

Left: Alison Hartson, a crusader for campaign finance reform, has been endorsed by Justice Democrats in her bid to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). (Photo courtesy of Alison Hartson)

Not all candidates endorsed by these groups foreground corruption so explicitly. In the recent Virginia election, for example, Guzman and Ayala talked more about economic justice, healthcare and women’s rights than corruption. But all of the organizations that make up this emerging electoral infrastructure define themselves in opposition to the corporate influence within the Democratic establishment and push for fundamental reform of the campaign finance system.

Offering candidates the nuts-and-bolts support they need to run as Democrats—but independent of the party—is key to that mission, since it reduces or eliminates their reliance on donations from corporate interests and lets them focus on bringing in small donations from a broad base of supporters.

Above: Democratic socialist Lee Carter poses in Manassas, Va., on Nov. 9, 2017, after winning a seat in the state House of Delegates on a populist platform. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Establishing boundaries

In the process of confronting corruption in U.S. politics, this new electoral infrastructure is clarifying what it means to be a progressive.

OR, BNC and JD restrict the candidates they endorse from accepting corporate PAC donations. They do allow donations from union and other non-corporate PACs, based on a vetting process.

Candidates endorsed by these groups and WFP must also agree to the organizations’ platforms, which are all strongly progressive. (People’s Action is currently drafting such a platform and considering restrictions on corporate donations.)

The first item in the JD platform is a ban on private donations to politicians and the creation of a “clean public financing system … to end the takeover of our government by corporations and billionaires.” The group concedes, however, that under the system we have, getting elected requires money from private donors. In other words, to have any hope of reforming that system, you have to play by the rules of the game. 

Other items on JD’s platform include abolishing the death penalty, enacting police and immigration reform, ensuring paid sick time and family leave, investing trillions of dollars in infrastructure projects, raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, and implementing a single-payer healthcare system. BNC’s platform is broadly similar and includes a call for “getting money out of politics,” though it’s short on details, and endorses “a constitutional amendment that gives the federal government and states more control over campaign finance, and ceases to consider corporate money the same as speech.”

Support for some or all of those positions is common among Democrats, of course, and the gap between establishment Democratic Party politicians and progressive demands has narrowed rapidly over the last two years, at least in theory. A majority of Democrats in the House are now co-sponsors of a Medicare-for-all bill, for example. Support for a $12 or $15 federal minimum wage is now common, as is support for some version of free college or trade school. It’s often been noted that the 2016 Democratic Party platform was the most progressive major party platform in U.S. history, one concrete legacy of Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid.

The great fault line between establishment Democrats and the new electoral infrastructure comes down to corporate influence. It’s partly an issue of optics—it just looks bad that Democrats get so much money from corporate PACS. But it goes deeper. It’s also a question of passion, and the capital that Democrats are willing to invest in reforms, such as regulating big banks, that would benefit their constituents but are opposed by their donors.

Voters have noticed the disconnect between Democrats’ words and deeds. “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis,” a report commissioned by progressive groups to assess the party’s failures in the 2016 election, found that the party “appears to be losing ground with its most reliable voting bloc, African-American women.” The percentage of black women who believe that neither party represents their interests rose from 13 percent to 21 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to a poll conducted by Black Women’s Roundtable ntergenerational Public Policy Network and the Essence Festival. A September 2017 NBC News poll of young adults found that 31 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of Latinos believe the Democratic Party “does not care about people like them.”

“It’s not only a question of credibility, but a sense of commitment and passion,” says Norman Solomon, a co-author of “Autopsy.” “There’s a very passionless affect, not only in the presidential ticket last year but in the current Democratic National Committee and the House and Senate leadership. But being aspirational is how we get things done. Sometimes much faster than people could imagine.”

By making the corruption currently inherent in our politics a central issue—as Donald Trump did in 2016—the groups in the rising progressive electoral infrastructure acknowledge what everyone knows to be true but many Democratic politicians shy away from saying because they’re enmeshed in and dependent on that very system. The party’s progressive wing aims to point the way forward by showing that a political party that actually listens to and serves the people is still possible.

In the People’s Action candidate trainings for example, “we talk a lot about co-governance with the movement and with your community,” says Laurel Wales, the group’s director of movement politics. “Once you’re elected, the people who are able to see you day in and day out are corporate lobbyists. So we push our candidates to understand that that’s what’s going to happen. If that is the case, what are you doing back home, in your community, to hear from the regular voters and constituents that you represent? We push candidates to think: What structures are you setting up to hear from your people?”

Breaking the unholy alliance

“This is a very big historical moment,” Trump adviser Steve Bannon told the New York Times in November 2017. Bannon is the force behind much of Trump’s economic populism, including his opposition to trade deals and calls for massive investment in infrastructure projects. Bannon’s media operation, Breitbart, is also the beating heart of the Trump administration’s deep racism. “The revolt by the Democratic Left and the progressive Left against the Wall Street ownership of the Democratic Party,” Bannon said, “you can see it coming.”

For all his toxicity, Bannon is politically savvy. He knows that the populism he preaches has been used to powerful effect in our history—both the right-wing racism he peddles and his left-wing focus on the corrupting influence of corporations. And he understands very well that we’ve been at this crisis point before.

The People’s Party of the 1890s—the original Populists—rose up as a cross-racial alliance focused on the concentration of wealth and the rapidly rising power of corporate interests in the last third of the 19th century. The Democratic Party neutralized the People’s Party challenge through a program of race-baiting, intimidation and co-option of the Populists’ rhetoric and parts of their platform. But the Populists’ critique of inequality and corruption survived in the fledgling progressive movement of the 1900s and 1910s, and it found concise and powerful expression in the Progressive Party platform of 1912.

The Republican and Democratic parties, the platform said, “have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.”

The Progressive Party’s nominee, Theodore Roosevelt, did better than any third-party candidate in U.S. history, gaining 27 percent of the vote. In 1912, nine Progressives were elected to the House, and the party also had a down-ballot presence. Though it lost the presidential election, the party made the corruption of the system a central issue in national politics, and its mobilization for the election lent momentum to the early progressive movement, which was building the infrastructure to push through reforms at the state level. New York, in particular, served as the testing ground for the workers’ rights and social insurance legislation that would become federal law in the New Deal.

Theodore Roosevelt, in Chicago for the Progressive Party National Convention, rides in a procession along West Jackson Boulevard Aug. 6, 1912. (Photo by Chicago Daily News/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

The overarching political story of the last four decades has been the assault by the Right, not just on specific New Deal achievements, but on its vision: the idea that high levels of public sphere investments, through a highly progressive tax structure, create a more stable and more just society—with more opportunities for everyone. A central theme of that story has been the rising influence of corporate money in politics, and how it has been used to overwhelm and dismantle that New Deal vision.

So, as Bannon rightly noted, this is “a very big historical moment.” The great question facing us is not so much whether progressives can push Democrats left. It’s whether traditional methods of political influence and progressives’ emerging electoral infrastructure—operating essentially as a third party within a party—can pull the rest of the Democrats into the movement’s orbit.

One uncertain aspect of our current crisis is the fate of the Democratic Party. In the Democrats’ better days, the left-wing populism that created the Progressive movement was also the party’s heart and soul. Without that soul, Democrats’ policy platforms ring hollow. Fundamentally, what’s on the line is whether the unelected corporate “invisible government” that has allegiance only to profit will reign unchallenged, and corporate interests will fully control the levers of government.

The last time this story played out, it took nearly five decades and a crisis of capitalism—the Great Depression—for the early vision and agenda of the Populists and Progressives to find broad expression at the national level as the New Deal.

We can’t know what will come of the seeds of reform being planted now, or how long they may take to bear fruit. Or if they ever will. All we know with certainty is that the story doesn’t end well if we fail.

“The first task of the statesmanship of the day,” read the Progressive Party’s 1912 platform, “is to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics.” That remains our first task today.

Theo Anderson has contributed to the magazine since 2010. 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.

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Above: Our Revolution and the Working Families Party endorsed Elizabeth Guzman, who won a Virginia state delegate seat in a red-leaning D.C. suburb in November 2017. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Guzman)