This is part three in a three-part series. Parts one and two can be read here and here.
Entering The Halls Of Power
On January 21, 2017 Donald Trump woke up as president of the United States for the first time. In those morning hours, hundreds of thousands of protesters were making their way to Washington DC for the most significant protest since Occupy Wall Street, which had occurred roughly five years earlier. Donning pink p-ssy hats and dedicated to overthrowing the patriarchy, and Trump, the Women’s March took to the streets.
At the time it was presented as an organic outpouring of anti-Trump emotion. But we now know that it was not only carefully organized, but that the New Progressives were the march’s driving force and leadership. Its manifesto, among other things, promised intersectionality, and to break down systems of oppression.
Suddenly these concepts once limited to a few thousand in Zuccotti Park were being marched on by hundreds of thousands. That is not to say that all of these women and men supported the entire far-left agenda of the Women’s March. Rather, Trump’s election provided the New Progressives the opportunity to cast themselves as his opposite, and if Trump was the ultimate evil, that made them the ultimate good.
Indeed, even the Women’s March itself was accused of insufficient wokeness, as illustrated by a Washington Post headline just three days later that asked, “Was the Women’s March just another display of white privilege? Some think so.”
The irony of this is that the organizers, people like Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, had pushed the march’s manifesto and goals so far left of center using the exactly the same justification as was used for the Occupy General Assembly’s progressive stack: the most marginalized must lead, white women were to take a back seat and listen. Just as with Occupy Wall Street, there was, at best, antipathy towards Israel, and at worst outright anti-Semitism.
The New Progressives finally had what they needed: an archvillain, an enemy to loathe and disdain, a crisis supposedly so deadly and vital that centrist and moderate approaches were insufficient to meet it. If they could summon half a million people to the nation’s capitol and hundreds of thousands more across the country and even globe, then why couldn’t they marshal that support to elect candidates who embodied the Occupy agenda? That is exactly what they set out to do.
From Protests to Politics
Two days after the Women’s March, a new political action committee was created, named Justice Democrats. Among its leadership were Cenk Uyger of the Young Turks, a regular at Occupy Wall Street, and Saikat Chakrabarti, who helped develop the most powerful voice to date for the movement. The goals were ambitious: to find candidates for as many congressional seats as possible who shared their political philosophy, one which a mere six years earlier would have seemed laughably out of touch with American values and the will of the American people.
Meanwhile, the badly wounded and embarrassed Democratic Party establishment was engaged in exactly the kind of postmortem that the Republican Party engaged in after Mitt Romney lost in 2012. How on earth had they managed to lose to Donald Trump? The results of both postmortems were remarkably similar. While the 2013 GOP assumed they needed to appeal to more minority voters, the 2017 Democrats landed on the idea that they had failed to appeal to the white working class, and had thereby lost key Rust Belt swing states. The New Progressives did not share this opinion.
Over the next two years of the Trump administration, the level of division and vitriol in the country reached a fever pitch. Commentators on both sides openly spoke of the possibility of civil war. Columns in the progressives press abounded about not dating, or even being friends with, those who support Trump. On the right, many took the attitude that those who opposed Trump were dangerous traitors hell- bent on destroying America.
A new culture war was beginning, not just in the United States but also in the English-speaking world. The American New Progressives and their international counterparts amped up their de-platforming of conservative voices, their boycotts, and claims that some speech is literally violence. In response grew the not-quite-conservative Intellectual Dark Web, spearheaded by an Australian outlet called Quillette and thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin. In large part, this counter movement existed to protect intellectualism, and particularly the academy, from the illiberal excesses of the New Progressives.
So removed from any national political power were the Democrats that economic issues took a back seat. Yet from the earliest days of the Trump administration, and even up until now, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, champions of the Occupy economic policies, were already top contenders to try to take down Trump. But as I laid out in part two, they only satisfied the two economic planks, a focus on income inequality, and anti-corporatism, but not intersectionality. It would take new leaders to embody all three of Occupy’s core positions. Such leaders were about to emerge.
AOC Comes On the Scene
New York Rep. Joe Crowley, affectionately known as the “king of Queens,” was the picture-perfect image of the establishment Democrat. He was the party’s number-three ranking member, thought of as a possible successor for leadership after then minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s tenure ended. But something happened on the way there. More exactly, someone happened. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a 28-year-old Latina bartender shocked the nation by defeating Crowley in the 2018 primary. The nation was introduced to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
AOC, as she is now known, did not come out of nowhere. She came out of the Justice Democrats PAC that was formed days after Trump’s inauguration. Chakrabarti, her current chief of staff, was a leading force behind her candidacy. Ocasio-Cortez immediately became a superstar in the Democratic Party, and when the Democrats swept into the House after their 2018 midterm victories, she, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who are also aligned with Justice Democrats, became the face of the victory: young women of color speaking truth to Trump’s power.
In a mere six years, the New Progressives had gone from a small encampment in lower Manhattan to seating congresswomen. But the telegenic, witty, and Twitter-savvy AOC, while supporting the Occupy agenda down the line, added a new and important twist. A laser focus on climate change as the animating principle of the movement.
At Occupy, the environment was a subsidiary issue to capitalism, since once capitalism was defeated, it was assumed better environmental practices would ensue. Ocasio-Cortez saw that as exactly backwards. In her version, climate change, which she claims we have only 12 years to solve before the world is doomed, is the catalyst for anti-capitalism and anti-corporatism. Trump had Flight 93; AOC has threats of an apocalypse if the New Progressives’ agenda is not adopted.
We see this at work her Green New Deal, which is more New Deal than green. Her proposal requires government takeover of huge swaths of the private sector and control of American citizens’ choices. Not, as was argued by Occupy, because it is the moral and just thing to do, but because if we don’t the world will be destroyed.
The giveaway is that the Green New Deal does not include nuclear energy, the simplest and cleanest way to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear’s absence has nothing to do with fear of meltdowns and everything to with the fact that it does not require the state to assert greater control over corporations and people’s lives.
Establishment Buyer’s Remorse
In the immediate aftermath of the 2018 midterms, the Democratic Establishment was pleased as punch to bask in the narrative of their New Progressive superstars. Pelosi graced a magazine cover with them. They surely assumed that Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar would electrify the progressive base, but also be good members of the caucus loyal to leadership. This was a bad misjudgment.
Very quickly, fault lines emerged. When House leadership learned Justice Democrats were targeting more Democrats including possibly Hakeem Jeffries, the second leading black member of the caucus, the establishment started to get the idea that the New Progressives are not exactly on their team.
While AOC and her bombastic Twitter feed that rivals Trump’s was sucking all the oxygen out of the party, Omar engaged in a series of anti-Semitic comments that left leadership between a progressive rock and a mainstream hard place. Meanwhile the early contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination were chomping at the bit to embrace New Progressive policies like the Green New Deal and dazzle with acts of performative wokeness.
These candidates and much of the news media assumed the New Progressives are not only the zeitgeist of the party, but that they truly represent the views of large swaths of the Democratic Party. For months were heard questions on cable news about whether Democrats were willing to vote for a white man when clearly the energy of the party was directed at women, particularly women of color.
Then the polls started to come out. Lo and behold, most of the top candidates have consistently been white men. Not only that, the white man with a consistent and commanding lead was Joe Biden. Uncle Joe, the oldest of old-school Democrats, is basically the antithesis of the New Progressives. One can almost imagine him patting them on the head and, to paraphrase Pelosi, complimenting their “enthusiasm.”
The Future of the New Progressives
By any standard, the rise of the New Progressives is an impressive one. In seven years, with the help of a fawning media they have moved from a rag tag, although well-organized and -funded, encampment in the shadow of Wall Street to a major force helping shape Democratic Party politics. They have changed the way many Americans think about socialism, free speech, race relations, and the sexes.
Their political successes thus far, while impressive, have been limited to deep blue enclaves, but their cultural impact has been much larger. While more Democrats seem to support the Biden version of the party today than theirs, youth is on their side. At 29, Ocasio-Cortez could be in Congress and the national spotlight for the next half-century.
Justice Democrats continues to hunt for vulnerable moderate Democrats to primary and replace with their own, and they have strong support in major cultural power centers such as Hollywood and the academy. Even if their actual constituency of voters is relatively small and limited to certain densely populated areas, their broader impact is being felt in every corner of American politics and culture.
Regarding the short-term prospects of the New Progressives, much depends upon outcome of the 2020 presidential election. It is possible, even likely, that the best outcome for them would be a Trump victory, especially against a moderate like Biden. It was, after all, Trump’s win in 2016 that helped transform them from a protest movement into a legitimate political faction.
In November 2011, Occupy Wall Street died, scattered into the streets of lower Manhattan. But it didn’t end there. What seemed like a fabulous burn-out was in fact the start of a political and social movement that America will be dealing with for a long time to come.
Although they are easy for conservatives to mock, the New Progressives should be taken deadly seriously. While the right maintains political and judicial power, the values and ideas of New Progressives are increasingly the ones we see on our screens and stages, in the pages of our newspapers and in the classrooms of our colleges.
Their three-legged stool of intersectionality, redistribution of wealth, and anti-corporatism is sturdy. They are a force, for better or worse, that conservatives will have to contend with, and for now, they appear strong in their effort to permanently recast and reshape the very idea of America.