Reality check: We are not facing a progressive renaissance
Last Tuesday, self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term House Democrat (and potential contender for speaker) Joe Crowley in an outer-borough New York district primary. The win has been hailed by many as a “harbinger of a…progressive renaissance,” and Ocasio-Cortez herself has proclaimed her success as the result of a growing grassroots movement. Many believe we are on the brink of a liberal revolution, a wave of far-left political ideology that will irrevocably transform the Democratic Party.
But we’re not.
This is an unpopular opinion among young liberals. The overwhelming consensus – at least by those I’ve talked to – is that the DNC is an aging, ineffective organization running on an outdated platform which drastically fails to reflect the actual desires and needs of their constituency. The Democratic Party stands accused of strategically paying lip service to their base and offering symbolic opposition, without investing or causing any true change to the system. Proponents of this belief often point to things like the election of Tom Perez to DNC Chair over Keith Ellison, the corruption of Hillary Clinton (citing her closeness with Wall Street and private corporations), or general DNC ineffectiveness to make their case.
I have absolutely nothing against Ellison or Ocasio-Cortez. I share their values and I believe in their commitment to them. I support the vast majority of far-left candidates who achieve positions of power. I do not, however, believe this is the time to launch a civil war within the Democratic Party.
When Senator Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 presidential election, he generated the first wave of this far-left movement. The blanket contentment created by President Barack Obama evaporated almost immediately as a generation began identifying with Sanders’ values and platform. Distrust of the established Democratic Party began here. I was reluctantly on board – I voted for Senator Sanders in the 2016 primary, not because of a sudden loss of faith in the American political system, but because I believed he was the best candidate for leadership.
But when the time came, I voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Many, however, did not. “Bernie Bros” across the country stuck to their guns, vilifying Clinton as the embodiment of an organization that rigged an election against their messiah, failing to adequately represent its constituents. Some even voted for Trump in protest.
Whether or not these lost votes cost Clinton the election is contentious – she did win the popular vote by the widest margin of any losing presidential candidate – but the actions created a movement that fragmented the Democratic Party in a disturbing way.
Whether or not those votes for Sanders handed Donald Trump the election is irrelevant. The long-lasting impact of that action, however, is not. Because here’s the cold, hard, truth: those so stubborn in their commitment to liberally extremist ideals as to reject the help or ideologies of Democrats in power are doing nothing but hurting those who are suffering under the current administration. Pining for a magical, charismatic savior to galvanize the new movement is incredibly unhelpful and unrealistic. To wait is to fail, we need action. In that regard, liberals could learn a lot from the GOP. In the words of President Obama himself, “They don’t worry about inspiration. They worry about winning the seat and they are very systematic about work not just at the presidential level but at the congressional and state legislative levels.”
To vilify the DNC or to attack their candidates and platform – and, to a lesser extent, simple refusal to engage with the party – are acts of extreme privilege. A lack of substantive action or engagement is a lack of awareness of your position of power. A lack of ability to look beyond your personal idealistic ideology is a lack of recognition that removing yourself from the political system hurts millions of people across the United States. A lack of unity among liberals only helps the Republican Party, a party which has coalesced to pass dangerous legislation since an early divide caused by Trump’s campaign.
To be clear: many left-wingers are still engaged and active. Protests and the like are nonpartisan actions that can be taken by voters of a range of ideologies. The problem, then, lies with those who have removed themselves entirely from the political landscape; those who have turned on the Democratic Party entirely. Infighting over the direction of the DNC is causing gridlock even within the party, essentially gifting power to conservative lawmakers. Without cohesion, it becomes impossible to get anything done. Democratic lawmakers' recent inability to not only win seats but pass substantial legislation (or even to block dangerous policies) proves this. A deficit of trust in the party makes it hard to sustain voters, and is historically an ominous sign for any political party.
Ocasio-Cortez won by a strikingly low number - around 16,000 votes, which would not be enough to carry most primaries. For all the talk about Crowley's track record and incumbency, he didn't put up much of a fight - maybe recognizing that he can make much more as a paid lobbyist than on a congressional salary (a move which has been made by countless politicians across history). There's also the question of whether her campaign strategy (and her appeal to minority voting blocs) is applicable to the rest of the country.
Furthermore, there are no real institutions in place to keep checks on elected officials. The need to develop left institutions to which progressive candidates can be held responsible is a real one.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes. That’s not something that can just be overlooked in the face of “new” progressive politics. The liberal establishment is alive and well, and shows no signs of ceasing to exist.
And that’s not a bad thing. The DNC is working towards the right things. They are fighting back against the separation of families seeking asylum. They are championing firearm reform. They are leading the charge against American white nationalism and the oppression of minorities. And their platform is becoming increasingly more inclusive and progressive – change is slow, but it’s coming.
Yes, there are problems within the Democratic Party. Yes, increasingly progressive politics will provide much-needed change. But not right now. Now is the time to unify in defense of basic human rights violations across our country. Now is the time to come together to reject those values and policies that strip American citizens – and those seeking citizenship – of their livelihoods. Now is the time to cooperate, even with those you have disagreements with, to promote true American values and ensure that our nation is on the right path towards total equality, freedom, and opportunity for all. By turning on those with experience in positions of power in favor of idealistic, improbable policies and reforms, you help no one.
This is an unpopular opinion. But it’s not a new one. The same position was taken by a young Republican Senate candidate on June 16, 1858, when he addressed his delegates at the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois. His words? “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
This piece has been edited to clarify the author's intent. You can find a parallel, more succinct version of this argument here.