The left is just getting started
Centrists claim democratic socialism is losing. They wish.
The great struggle between the left and the center for control of the Democratic Party went another round on Tuesday. Several prominent Bernie Sanders-style Democrats, like Abdul El-Sayed in the gubernatorial race in Michigan, and Brent Welder in the primary for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District, went down to defeat, despite receiving a lot of assistance from Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Centrist pundits immediately proclaimed socialism dead and buried. In Politico, Bill Scher argued that if you thought "the Democratic Party was poised to go socialist, think again." On CNN, Chris Cuomo hectored Ocasio-Cortez over the price of Medicare-for-all and claimed that candidates "who did well were largely women and traditional Democrats, not the lefties."
These postmortems are beyond premature — indeed, they are pretty obviously wishful thinking. In reality, the left is well-positioned to continue gradually chipping away at centrist Democrats, as well as turning centrists to the left. This is only the beginning.
For one thing, Tuesday's elections were not at all a complete shutout. On the contrary, the left won a number of impressive victories. Democratic Socialists of America member Rashida Tlaib won the primary in Michigan's 13th District, making her a near-certain lock to replace John Conyers (and become the first Palestinian-American woman ever in Congress). In Kansas' 4th District, Sanders ally James Thompson won his primary. And in St. Louis, Ferguson City Council member Wesley Bell (who is black) won a shocking upset victory in the country prosecutor primary race, turfing out the notorious Robert McCulloch, who refused to prosecute the police officer who shot Michael Brown to death in 2014. As The Washington Post's Dave Weigel points out, leftist candidates have done best so far in down-ballot races and in low-turnout primaries in deep-blue districts — like when Ocasio-Cortez trounced top Democrat Joe Crowley despite being outspent 10 to one.
Perhaps most impressively, a state ballot measure in Missouri to overturn the state's so called "right-to-work" law — in reality, a measure to prevent union organizing and increase worker exploitation — won by a staggering two-to-one margin. To repeat, this was in Missouri, where Republicans occupy the governor's seat and have supermajorities in both houses of the legislature.
The Missouri example, in particular, highlights one area where the left has already routed the center: ideas.
Even the primaries the left did lose took place largely on leftist terrain. Both the Michigan and Kansas races were largely jostling over who was the most committed and realistic progressive. Gretchen Whitmer (who defeated El-Sayed) proclaimed her support for a $15 minimum wage, repealing right-to-work, and infrastructure investment; while Sharice Davids (an openly gay woman who would be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress) campaigned on LGBT rights, expanding Medicaid, and renewable energy investment.
Practically all the policy debates happening in the Democratic Party are over leftist ideas. Just look at the exhausted centrism of Third Way, which can offer little more than tepid disagreement with the left, not their own worked-out program. They're even abandoning education reform, long the centrist Democrat lodestar.
The history of the Republican Party offers an instructive comparison. In 1964, Republicans elected Barry Goldwater to go up against Lyndon Johnson in the presidential race, and he went down in one of the all-time greatest defeats in American history. Centrist pundits, then as now, concluded with satisfaction that American political gravity was safely in the milquetoast center. As Corey Robin points out, Richard Rovere wrote in The New Yorker that "the election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction."
Movement conservatives ignored this self-serving claptrap. They continued organizing, pushing their message, and electing their own where they could. The result was a near-victory in the 1976 presidential primary, and then finally placing Ronald Reagan in the presidency in 1980.
Organizing a broad political movement over a country of 320 million people is a tall hill to climb. It takes years of grinding work. A decade after the financial crisis, the left has already managed to raise up national leaders — many of whom are only just beginning their political careers — and begun building the policy apparatus to translate their ideas into workable legislation.
What's more, unlike movement conservatism, leftist ideas are broadly appealing and make clear policy sense. Medicare-for-all would be miles better than the current malfunctioning hodgepodge of medical programs. Social housing is far superior to the private market for providing affordable housing and easing the rent crisis. Worker co-determination (where a company's labor force elects a third of its board of directors) would not only raise wages and decrease shareholder parasitism, it is astonishingly popular. And so on.
More establishment-inclined Democrats, sensing which way the wind is blowing, are already repositioning themselves. Practically every probable 2020 contender has signed on to Sanders' Medicare-for-all bill.
If centrists think a couple of close losses spells the end of the left, they have another thing coming.