Since Trump’s inauguration, grassroots political engagement has swept the country: the Women’s March last year marked the largest day of protests in US history, and most recently, the activism of students of Stoneman Douglas High School seems to signal that a new national chapter in the story of American gun control. #NeverAgain could very well be possible. Commentators have drawn parallels to the activism of 1968: March 5th of this year, for example, marks the 50th anniversary of the Chicano student walkouts in East Los Angeles. And within the Democratic Party, history seems to be repeating itself as well. Many young activists perceive a repetition of the 1968 Democratic National Convention results — a rip between establishment moderation and progressive demands. Recently, the California State Democratic Party refused to endorse Senator Dianne Feinstein’s 6th term run for the Senate, and since Monday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has funded ads targeting progressive candidate Laura Moser amidst her grassroots campaign for Congress. But the Democratic Party does not have to be this way: in order to win, Democrats must unite the party by accepting the fresh visions of rising young leaders.
Since the dramatic loss of progressive Democratic candidate George McGovern to Richard Nixon in the 1972 Presidential Election, Democrats have since adapted from running on pure idealism, turning instead towards the moderate center. Every slightly off-center candidate has invoked “McGovernist” name-calling by the Party and media from Howard Dean to Bernie Sanders. Even Barack Obama faced similar criticism. Bill Clinton’s “transactional” and “incremental” politics solidified the Democratic transition towards the center: the belief that politicians had to accept given political realities in order to “get things done.” These realities were seemingly always stacked against the “far-off” idealist beliefs of young people. “Purist” politicians who relied too much on idealist principles rather than strategy were described as being unwilling to “share the burden of morally ambiguous compromise”.
But young people are not simply pure idealists. Nor in these days of activism are they hopeless, passive, or apathetic, as they have often been dismissed by mainstream politics. Despite the end of Sanders’ 2016 primary bid, last May, Bernie-inspired activists worked to win in local government, even in districts that went for Trump in 2016. Backed by grassroots organizations such as Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, and Democracy for America, progressive leadership stormed the country, including Chokwe Lumumba’s 93% win as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. And on Election Day 2017, a wave of fresh democrats and progressive platforms delivered across the country. In the Virginia House, Lee Carter, a self-declared socialist, defeated Republican House Majority Whip Jackson Miller by 9 points. Bill de Blasio’s progressive platform won him a re-election, and a “blue wall” of progressive governors and state legislatures took the Pacific Coast. The elections of Lawrence Krasner (District Attorney of Philadelphia), Kim Foxx (Cook County State’s Attorney, Chicago), and Aramis Ayala (Orange-Osceola State Attorney, Orlando) signified the start of a new kind of electoral victory. As a Philadelphia Daily News column by Will Bunch announced, Krasner’s victory signified “a revolution aimed at finally undoing a draconian justice regime that had turned the Cradle of Liberty into a death-penalty capital and the poster child for mass incarceration.” It signified the start of activist-driven elections.
This wave of activism reflects a calculated and pragmatic rejection by young people of the compromising politics of establishment Democrats. To quote Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, for young voters, the issues of our time have been “the Iraq invasion, financial crisis, free trade, mass incarceration, domestic surveillance, police brutality, debt and income inequality, among others.” And on virtually all of these issues, the modern Democratic Party “has been on the wrong side.” Take economics as an example. The United Nations’ Human Rights Office has reported on the extreme levels of the “40 million people [who] live in poverty” in the United States. Staggering levels of wealth and income inequality increase every year. And yet, Democrats have consistently supported anti-union free trade agreements without addressing the economic dislocation that came with it, until it became politically inexpedient. Democrats continue to be unable to create a comprehensive and united economic policy. As Ted Rall of the Wall Street Journal notes, “Obama wanted to regulate Wall Street, not replace it…What matters to [progressives] most is the struggle between the 1% and the 99%, especially over globalization. Working-class lives matter; banks are evil.” In a time when young people seek genuine change, establishment Democrats seek reform -- not revolution.
Time after time, centrist Democrats have shown to be simply out of touch with their own base. They chose Joe Kennedy III as the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union when the Party desperately needs voters who are young, multiethnic, working-class, and in swing districts. In 2016, Democratic pursuits of elitist whites undermined the ability to deliver gains for all working class voters. And most importantly, they continue to reject so-called “McGovernist” candidates because they fear losing voters they would never earn in the first place. Unfortunately, those candidates have often best reflected the beliefs of their growing voter demographics, and provided the most momentum and passionate voter turnout.
So Democrats: Turn away from anachronistic leaders, and don’t hesitate to acknowledge the failures of past Democrats. Come up with a coherent and united message addressing the ideals and pragmatic demands of young people. In a time when more and more people are disillusioned by the economic dislocation caused by globalization, have an economic platform that cuts across class and racial lines. The “Better Deal” platform is already a great step in that direction. And most importantly, stop deterring the campaigns of progressive candidates. McGovern may have lost, but he never set a precedent for “idealist” or leftist campaigns. He lost because he campaigned against a popular incumbent president who had a strong economy and was close to drawing the Vietnam War to a close.
Looking ahead towards the 2018 Midterm Elections, for Democrats, the so-called idealism of young people is a force worth reckoning with. If the modern grassroots success of Senator Sanders’ campaign (and others that followed him) wasn’t enough proof, consider the enthusiasm that fueled the movements of young people 50 years ago, and activist movements of today. Democrats must galvanize voters to that extent if they want to drive more people, particularly previously politically disengaged people, to the polls.
And for other young people: keep fighting, even if legislatures say otherwise. Don’t wait for the acknowledgement of older generations to tear down old structures and build anew. Just get on with the work.
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