“Listen to the people”: How progressives win

These voices and ideas will not be able to change the poor strategy of the national Democratic Party on their own.


The international left has had little to celebrate since 2018, shortly after the UK’s Labor Party did much better than expected in a general election held the previous summer and a number of progressives were elected to the U.S. Congress. In the intervening time, most of the national leaders many had high hopes for, from Bernie Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Lula da Silva in Brazil, had insurmountable obstacles put in their way. Although da Silva, who was jailed under extremely dubious circumstances, suffered the most, Corbyn was sabotaged by his own party and all three faced relentless and often baseless media criticism.

These setbacks turned out to be a greater tragedy than most of us supposed when the novel coronavirus began its travels throughout the world, especially in those countries run by anti-science ‘populists’ on the right. Interestingly, media outlets nominally called liberal in each of these countries bear some responsibility for the ascent of people like Trump and Bolsonaro, two of the leaders who have shown themselves to be uniquely ill equipped to deal with a public health crisis.

Nonetheless, adding to the victories of what came to be called ‘the Squad’, four exceptional women who rode the 2018 blue wave into the United States Congress, a number of progressive candidates at all levels have had success in the still ongoing primaries this year. While this seems like a small consolation at present, the project of groups like the DSA and Justice Democrats to reshape American politics by pushing one of the country’s two major political parties to the left is slowly moving forward.

I wrote some time ago about Jamaal Bowman’s stunning victory in New York’s 16th district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, in a June 23rd primary after running an insurgent campaign against 30 year incumbent Eliot Engel. Bowman’s win in this Democratic stronghold almost guarantees another strong voice will join the growing ranks of the U.S. House’s Progressive Caucus.

Speaking to Engel in a debate prior to the vote, Bowman asked a question that many of his constituents must have also been asking about their representative, who remained in his Maryland home rather than returning to his district as the city became an epicenter of the pandemic, “How can you feel the pain and the suffering that people are going through during the pandemic if you are not here?”

Bowman’s victory also seems to suggest a gradual shift could take place in the party’s foreign policy in the years ahead, whether the current leadership likes it or not. Engel, a reliable hawk, especially in terms of the Middle East, is the current Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq and against the removal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

In part, because most of the American electorate doesn’t really focus much on foreign policy, both of the country’s major political parties, with some individual exceptions, promote a militaristic world view. The main difference is between establishment Republicans’ seeming belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that American military power can transform the politics of whole regions, an idea that usually comports with the argument made by centrist Democrats that bombing campaigns can be undertaken in the interest of ‘humanitarianism’.

This bipartisan militarism was again on display in the country’s Congress as recently as July 21th, when a large majority from both of the country’s major political parties voted against an amendment cosponsored by progressives Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee to divert 10% of the military budget (which accounts for more than half of the U.S. government’s spending) for 2021 to other needs like healthcare.

Also growing the progressive contingent in the country’s lower house, in an August 4th primary, Cori Bush defeated Congressman William Lacy Clay, whose family has held the seat for half a century. It was her second run for the seat in Missouri’s 1st Congressional district, which includes St. Louis and other small cities in the east of the state, including Ferguson.

Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist who was endorsed by the Justice Democrats both times and appeared alongside AOC in the Netflix documentary, “Knock Down the House:, has a story that is much more compelling than Clay’s, who practically inherited the safe Democratic seat from his father, an icon of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The sense of entitlement expressed by establishment politicians like Engel and Clay, who seemed to believe that they should hold their seats for life, is part of what has made many people disengage from politics entirely and is as common here in Canada as it is in the United States. This attitude, coupled with a culture based on raising the most donor money, has been one of the main things fueling a growing internationalist progressive movement, especially among young people.

As future congresswoman Bush told John Berman on CNN the morning after her victory, “It’s time for regular, everyday people to have a voice.”

As for the original members of the Squad, three have already faced their own primary challenges this year, with much of the mainstream press eager to cover these races in the seeming hope of an upset and treating their opponents, who managed to raise massive sums of money from PACs and big donors to oppose their ‘radicalism’, with a much less critical eye.

AOC easily defeated CNBC host Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who called herself a ‘moderate’, claimed, “Medicare-for-all is not the answer” during her campaign and called the Green New Deal that her opponent championed, a “divisive policy”.

It was as if Caruso-Cabrera, used to rubbing shoulders with titans of industry in her previous role, had learned nothing from the defeat of the 4th most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives, Joe Crowley, who also promised more of the same ‘moderation’ just two years before. Then again, all those working on the campaign in a professional capacity likely made money, so there’s that.

Then, in what we were told at the time was the most serious challenge facing one of these freshman congresspeople, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones primaried Rashida Tlaib to represent Michigan’s 13th district. The Palestinian American incumbent, who I sometimes refer to as the heart of the Squad, almost doubled Jones in the vote count, proving those who breathlessly insisted for weeks that Tlaib was in trouble, wrong.

Soon after Tlaib scored her victory, many eyes turned to Ilhan Omar’s race in Minnesota’s 5th district. Omar, a figure who has arguably been the most controversial of her colleagues has been, in my opinion, unfairly accused of anti-Semitism, which finds its way into almost every news story featuring her, for her criticism of Israel’s far right government. Despite being vastly outspent, she managed to hold onto her seat easily, defeating Antone Melton-Meaux, who complained that her high profile was interfering with her obligations to constituents. Voters in the district disagreed by almost 20%.

Each of these opponents represented a return to centrism in what are considered safe Democratic seats and a victory by any of them would have set back the progressive left in the United States for some time, but the victories of Bowman, Bush and others like Marie Newman, who defeated incumbent Dan Lipinski in Illinois’ 3rd district, will bring vigorous new voices to Washington to challenge the status quo in the House of Representatives, if not yet the Senate.

These voices and ideas will not be able to change the poor strategy of the national Democratic Party on their own. Proof of this is offered by the fact that AOC, who is one of the most popular members of the party, especially with the diverse young people who will be crucial to the its chances in November, has been given just 1 minute to speak at the party’s convention. More time is being given to Bill Clinton, whose record has become more and more problematic with each passing year and John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio.

The organizers have also denied press credentials to progressive outlets including the popular TYT network, which has almost 5 million subscribers on Youtube, arguably a bigger audience than most of the outlets, including far right websites like The Daily Caller, which received them.

The progressive left should have a long memory when it comes to these things and be prepared to use its power to pressure the party’s national leadership while strategizing to get other candidates like Cori Bush or Jamaal Bowman elected at all levels of government.

With the unprecedented crisis of unemployment and the looming possibility of eviction and foreclosure crises to follow, such voices will need to be champions for their communities and country, pushing reforms that will hopefully go global and create a fairer, more inclusive (and hopefully, healthier) world for all of us.


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Derek Royden is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Canada with an interest in activism, politics and culture. His work has appeared on Occupy.com, Truthout, Antiwar.com and Gonzo Today as well as in Skunk Magazine.