'On Your Left': The New Power of the Progressive Movement in Democratic Politics

Voters on the American left haven't been this energetic in decades—and they're raising hard questions for almost every Democratic candidate.
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Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, at a press conference on July 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, at a press conference on July 24th, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

As the Democratic Party took stock of the 2018 mid-terms, one thing became crystal clear: The American left is newly empowered. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is more diverse than ever. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—which has authority to investigate concerns ranging from the Trump administration's response to Puerto Rico hurricane relief efforts, to the finances of the Trump Organization—gained four new progressive members, including new party star and self-described democratic socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already introduced legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a position that Senator Bernie Sanders had to fight to include in the party's 2016 platform. Support for some version of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal appear to be the minimum bid for entry into the 2020 Democratic presidential field.

In my political life—I first voted in 1992 but was at least aware of American politics in the 1980s—I've never felt this kind of power coming from the American left. Maybe it's a reaction to the would-be tyranny of President Donald Trump, the widening gaps between rich and poor, and the intensifying weather extremes on a warming planet. Janie Velencia at FiveThirtyEight notes that, as of January of 2019, the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal reached its highest point in recent history. Young-adult voting surged by 188 percent in 2018 compared to 2014. As Patrick Fisher, a political scientist at Seton Hall University, wrote in 2018, "The Millennials' support for the Democratic Party is due to the generation's liberal views on policy that are a product of Millennials' relative diversity, high education levels, global perspective on politics, and lack of religiosity. The huge generation gap ... suggests that there is an emerging realignment of the electorate along generational lines." The electorate for Democrats is younger, motivated to turn out, and progressive. The eventual 2020 nominee will require significant support from the party's left wing.

Now here's the challenge: Every credible 2020 contender—including socialist stalwart Sanders, who has now jumped into the race—has a weakness on their left flank that they'll have to shore up if they want to be the nominee.

Senator Elizabeth Warren began her campaign by delivering specific progressive policy proposals. Her 2 percent wealth tax on net worth over $50 million is favored by 61 percent of respondents in a new poll. During her time in the Senate, she's championed progressive priorities such as consumer protections and challenging the Cold War foreign policy consensus that endless military deployments are inevitable. Most recently, Warren released a detailed proposal to spend some of the proceeds of that wealth tax on universal childcare.

On the other hand, her response to racist taunts from Trump, who routinely calls her "Pocahontas," has wound up making her look like a cultural interloper. In October, she released the results of a DNA test to try to prove her Cherokee ancestry, immediately prompting Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. to admonish that: "A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship." Warren then apologized to the Cherokee Nation, first privately and then publicly, even as new documents emerged verifying that she used "American Indian" as her racial identifier on a registration card for the State Bar of Texas in 1986. A group of indigenous scholars has created a syllabus for people who want to understand the seriousness of Warren's missteps in a historical and contemporary context. While offering various resources that clarify the complexities of native identity, the authors write, "[Warren has] distracted from urgent issues facing indigenous communities and undermined indigenous sovereignty by equating 'biology' with culture, 'race' with citizenship." The controversy has overshadowed Warren's policy platform and caused progressives to question her understanding of the complex issues behind intersecting oppressive ideologies (i.e. racism, sexism, ableism, and more)—as well as doubting her political instincts when it comes to responding to criticism.

Senator Kamala Harris rose to prominence in California as a "smart-on-crime" prosecutor in San Francisco. More recently, she has spoken eloquently against mass incarceration, but has come under fire for her efforts to maintain the criminalization of sex-work and her opposition to gender-reassignment surgeries for incarcerated transgender women. She's been inconsistent on supporting the legalization of marijuana, and Republicans have run against her from the left on this issue. Sex workers have said that Harris "might as well be Trump" on the issue of their rights, because she treats sex workers as "disposable." Many civil rights leaders believe she is not a strong advocate for reining in the use of police force against communities of color. Famously, while attorney general of California, Harris threatened to use anti-truancy laws to threaten parents with jail time, a move that Yale University law professor James Forman Jr. described as "the American way: what little help we offer poor people comes under threat of prison."

Realistically, it's hard to become a senator from New York or New Jersey without support from some of the wealthiest people in the world, especially the ones who live next door. But in a moment when there's increasingly bipartisan recognition that income inequality is one of the nation's most intractable problems, and much of the Democratic base is rallying around the idea of raising the top marginal tax rate to 70 percent for incomes over $10 million, Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand will have to square their connections to—and past defenses of—Wall Street. After the 2008 financial crash, Gillibrand, soon appointed senator to replace Hillary Clinton, continued to enjoy robust support from the securities and investment sector. In 2012, she received the third-most contributions from the financial services industry of any lawmaker, behind Republicans Scott Brown and John Boehner. In 2012, when President Barack Obama offered reasonable criticism of GOP nominee Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital, Booker drew an unreasonable parallel, saying that Obama's criticism was as "nauseating" as the attacks against Obama for his past association with the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Many Americans think of Joe Biden as the former vice president, and/or as a walking meme: Obama's wingman, the shirtless Trans Am dude, the tattooed yellow Corvette guy. Like Harris, Biden's a former prosecutor whom the left views as regressive, not least because of his support for President Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill. He'd also be the only 2020 candidate to have voted for the Iraq War.

Moreover, voters of a certain age recall that, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' fraught confirmation hearings. During the proceedings, Biden allowed character attacks from right-wing senators such as Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter on law professor Anita Hill, who had accused Thomas of sexual harassment; Biden also failed to call witnesses who might have corroborated her charges, paving the way to confirm a justice who was credibly accused of serial sexual harassment. If Biden enters the race, the episode will be revisited, particularly by black women, the most reliable Democratic voting block (a group that's broadly progressive, though not necessarily hard left). Hill says she's not waiting for an apology, but in the #MeToo era, Biden will have to figure out a way to account for his decisions back then—an explanation that goes beyond a superficial mea culpa. These issues of gender and racial equity can't simply be ignored by a candidate looking to win in 2020.

Sanders is the most successful leftist in contemporary American politics. His positions on taxes, wages, college, housing, health care, and many more issues have come to define the core distinctions between the more progressive and the more centrist elements of the Democratic Party. I don't think anyone is going to win in 2020 by deliberately placing themselves to the right of Sanders. But he has recently had to address allegations of sexual harassment within his 2016 campaign, enhancing the "Bernie Bro" myth and the perception that he struggles to appeal to women voters. Hillary Clinton beat Sanders by more than 50 points among black voters during the 2016 primaries.

Since then, Sanders has made no noticeable improvements in his rhetoric on race. After the 2018 election, Sanders assessed the loss of African-American Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by saying, "I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist, who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African American." To many Democrats, this line seemed to be explaining away or excusing racism. Speaking to GQ, Sanders criticized candidates who were "very big into diversity." In his launch interview with Vermont Public Radio, he said, "We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age."

These kinds of self-inflicted wounds could broaden distrust of Sanders among voters who do care about racial and gender representation among their leaders. Case in point: the hubbub over his decision to follow Stacey Abrams' response to the State of the Union, which many of his supporters said was just his normal practice, but which generated enormous criticism from those who felt he was trying to upstage a prominent black woman.

Not all candidates seem terribly interested in courting the left wing of the Democratic Party. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper want to run to the center, if they run. Amy Klobuchar is a strong centrist contender with wide popularity across the Midwest. She's trying to carve out a different path.

I don't see how charismatic but inexperienced candidates like Beto O'Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, or Julian Castro break through against these senators and a former vice president. Tulsi Gabbard has some national profile—she used to be a "progressive rising star" who backed Sanders in 2016 and jumped into the 2020 race early. But her history of working on a 2002 anti-same-sex marriage campaign, her unusual indulgence of Syria's brutal President Bashar al Assad and of Indian President Narendra Modi, an anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist, probably dooms her campaign before it starts. If any of them emerge victorious in early primaries, though, it will be because they, too, have found a way to engage with the energized left across the nation.

Most of these candidates' flaws seem fixable at this early stage. It seems quite possible that any of these candidates might grab a plurality of delegates and seize the nomination. The variety of issues here demonstrates real diversity even among the left wing of the party, and they emphasize the challenges that await any candidate on the road to the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. The politician with the ability to overcome their current vulnerabilities is just the person with the leadership skills needed to become the next president.

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