Following the departure of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., from the Democratic presidential primary, many leftists turned their attention to congressional primary races between moderate incumbents and progressive challengers, along with races for open congressional seats. They are hoping to see results that mimic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory against former Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018.
Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for office two years ago, is once again supporting several progressive candidates for Congress. Following Tuesday’s primary election in New York, at least three candidates backed by Justice Democrats — Marie Newman in Illinois, Jamaal Bowman in New York and Georgette Gomez in California — are proceeding to their general elections in November.
Many Democratic leaders in Congress, especially those who have been serving for decades, are largely unresponsive to the energy and policies of the party’s progressive wing. That’s why Justice Democrats’ method of combating Democratic leadership and capturing seats in Congress for leftists provides a blueprint for the future of progressive politics.
In early 2017, following the 2016 general election, several veterans from Sanders’ failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination joined with Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks and Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk to create Justice Democrats. Their goal was to build a new wing of the Democratic Party that was beholden to the people rather than corporate donors.
Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., joined the organization over the following year, becoming the first Justice Democrats to serve in office. In the 2018 midterms, Justice Democrats ran 79 candidates for national and state government. Of those, 26 advanced past their primaries, and seven, including the three incumbents and Ocasio-Cortez, were ultimately elected.
Though Justice Democrats has only existed for three years, it has certainly caused some headaches for Democratic leadership in the House already. Crowley, who was bested by Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, was serving as chair of the House Democratic Caucus and was seen as a possible successor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats, making his defeat even more stunning.
Likewise, Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, another Justice Democrats candidate, took out former Rep. Michael Capuano, a friend and ally to Pelosi, in 2018. Bowman triumphed over Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Tuesday.
Progressive policies supported by Justice Democrats are popular with all Americans, not just Democrats. An April Morning Consult poll found that 55% of voters support Medicare for All, compared to 35% who oppose it.
Similarly, a 2019 poll from PBS, NPR and Marist found that 60% of registered voters were supportive of the Green New Deal resolution authored by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. And yet Pelosi has publicly voiced her opposition to both proposals, going as far as referring to the Green New Deal as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.”
If Pelosi and other Democratic leaders continue to stand in the way of progressive policies supported by a majority of voters, then it only makes sense that they see primary challenges from the left. And if the last few years are any sort of indicator, incumbency is not always enough to protect them when voters go to the ballot box.
The future of the Democratic Party is boldly progressive, and any Democratic politician who fails to recognize and adapt to that deserves to be knocked out of office. Justice Democrats is well organized and well funded, and it provides the best hope for leftists hoping to reform the Democratic Party into a vehicle for progressive change.
Jerrett Alexander (he/him) is a sophomore studying international relations and environmental sustainability. He sits on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.