While it’s important to concede that it’s happening much more slowly than U.S. progressives may have hoped, there are signs that the American left is winning many of the ongoing arguments concerning domestic policy, especially calls for universal access to healthcare, something taken for granted in so much of the rest of the world.
Even before the current health crisis, which probably boosted the numbers, exit polling in five states on Super Tuesday in early March showed the majority of voters within them supported a Medicare for All system that would expand the one already in place for the country’s senior citizens. Although the polls included progressive California, they also showed strong support for M4A in red states like Tennessee and Virginia.
Despite a slight decline in Republican support over the past two years, an April The Hill-HarrisX poll showed 69% support for the idea, encompassing large majorities of Democrats and independent voters.
Sadly, broad support for the policy failed to secure victory in the primaries for Senator Bernie Sanders, who, in his own words, “Wrote the damn bill.”
Instead, the now presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, has called for what many experts see as a half measure: a public option that insurance companies can then use to offload those who are sick or suffering from pre-existing conditions into, preserving their profits. Even with the novel coronavirus still producing well over 30,000 identified new infections each day, the former vice-president doesn’t appear to have changed his mind, only saying he will consider lowering the age of those receiving benefits under the current Medicare program from age 65 to 60, leaving millions of Americans without any coverage.
Although there’s majority or close to majority support for other progressive proposals like tuition free post secondary education in polls, mainstream politicians in both of the country’s major political parties continue to argue that such programs are unrealistic and too expensive.
At the same time, they maintain a mostly bipartisan consensus to push for military confrontation and intervention around the globe, lining the pockets of defense contractors (many of whom might have received bailout money due to the pandemic) to the tune of over $700 billion in 2020 alone.
One of those on the Democratic side who embodies this consensus is 16 term Representative Eliot Engel of New York’s 16th district, who currently chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel, who opposed former President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, has one major legislative success during the Trump years, H.R. 3203 (115th): Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, which further sanctioned the Islamic Republic, causing widespread suffering in the country while probably entrenching rather than weakening its theocratic government.
As reported by the Intercept, congressman, who has chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee since 2009, regularly received donations from defense contractors, including industry giants Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman.
In the lead up to the primary election held on June 23rd, with the firm backing of these deep pocketed donors and the loud support of the Democratic leadership, it didn’t seem likely Engel could be unseated by a little known challenger, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who contested the race with two other centrists. Nonetheless, perhaps due to the support given by his district’s black and brown constituents, who together form a slim majority in the district, Bowman was victorious and in the process scored a win for progressive causes and a blow against the militarism he repeatedly called out during the campaign.
As he said during the foreign policy portion of a debate held at the beginning of last month, “We need to focus on peace and diplomacy across the world and we need to work with our allies and others to end the climate emergency that is happening all over the world. Anyone who is [causing] a humanitarian crisis, we need to have honest conversations about that and hold them accountable, but this is an opportunity to come together around the world and focus on the climate emergency, put down the weapons, end the forever wars and invest in diplomacy and peace.”
Bowman’s victory also showed the weakness of the party’s large dollar donor obsessed leadership who were all in to save Engel as they were in 2018 when a then unknown bartender challenged and defeated the 4th most powerful Democrat in the House leadership, Joe Crowley.
For her part, AOC easily held onto her seat in New York’s 14th district, receiving 73% of the vote to secure victory over Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC host who previously identified as a Republican and called herself a ‘pro-business centrist’.
There are those who argued, both after AOC’s win in 2018 and Bowman’s last month, that progressive wins in what are considered ‘safe seats’ have less value than wins for conservative Democrats in Republican held areas. While this might have some value as a strategy for some Senate races, it results in the same policies of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and broad support for disastrous interventions abroad, regardless of which party holds power.
Given this, it’s obvious that by challenging and beating establishment incumbents over time, progressives can reshape the Democratic Party and change the narrative throughout the country by focusing on popular policy ideas, perhaps also being more strident in calling for an end to the country’s confrontational foreign policy.
In Kentucky primaries held the same day as those in New York, the desire of many to vote by mail due to the pandemic was exacerbated by widespread closures blamed on the novel coronavirus that resulted in 95% of the states’ polling places being shut.
As reported by Mother Jones before the vote, “The decision to cut polling places has drawn concern about the potential for voter suppression, particularly of Black voters, many of whom live in the counties where there will be a single voting location. About 20 percent of residents in Jefferson County are African American, making the county the center of the state’s Black population.”
The election pitted Charles Booker, a former state representative endorsed by Bernie Sanders and other progressives, against Amy McGrath, a favorite of the Democratic establishment due to her prowess at raising money and unique biography as the first American woman to drop bombs on other countries as a Marine fighter pilot.
Booker, who was a presence at Black Lives Matter protests in Louisville, ran on a platform that was much more progressive, favoring Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Although his candidacy was dismissed throughout the process, he came very close in the end, losing by a margin of just 2%.
Nonetheless, a win for McGrath could change the math in the Senate (and remove Mitch McConnell, one of the few competent, if objectively evil, Republican leaders) allowing at least some progressive legislation to move forward under what will hopefully be a Democratic president in 2021.
For progressives, there are other big contests coming, including an insurgent attempt by Shahid Buttar, who will be on the ballot in November to represent California’s 12th district, where he will face current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has dismissed the party’s progressives at every turn. Buttar, a lawyer and activist, has made the country’s disastrous foreign policy and militarism central to his campaign, understanding like other progressives that interventions abroad have migrated home in the form of militarized police, often former soldiers, that we have watched attack, gas and shoot rubber bullets at peaceful protesters over the last month.
Although it doesn’t seem to interest most American voters, militarism is now as much of a domestic as it is a foreign policy issue.
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