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New York Times

The Pragmatic Left Is Winning

For once, Democrats are not in disarray

'Rashida Tlaib at her campaign headquarters in Detroit on Wednesday after becoming the Democratic nominee for a House seat." (Photo: Anthony Lanzilote for The New York Times)

'Rashida Tlaib at her campaign headquarters in Detroit on Wednesday after becoming the Democratic nominee for a House seat." (Photo: Anthony Lanzilote for The New York Times) 

On Tuesday, Rashida Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, won her primary in Michigan, and she is now overwhelmingly likely to become the first Muslim woman in Congress. In a referendum, people in Missouri voted 2 to 1 to overturn an anti-union “right to work” law passed by the Republican legislature. In an upset, Wesley Bell, a progressive city councilman from Ferguson, Mo., effectively ousted the longtime St. Louis County prosecutor, who many civil rights activists say mishandled the investigation into the police shooting of Michael Brown, the African-American teenager whose 2014 killing set off riots.

So it was strange to see headlines in the following days arguing that the left wing of the Democratic Party had hit a wall. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s movement failed to deliver any stunners Tuesday night,” said CNN. “Down Goes Socialism,” announced Politico Magazine, despite the fact that Tlaib’s victory doubles the D.S.A.’s likely representation in Congress. “Socialist torchbearers flame out in key races, despite blitz by Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez,” said a Fox News headline

In part, this spin might just be the inevitable backlash to Ocasio-Cortez’s sudden celebrity. Her primary victory was thrilling and hard-earned, and she’s a charismatic and rousing spokeswoman for her values. But her overnight anointment as the new face of the Democratic Party has created absurdly outsize expectations of her power as kingmaker. 

In truth, there’s nothing surprising about left-wing candidates losing their primaries. The happy surprise is how many are winning. Unsexy as it sounds, the real story of progressive politics right now is the steady accumulation of victories — some small, some major — thanks to a welcome and unaccustomed outbreak of left-wing pragmatism.

Until quite recently, the most visible embodiment of left-wing electoral activism was the terminally flaky Green Party. It made a showing on Tuesday when Joe Manchik, who claims to be descended from space aliens, won 1,129 votes in the special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. Democrat Danny O’Connor trails the Republican by 1,564 votes in that race, with almost 3,500 provisional ballots still to be counted. 
 
We can argue endlessly over whether an appreciable number of Manchik’s voters would have gone Democrat if there hadn’t been a Green Party alternative. But I have yet to see any evidence that the Green Party’s habit of running doomed third-party campaigns has ever done anything to further its ostensible values. 
 
Greens will sometimes justify these runs as movement-building tools, but they never seem to actually build a movement. “They don’t know how to multiply themselves,” Ralph Nader once told me, explaining the dissipation of the party after his 2000 presidential run. “It’s a peculiar characteristic: Green Party people, they don’t like to raise money, they allow themselves to live in neighborhoods and communities where they become minorities of one.”
 
The new generation of left-wing activists, by contrast, is good at self-multiplication. The Democratic Socialists of America alone has done more to build left political power since the 2016 election than the Green Party did in the 18 years after Nader helped elect George W. Bush.
 
Just as the Christian Right did in the 1990s, the new electoral left — which also includes groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party — is trying to take over the Democratic Party from the ground up. These activists have, significantly, focused on races for prosecutor, which is a way to create immediate local criminal justice reform. (In Philadelphia, left-wing organizers last year helped elect civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner as district attorney. Among his reforms is the end of cash bail for many misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.) 

It’s true that several candidates endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders lost on Tuesday, including Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary and Brent Welder in a congressional primary in Kansas. But it’s testament to how far left the Democratic Party’s center of gravity has moved that the winners in those two races — Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Sharice Davids in Kansas — could be considered establishment. 

Whitmer supports a $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization and statewide universal preschool. Davids, a Native American lesbian, former mixed martial arts fighter and lawyer, is running as a bad-ass feminist. One of her ads shows her training in a boxing gym. “It’s 2018, and women, Native Americans, gay people, the unemployed and underemployed have to fight like hell just to survive,” she says. “And it’s clear, Trump and the Republicans in Washington don’t give a damn.” 

It’s certainly true that Davids’s campaign put more emphasis on identity and representation, while Welder, a 2016 Sanders delegate, stressed populist economics. The Democratic Party will likely be weighing the precise balance between those progressive priorities for a long time. But the point is, they are all progressive priorities. After Davids’s victory, Ocasio-Corteztweeted her congratulations: “Your win is an incredible inspiration to so many, myself included.”

“Democrats in disarray” is a take that writes itself, but not every disagreement is a war.

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Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in 2017 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. Previously, she was a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World, and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism.

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