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Progressive Candidates Are Pulling the Democratic Party Left, Whether the Establishment Likes It or Not

Left-wing candidates are running on platforms of universal health care.

Cynthia Nixon, a lifelong New Yorker, actress, progressive advocate and candidate running for governor, presented her Climate Justice Agenda on April 20, 2018, at the YMCA in the Rockaways.

Something about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has changed. He announced on Wednesday that he would be restoring the voting rights of paroled people convicted of felonies. Recently, he destroyed the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of Democrats who effectively give power to Republicans in the statehouse, despite previously arguing they were beyond his control. He also claimed to be in “lockstep” with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a claim that one Sanders adviser dismissed as “100 percent Grade A American bullshit.”

Governor Cuomo’s sudden progressive turn, following his years of acting as the epitome of a centrist Democrat, has emerged in response to a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who is coming after him from the left. Nixon’s candidacy, an admitted long shot but a serious challenge nonetheless, is a good illustration of a broader trend of progressive pressure that is now shaping the Democratic Party — whether those in charge like it or not.

For the better part of three decades, conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party has unequivocally stated that left-wing ideas and truly progressive candidates are unelectable outside of a few small pockets of coastal cities. But as the party gears up for what could be a 2018 election year full of wins, those assumptions are being challenged in ways not seen in a generation.

Across the country, progressives are running in primaries to challenge establishment-backed Democrats, or are already gearing up to take on Republicans in the general election. Where conventional wisdom says they should be tacking to the center, they are doing the opposite and doubling down on clear, unapologetic progressive values such as the right to universal health care.

Our Revolution, the political action organization born from the Sanders campaign, has endorsed 33 candidates at all levels of government, from school boards to US representatives to governors — all of whom support Medicare for All. “Health care access is the top issue that our members care about,” said Diane May, communications director at Our Revolution. “From working with the nurses to pass SB 562, California’s Medicare for All bill, to endorsing the ‘Whole Washington’ ballot initiative, our members are passionate about ensuring health care as a human right, and will be actively backing candidates who also understand the need and will fight for universal health care.”

The new crop of progressive candidates is pursuing an agenda that extends beyond single-payer, too. Dan Cannon, who is running for Congress in Indiana’s 9th district, is one of several Democrats to support abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Cannon is also challenging other pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy, and is finding support along the way. “We have to talk about what’s right because it’s right, not because it’s politically expedient,” Cannon told Truthout in an email. He added:

When I advocated marijuana legalization at the beginning of this campaign, I lost support among many old guard Democrats who insisted that I wasn’t a “serious candidate.” Now candidates all over the Midwest are openly calling for the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. I was the first candidate to call for the abolition of ICE. Now there are at least 15 other viable congressional candidates who support the idea. A guaranteed jobs program is now being supported by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and other mainstream Democrats who would not have touched it in elections past.

But even as some of these progressive ideas take hold, the old guard of the Democratic establishment is fighting to maintain its grip on the Democratic Party. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) made national news in trying to tip a Texas race away from progressive challenger Laura Moser, which backfired. Democratic leaders also backed the conservative Blue Dog Dan Lipinski over Marie Newman, a progressive challenger in Illinois. Still, the left wing of the party has momentum and enthusiasm on its side.

One of the candidates taking on the establishment is Kerri Harris, who is running to unseat Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware. Harris, who is a community organizer with the Center for Popular Democracy and an Air Force veteran, has been hammering Senator Carper on his decision to partner with Republicans to dismantle Dodd-Frank — the law passed in the wake of the financial and housing crisis.

In a phone interview with Truthout, Harris criticized Carper for deregulation that will make discrimination against communities of color more likely, and make it harder for poor parents to pass wealth to their children in the form of homeownership. “Those who don’t live the regular struggles of Americans, 50 dollars or 100 dollars more on your mortgage might not feel like a lot, but when you’re trying to stretch every dollar, that takes away from food, from activities for your children,” Harris told Truthout. “To have your representation not consider that when they sign on to co-sponsor a bill, that’s a problem.”

In addition to pushing for increased financial regulation, Harris is also in favor of a host of progressive priorities, including single-payer health care, a $15 federal minimum wage, universal pre-K that begins at six weeks of age, a federal job guarantee program that could not be privatized, national marijuana decriminalization and strengthening collective bargaining rights of workers. Those ideas once were considered far outside the mainstream, but activists have succeeded in bringing them to the forefront.

The shifts in public consciousness that have made the current progressive challenge within electoral politics possible have largely resulted in response to the social movements in the United States — including the Fight for $15, the movement for Black lives, the Wisconsin uprising, Occupy, the Women’s March and others – that in the last eight years have pushed for change mostly outside a framework of electoral politics. That Harris and so many other community leaders are running for office, and have a real shot, could be a sign that those movements could now have serious electoral muscle in addition to their presence in the streets.

“We’re particularly inspired by the many organizers who have helped build power in their communities for years and now seek to turn that energy into electoral wins,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, network president and co-executive director at the Center for Popular Democracy Action. “These elections are a chance for communities that have long been left on the margins to play a leading role, and we look forward to working with them to win a blue wave this year.”

Jess King, a progressive running in Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district, initially faced an uphill battle against the DCCC, which supported a more establishment-friendly rival. King, a former executive director of a nonprofit focused on local economic development, is now running unopposed following the redrawing of the congressional map mandated by the State Supreme Court. Her campaign was the second campaign to unionize this year, and she believes a pro-worker, pro-health care message will resonate in an area where Democrats often tend to run toward the center.

“A lot of folks in South Central Pennsylvania feel abandoned by the establishment in both parties,” King told Truthout in an email. “Over the past 40 years, both Democrats and Republicans have rewritten the rules of our economy to favor the wealthy and well-connected.”

Like other progressive candidates, health care is a major focus for King. “Premiums go up every year while the big insurance companies make millions in profits,” she said. “When we talk to voters and say, ‘Yes, we will work to guarantee health care as a right for all Americans,’ people’s eyes light up. It’s just common sense, and it gives people hope that we really can change the status quo.”

Greg Edwards, who is running in Pennsylvania’s newly drawn 7th district, has also had problems with the Democratic establishment. Edwards accused the DCCC of trying to pressure him out of the race — an allegation that the DCCC denied, echoing criticisms leveled at the DCCC following its attempt to stifle the candidacy of Moser in Texas.

The Indivisible Project, a loose affiliation of activists that emerged in opposition to Trump’s agenda and has transformed into a formidable nationwide coalition of activists, is also wagering that progressives can get elected in areas that lean right. Two of the five candidates that Indivisible has endorsed, Shawna Roberts and Andrew Learned, are running on progressive platforms in districts that Trump won decisively.

“As recent special elections have shown, an undeniable ‘blue wave’ of grassroots energy is already putting progressive candidates over the top across the country,” said Maria Urbina, national political director of the Indivisible Project. “The candidates who can best take advantage of this wave will be those with deep local grassroots support, a commitment to listening to their communities and the personal courage of their convictions.”

Yet despite all the enthusiasm on the left flank, no one thinks the fight for control of the Democratic Party will be easy, and a victory for progressives over the corporate-friendly center is by no means assured. The Democratic Party is deeply committed to pleasing its donors, who maintain an oversized influence on who gets campaign funding and what issues get prioritized or ignored.

But as the New York governor’s race shows, running progressive candidates can push centrist Democrats to the left even before a single vote is cast. That might not be a revolution, but it is progress.

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