Dreams can come true. Democrats won big time in the 2018 midterm elections. As votes are still being counted, Democrats flipped a stunning 39 seats, seven governorships — including in the perennial red state of Kansas and the swing state of Wisconsin. The Ds also won hundreds of down-ticket statehouse races. They won the popular vote by 7 percent. A dreamy blue wave came to life.
Unfortunately, even before all the votes had been counted election night, some started drawing the conclusion that moderate Democrats were tossed out by voters and progressive Democrats won all those seats.
One friend put it, “Moderate Democrats lost. It pays to be radical Progressive.”
The “progressives” vs “moderates” trope also was used in a popular New York Times opinion article, “Do the Math. Moderate Democrats Will Not Win in 2020,” by author Steve Phillips. Lots of people in my social network ate it up, with the headline, not necessarily the article, as the main course.
“Go progressive or go home!” one friend added like a bit of parsley on top of a steak.
It all seemed way too early for chest-thumping and red meat. Even almost two weeks later, it still seems not only premature, but just wrong. After such a victory, why draw a conclusion that may exclude a significant, if not a majority, of the political party you purportedly support? The Democratic Party victors span from democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Democratic conservative Conor Lamb.
The list of Democratic firsts is heavily populated by women, women of color and members of the LGBTQ communities. Progressives are proud of all these newly elected officials and the organizing work that went into making victories possible.
But the post-election wrangling over the meaning of the elections for the Democratic Party and 2020, and the attacks on the best (and only one so far) Democratic candidate for Speaker of the House worry me. It seems to continue, unnecessarily, the bitterness from the Democratic primary in 2016.
Most winning candidates put progressive values like protecting pre-existing conditions’ coverage and improving the Affordable Care Act front and center. Expanding democracy and voting rights, curbing gun violence, advancing more humane immigration and criminal justice reform, creating good paying jobs with infrastructure and clean energy investments were on the ballot as a result of the Democratic campaigns.
Although his name did not appear, and many Democrats did not campaign against him, President Donald Trump was also on the ballot. Ninety percent of voters who disapproved of the president’s job voted for Democrats, the worst showing of a president’s party since 1982.
All of this is good for moving forward with pro-people and planet solutions to the daunting problems we face, and putting a check on the worst abuse of power by a president in modern history.
Instead of looking for divisions, shouldn’t Democrats find common ground to move forward? Are there areas where — like the Venn Diagram — there is overlap between progressive and moderate?
There are many lessons to learn from this election. For me, the most important one is look at specifics before drawing any general conclusions. When you do look more closely at specific races, the idea that radical progressives dominated falls apart.
“All politics are local,” as the adage goes. Each House, Senate and gubanatorial race has its own particulars and lessons. What motivated voters in NY-14 to elect Ocasio-Cortez is different than what animated voters in IL-14 to elect Democrat Lauren Underwood instead of tea party Republican incumbent Randy Holtgren.
Both candidates made history: Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest person ever elected to Congress. Underwood is the first African American woman to be elected to represent IL-14, a majority white district.
The candidates shaped their campaign according to their experience, their specific district and what the district’s voters were ready to support.
Ocasio-Cortez, who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016, campaigned for single-payer health care and other far reaching change. Underwood, who worked in the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services, campaigned on saving coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
The campaigns had two different approaches to health care. One was a systemic change that could take years to come to fruition. The other was a protection that could be guaranteed for people by this new Congress. Yet, their common space was fighting for health care coverage for the people they serve.
Underwood is progressive but she wasn’t a Justice Democrat-endorsed candidate, like Ocasio-Cortez was. For some, that may be worthy of a primary challenge. Justice Democrats only endorse candidates who agree with their far-reaching platform. They don’t leave any room for compromise with their fellow Democrats in the larger fight for democracy.
To see how problematic political puritanism is, it would be informative to look back at one of the contested Democratic primaries of 2018 — Kansas’ 3rd CD.
Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of two Native American women who made history by becoming the first Indigenous women to be elected to Congress, is also openly lesbian (another first for Kansas) and a veteran. She turned that red district blue by campaigning on, among other things, early-childhood education.
Progressives are celebrating this terrific victory!
However, Davids was not the “bold” progressives’ choice in the Democratic primary. She was the Democratic Party “establishment’s” choice. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee endorsed her campaign early on in the primary. That means Pelosi and DCCC Chair Rep. Ben Ray Lujan backed the candidate that all progressives are celebrating.
Interestingly, you know who did not back Davids in the primary?
The two socialists flew into Kansas during the Democratic primary to rally for Brent Welder, a white man, who ran on a “bold, progressive program” such as “Medicare For All” and not taking any corporate money.
Briahna Gray of the Intercept characterized the Welder campaign as a proxy in the Sanders-backed “war” against “identity politics.”
Gray writes that Sanders’ speeches for Welder and another Kansas House candidate “comprised an unabashed declaration of post-partisan movement building — a rebuke to those in power who fetishize every identity-based division in order to diffuse the largest coalition in the country: the working class.”
Wow. Really? You mean to say it has to be either/or not both/and? It has to be either working class or race/gender/sexuality, not working class AND race/gender/sexuality? As if race, gender, sexuality don’t interact and inform working-class experience and vice-versa? Ridiculous.
Democrats need leaders who can do both/and. Leaders who can find the common spaces of agreement while keeping a wide, all-inclusive vision that fights for this diverse, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-gender, multi-sexuality working class and people. I bet you will find such leaders among both progressives and moderates, among the newly-elected and the veterans.
The strength of Democrats is their diversity. It’s not a one-size fits all, “my way or the highway” party. It was both progressives and moderates — candidates and voters — that put the Democrats into power. That is the true lesson of the these elections.
About me: I have been a political and community activist since 1983 when Harold Washington ran in the Democratic primary for mayor. I canvassed for Lauren Underwood three times with Indivisible Northwest Side (Chicago) and for Randy Bryce, Tammy Baldwin and Tony Evers in Wisconsin with Swing Left.