How a recent win and loss show the growing strength of the American progressive left

It may not come as quickly as the left might like but slowly building power and creating momentum with bold policy ideas is the smartest way forward for the progressive left.

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On August 3rd, a Democratic primary was held to find a candidate to replace Marcia Fudge, who gave up her Congressional seat in Ohio’s 11th district upon joining the Biden administration as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The race was closely watched by the progressive left, not only in the district, state or even country, but throughout the English speaking world.

In much of the American media the contest was portrayed as a battle between the ‘moderate’ (neoliberal, corporatist) wing of the party represented by Shontel Brown, the chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party (parts of which are in the 11th district, which also contains most of the majority African American parts of Cleveland and Akron), and former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, already an icon for the growing progressive wing of the party.

This divide within the party was amply demonstrated by the powerful figures who lent their support to Brown, including Hillary Clinton and James Clyburn, the highest ranking African American member of the U.S. Congress, whose endorsement of Joe Biden in South Carolina was seen as pivotal in the former vice president’s victory over the candidate Turner supported as a campaign co-chair 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders. One of Clyburn’s major donors is the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America (PhRMA),  which helps explain his opposition to candidates fighting to provide healthcare for all Americans like Turner and Sanders.

The former state senator took an early lead in Ohio’s 11th in both polling and fundraising over the spring and early summer, including a record breaking haul just 24 hours after Clinton endorsed her opponent in mid June.  Nonetheless, by August 4th it was clear that by pulling out all the stops and relentlessly attacking Turner, the center right of the Democratic Party had won.

Part of what seemed to fuel Brown’s campaign were criticisms Turner had made of Joe Biden, who is popular, especially with older voters in the district according to polling. These criticisms were made when Turner acted as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders last year and electrified crowds across the country with her eloquent speeches at campaign events. 

Probably most famously, Turner expressed the disappointment many of those who had placed their hopes in Senator Sanders felt after the Democratic establishment came together to stop his nomination in favor of Biden, arguing that while defeating Donald Trump was the priority in 2020, the former vice-president was by no means an ideal standard bearer for American progressives, “It’s like saying to somebody, ‘You have a bowl of s**t in front of you, and all you’ve got to do is eat half of it instead of the whole thing.’ It’s still s**t.” 

Nonetheless, the extended victory lap made by the corporatist wing of the party obscured one very important fact: the primary was an open one, meaning Republicans could also vote for who the Democratic candidate would be in November. As Norman Soloman reported, the likes of William Kristol, a neoconservative Never Trumper who has never seen a military intervetion he wasn’t in favor of, encouraged GOP voters to turn out for Brown in order to keep Nina Turner from a seat in the country’s Congress.

There was also evidence of dark money funneled to Brown by a number of PACs, including some that generally support the right. 

As Juanita Brent, a state representative for Cuyahoga County and Turner supporter told the Intercept, “As a Democrat who has helped Democrats all over the state, we cannot condone Democrats that are accepting money associated with Trump. How can we have someone who is the party chair and says that she’s a Democrat’s Democrat but is accepting Republican money?”

Another progressive showed the same week why the Democratic party’s establishment and center right never Trumpers like Kristol fear progressives like Turner more than the far right. Cori Bush, of Missouri, who was at one time unhoused herself, went back to her activist roots to fight the premature end of the eviction moratorium that has kept many Americans in their homes throughout the ongoing pandemic. She did so by spending four days and three nights on the Capitol steps to call attention to the issue and got the attention of the national press in the process.

It was unconscionable that as many as 11 million people were put at risk of homelessness while the country’s Congress went on recess and Bush was joined by other progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, eventually forcing the hand of President Biden, who extended the moratorium until October 3rd barring a legal challenge that seems likely to end it one way or the other. 

However, as President Biden put it after making the 60 day extension, “At a minimum, by the time it gets litigated, it will probably give some additional time while we’re getting that $45bn out to people who are in fact behind in the rent and don’t have the money.”

Commenting on Bush’s success, Senator Elizabeth Warren was quoted as saying, “I used to ask myself, ‘Does it matter that I’m here instead of somebody else?’ And you’ve now answered that question. It matters that you’re here, and not somebody else.” 

There’s no question that Bush and other members of what have come to be known as the Squad, most of whom are political neophytes, have faced challenges in terms of learning how to effectively push their legislative priorities when they must not only face off against the opposition but also much of their own party. This is why they’ve not only had to use innovative strategies like Bush’s, seek out potential allies on an issue by issue basis and push for others like Nina Turner to add her powerful voice to theirs.

It was disappointing to see some who claim they are on the left including some who regularly appear on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News platforms calling Cori Bush’s efforts to keep people in their homes ‘performative’ and attacking her for not meeting some personal standard they have set for other progressives actually doing the work. It’s interesting that these commentators rarely voice criticisms of another Squad member, Jamaal Bowman. It’s almost as if there’s some kind of bias at work amongst these ‘populist bros’.

We should also note that Bush lost the first time she ran for her seat in 2018, only to win it 2020, so the American left should not count Nina Turner out after her slim defeat. As the examples of Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. have shown, an over reliance on individual leaders who are then relentlessly attacked by corporate media and so-called moderates almost always ends in disappointment. It may not come as quickly as the left might like but slowly building power and creating momentum with bold policy ideas is the smartest way forward for the progressive left.

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