In 2010, enraged grassroots conservatives launched an insurgency against the Republican establishment. The Tea Party movement ran a series of primary challengers accusing Republicans of being insufficiently oppositional to President Obama.
Their insurgency was wildly successful. Within four years, they had picked off a sitting senator and the Majority Leader of the House, making it impossible for Republican politicians to break with their base for fear of losing a primary. The establishment lost control, and an ideological movement now controlled the direction of the party. This grassroots outrage, underwritten by big donors, unchecked by any moderating party apparatus, set the stage for Trump’s unvarnished racism and his assault on the rule of law.
In 2018, as Democrats are confronting the stupefying threats of the Trump administration, the Democratic Party establishment is bracing for a similar reckoning from its own grassroots. The resistance has pushed Democrats towards much sterner opposition to Trump, and the organized left is larger than at any point since the Great Depression. The voters of the Democratic Party are more dissatisfied with the corporate lawyers and former prosecutors who make up the party’s leadership than at any point in the past two decades.
But a Tea Party of the Left has been much slower to materialize than the conservative uprising of the right. As primary election season ramps up, the left’s record has been decidedly mixed.
Two weeks ago, pundits were quick to declare the establishment firmly in control of the Democratic Party. Progressive challenger Paula Jean Swearington was crushed by conservative Democrat Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia. Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whose longshot 2004 presidential campaign prefigured, in certain ways, the agenda of today’s Democratic insurgents, lost badly to former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor of Ohio. According to the Washington Post, the Democratic establishment is “alive and well, thriving after big wins,” and the party’s left “fell short as better-funded candidates easily won their primaries.”
Last Tuesday, the media narrative turned again. The Washington Post now declared: “The far left is winning the Democratic civil war.” Kara Eastman, a liberal social worker who built her campaign around “Medicare for All,” scored a shocking upset in a Nebraska House primary against a former Congressman backed by the party establishment. Socialist candidates won four primaries for the state legislature in Pennsylvania, taking down two conservative incumbents in the process. Progressives also scored victories in two congressional primaries and the Lt. Governor’s race in Pennsylvania, and the Idaho governor’s race.
So is the establishment in control? Or is the left winning the civil war?
The truth is the establishment is still in control of the party, but their grip on power is weaker than it’s ever been. They’re still in power, but they do not convince. There is an ideological movement afoot in the Democratic Party that’s winning converts in the base, but it doesn’t yet have the political power to consistently win primaries and take control of the party.
Democratic voters, especially the millennials who are an increasingly important part of the base, are overwhelmingly looking for a new direction. The market-based, means-tested, Wall Street-funded neoliberal approach that Democrats have proffered from the Reagan era through Obama is no longer enough for the base of the Democratic Party. Democratic voters across the country overwhelmingly support an agenda calling for government guarantees of basic economic rights: a job, housing, healthcare, education, and a decent income for all.
Despite a wave of candidates entering into competitive primaries to build on the successes of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and the rise of new groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution to support them, it remains true that left candidates have had limited success in primaries. (Disclaimer: I previously worked at Justice Democrats, and currently do some work with Our Revolution.) If Democratic voters truly want more a progressive and confrontational party, why haven’t left populist candidates won that many competitive races?
Ultimately, the left is underrepresented in politics for the same reason women, people of color, and working class people are under-represented: We have a 18th century political system that was designed to protect the power of the (overwhelmingly white and male) wealthy, owning class, and mostly still does. It’s not a question of what people want—it’s about what money can buy.
Simply put, the left doesn’t have the power, money, or organization to translate those shifts in public opinion into primary wins—yet. The primary electorate is older, richer, and more conservative than the party as a whole. Many of the young people and people of color who would fuel progressive primary challenges to establishment Democrats don’t vote in primary elections.
Most of the candidates running from the left are just regular people, not involved in politics, who decided they want to take control of their democracy. They aren’t equipped to win. They are consistently out-raised by their opponents, have less experienced staff, and aren’t connected to influential political and media figures who can validate them for voters. There aren’t strong candidate pipelines that recruit and prepare working people to run for office from the left, so the best candidates might not run, or get the training they need.
Instead of a new generation of progressive candidates riding the shifting tides of the Democratic base into office, the establishment has stayed in power in part by biting the left’s ideas. They’ve taken the most popular policies from the left and placed them in the mouths of the former hedge-funders and attorneys who made up much of the party’s candidate pool to begin with.
The rise of a left faction in the Democratic Party has forced establishment candidates to shift significantly to the left. In fact, it’s changed what it means to be an establishment candidate. Leading candidates for the 2020 Presidential race, like Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand, made their names as centrists but are now running hard to the left to gain credibility with primary voters, because they know that’s the future of the party. In New York, where Cynthia Nixon is running a strong, left-populist primary challenge against Andrew Cuomo, the #CynthiaEffect has forced Cuomo to enact a spate of reforms he’s been delaying for his two terms in office.
Like a young producer selling their beats to any rapper who will buy them, the left has been forced to collaborate with established forces to make sure their ideas get distribution. As a result of this marriage of convenience, policies that were once considered radical, like a federal job guarantee, Medicare for all, and legalization of marijuana have been co-signed by paragons of the establishment.
But what would it take for the left to move from being the establishment’s junior partner to actually taking control of the party—to electing candidates who started with these positions instead of being moved to adopt them? Here, the Tea Party serves as a useful comparison.
The Tea Party did not come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of a 40-year project by the conservative movement to take and hold power. Since the high water mark of the left-liberal coalition in the late 1960s, ideologically committed right-wing millionaires and billionaires have spent billions of dollars to create a conservative movement that could take over the GOP, and thereby, the country as a whole.
Conservatism fused together several movements into a singular conservative movement, so that each understood its success depended on the success of the larger conservative project. Conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley brewed a toxic stew of imperialism, religious dogmatism, misogyny, racist resentment, and free market capitalism into a unifying ideology.
They didn’t just get around a table one day and conspire to use white supremacy to sell their free market ideology and destroy American democracy—it took years for them to come to the right formula. But once they figured out what worked, they backed it up with as much money as they could.
Conservative billionaires created a network of organizations that includes right wing think tanks, media outlets, organizations training both candidates and activists, ensuring that their pipeline only includes ideological true believers. Now, the conservative movement continuously shifts the terms of the political debate to the right by putting out increasingly batshit ideas (like arming teachers in response to school shootings) and having an army of people at the ready to defend them on TV and the internet. The donors and operatives who run this network created an echo-chamber so powerful that it warps the ability of mainstream media to tell an honest story, and forces Republican elected officials to bend to its will. Now, if Republican elected officials oppose conservative ideas, they know they could lose their office in a primary.
An ignorant baby-man like Charlie Kirk will have a very lucrative job no matter how many diapers he poops in because there are a handful of extremely rich white men who will pay him to stay on his bullshit no matter how badly he fails. And if you pay enough Charlie Kirks, you’ll probably also get a few Karl Roves, and Ralph Reeds, and Lee Atwaters in the mix—genuinely talented operatives who will help your ideological movement take over one of America’s two major political parties.
While the base of the Democratic Party has moved to the left in their preferences, the left has nothing even remotely equivalent to the right’s network of powerful, ideological organizations to translate that shift into primary wins. The right has billionaires like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert Mercer who will financially benefit from their ideological investments. They each plow tens of millions into conservative challengers and an ideological ecosystem that ensures the GOP complies with conservative orthodoxy. The left has no friendly billionaires that fund progressive challengers to the party establishment. Even the major donors most potentially sympathetic to progressive causes, like George Soros, would materially be quite hurt if the left were to take power, so they tend to focus on non-economic policy priorities, and generally support the Party establishment, not left-populist challengers or organizations.
The right also has a unifying ideology, while the left does not. The right can use white nationalism as the glue that binds imperialism, Christian conservatism, and corporate greed into a coherent ideology, but the left is made up of an extremely diverse range of peoples with very different interests. The left has yet to fuse together racial justice, economic justice, gender and sexual justice, and environment justice into a shared political project with a common political identity.
The right’s media outlets incite millions of self-identified conservatives against the GOP. They have Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and Breitbart. The left has Chapo? And MSNBC? And Daily Kos? Few of the left’s media outlets are actively engaged in the battle within the Democratic Party in the same way conservative media has been. Upstart outlets like TYT Network and The Intercept have started to get involved in the fight in the Democratic Party, but have little sway with the older voters, especially people of color, who actually vote in Democratic primaries. And professional class liberals have long preferred to get their news from outlets, like the New York Times and NPR, that may be “coded” as liberal, but that tend to marginalize left-populist voices while boosting the center-right.
The candidates who ran against the political establishment this cycle did so with almost none of the institutional support enjoyed by their Tea Party equivalents on the right, to say nothing of the support the DCCC and their affiliated network of donors gave to their hand-picked centrists. In some cases, the leaders of the Democratic Party tried to push out left populists in favor of candidates who are wealthy, or can raise tons of cash from rich friends.
If the left is going to start winning primaries, and taking power, it’s going to require a long-term project of building the kind of organizations the right invested in. It’s going to take candidate recruitment and training organizations that prepare people to run for office, think tanks that put forth ideas for the candidates to run on and influence the debate, and mass audience-focused media outlets designed to wage ideological conflict in the Democratic Party.
Building those kinds of organizations costs a lot of money, and the current mega-donor class is not exactly going to want to open their wallets for this particular project. Instead of seeking friendly billionaires, the populist left will need funding from progressive unions who understand ideological conflict is necessary to advance the interests of working people. Right now, too many unions—fearful of losing what gains haven’t already been rolled back in this era—are taking the establishment’s side in the war in the Democratic Party. If the left is going to succeed, that’s going to need to change. It’s also going to take a new generation of progressive organizations learning how to build membership and raise money online.
The groups representing the major constituencies of the Democratic Party—Planned Parenthood, #BlackLivesMatter, The DREAMers, unions and the socialist left, the climate movement—need to collaborate to take power together, instead of fighting amongst themselves to gain access. Right now, these groups don’t see themselves as part of a shared political project, with a shared strategy. But for each of their urgently necessary projects to succeed, all of them should be collaborating on challenges to establishment Democrats.
And it’s going to take the creation of a new political identity that fuses the various strands of the left’s coalition into a coherent narrative. Leftist intellectuals and media figures need to create an intersectional populist identity that shows working class people of all races their interests are intertwined. Rev. William Barber, who is currently leading the Poor People’s Campaign to unite the struggles of working people, speaks often of the need for “a moral fusion movement blowing in every community across this land.” As he says: “Every major social movement in this nation’s history has won, in the end, because a moral, fusion coalition came together and refused to stand down in the face of tyranny.”
If the left is going to win at the ballot box, it will need to build off of this project to create a political identity that can move from the streets into electoral politics. It’s a project that might take decades to succeed, but it is already beginning to take shape.
Max Berger is a political organizer, writer and and consultant. He is a co-founder of the Momentum Trainings and #IfNotNow, an American Jewish movement to end our community’s support for the occupation.