Since 2016, energized progressives have sought to break the cycle that has seen power swing between establishment politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties for decades. After disappointing results in New Jersey and Virginia in 2017, the 2018 midterms offered another test of the progressive movement’s chief strategy for coming to power: taking over the Democratic Party. The results are a serious wake up call.
The four leading progressive organizations that emerged from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign endorsed Democratic candidates across 46 states. Nearly all of the candidates for Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, and Senate lost.
Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress and the Democratic Socialists of America endorsed a combined 107 candidates for Congress this year. Forty-four of them won their primaries and only 12 won their general elections. Five of those 12 were already incumbents. Five more of them were longtime party politicians in line for higher office, rather than insurgent candidates. Only two of them were actually opposed by the party and unseated establishment Democrats in the primaries — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. There are 435 members of Congress.
It gets worse. Almost every candidate those groups endorsed for governor, lieutenant governor, and Senate, lost in the primary or the general election. That includes 13 candidates for governor, five candidates for lt. governor, and seven candidates for U.S. Senate. Incumbents Bernie Sanders and David Zuckerman were the only ones who won. Several candidates were high-profile individuals who raised millions of dollars: progressives such as Ben Jealous, Cynthia Nixon and Abdul El-Sayed. Others such as Andrew Gillum and Stacy Abrams took millions from big donors.
Only two (progressive candidates) were actually opposed by the party and unseated establishment Democrats in the primaries — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.
As a result, the blue wave is a corporate wave that has swept in the same kind of Democratic politicians that drove working people into Donald Trump’s arms after eight years of Obama. When Democrats busy themselves serving the wealthy again, the result will be an even sharper lurch to the authoritarian right. Progressives cannot do the same thing year after year, charging headlong into the Democratic Party, and expect different results. Breaking the cycle means changing your approach.
With 80 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, health care costs rising, and student debt piling up, Americans live more precarious lives than they have in generations. Confidence in government and institutions is at historic lows.
Working people seek solutions that are proportionate to the size of the problems we face, something that looks and feels new down to our bones. Incrementalism and an attempted rebranding of the Democratic Party are the well-worn paths of the cycle into oligarchy. The Democratic Party is a prison for our movement. It’s a wall that keeps us from connecting with people and inspiring the millions who want authentic, credible change.
We owe it to ourselves, and those we struggle for, to challenge our preconceptions and consider that winning might entail listening to the large majority of Americans who want a major new party. Had we committed ourselves to building it after the 2016 election, we would have either forced the Democratic Party to change in the face of an existential threat, or we would be replacing it and the Republican Party right now. Instead most of us decided to work inside the Democratic Party, so the cycle continues, voraciously consuming our climate, our economy, our society and our lives.
Change happens quickly when conditions reach a certain urgency. Just this year, Lopez Obrador’s new progressive party replaced the establishment parties that have ruled Mexico for a century. They did it in only four years, winning the presidency, both houses of the legislature, and most of the mayorships this summer. Their political revolution began by stepping back from the parties they had always known and recognizing that change would take a genuinely-progressive alternative. Mexico is part of a sweeping international trend of new populist parties on the left and the right that are ousting long-entrenched establishment parties in country after country. In our own history, Lincoln’s Republican Party replaced the Whig Party in just four years.
Despite tremendous resources and heartfelt effort, progressive attempts to take over the Democratic Party have been blocked, as they have been for decades. Like our brothers and sisters abroad, we must also have the wisdom and the courage to adapt to developments and change course as we hit the limits of the establishment parties.