The Democrats have to make radical changes on the path to the 2020 presidential elections. Women and young people embody the new political approach
A 4.0 version of Hillary Clinton with a programme along the lines of that put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This could be the surprise in the race for the White House in 2020, driven by the neo-radical wave that has taken the American Democratic Party by storm in the era of Trumpian populism.
At present the former Secretary of State and former candidate defeated by the The Donald in 2016 (and by Barack Obama in 2008) has not announced she intends to stand for election, and has in fact denied the prospect many times. But those who know her well, such as Mark Penn – the pollster and senior consultant who served both Hillary and Bill Clinton from 1995 up until the 2008 campaign – is sure she has not ruled it out. Penn discussed the matter in an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last 11 November: “Mrs. Clinton will come full circle—back to the universal-health-care-promoting progressive firebrand of 1994”. Having lost that battle during her husband’s presidency (Hillary 1.0), she moved towards the centre and was elected a senator for New York State in 2000 (Hillary 2.0) and kept to her moderate positions even during the primaries she lost to Obama. Having cottoned on to the trend of the Democratic base, Clinton moved to the left to beat socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries (Hillary 3.0), but failed to make enough headway against Trump’s populism, which ended up winning over many white working class voters who up to then had been loyal Dem supporters.
“Mrs. Clinton has a 75% approval rating among Democrats, an unfinished mission to be the first female president, and a personal grievance against Mr. Trump, whose supporters pilloried her with chants of “Lock her up!”, Penn explains, “This must be avenged. She will hope to emerge as an unstoppable force to undo Mr. Trump, running on the #MeToo movement, universal health care and gun control”.
Reviving the radical stance of her youth could help Hillary win back the young who tended to vote for old Bernie Sanders in 2016 and now identify with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They are Millennials (between the ages of 22 and 37) grown up in the post 2008 financial crisis climate as Maurice Isserman, history professor at Hamilton College and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), explains, “Thanks to the economic downturn of 2008, which turned the millennial generation in a significant way to the left, it made them much more open to the idea of socialism. On top of that, movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street acquainted young Americans with organizing, making them more open to a group like DSA”. And Bernie Sanders, despite not being a DSA member, by claiming to be a “democratic socialist,” has also helped the group gain visibility. In three years this organisation has increased its members ten-fold, from 5000 in 2015 to 50,000 today.
A poll taken by Gallup last August confirms the extent to which the image of socialism has gained traction among voters who claim to be Democrats: for the first time those who have a positive opinion of socialism are in greater numbers – 57% – compared to those who have a positive take on capitalism. While for the young (18- 29 years old) of all ethnic backgrounds socialism is preferred by 51% compared to the 45% who prefer capitalism, which in 2010 was viewed positively by 68% of Americans under the age of thirty.
A sign of the times is the entry into the new House of Representatives – which will start work on January 3 2019 – of Ocasio-Cortez. Twenty nine years old, she is the youngest member of congress in US history and the only member of the DSA to be elected to this level in the past 20 years. At the Democratic primaries for the New York district of Bronx and Queens, last July, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crawley, the Democratic establishment’s candidate. Ocasio-Cortez’s won the race on an extremely progressive platform which included free university education and cancellation of student debt; free public health care; abolition of ICE, the government agency that protects the borders against illegal immigration; more control over the sale of weapons to private citizens; and, on the environmental front, a Green New Deal with major public investment in “green” infrastructure.
Ocasio-Cortez made her debut in Washington DC on 13 November last on this very subject with an action that reflects the new internal dynamics within the Democratic Party. Along with 200 youngsters she invaded the office of Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the Democratic minority in the House, calling for her to embrace the Green New Deal movement.
Pelosi played along, stating «We are inspired by the energy and activism of the many young activists and advocates leading the way on the climate crisis». But she is well aware that the young and Ocasio-Cortez are not on her side, they consider her a symbol of the past, and in opposition to the changes they have voted for. So Pelosi’s election as the Speaker of the House – which had been taken for granted until very recently – is now in jeopardy (the vote in the House will take place as this issue goes to print).
Pelosi is 78 and has been a member of congress since 1987 for the Californian district which encompasses San Francisco. Between 2007 and 2010 she was the Speaker of the House and is therefore the woman who has attained the highest post in the US’s political system (if both the President and the Vice President of the United States die, the White House passes into the hands of the Speaker).
Her supporters claim it would be absurd if after the Pink Wave has allowed an unprecedented number of women to be elected into parliament, the Speaker was not a woman. But her opponents answer back that there are plenty of other women who qualify for the post, including Marcia Fudge, the representative for Ohio and an African American, who has however stated that she doesn’t intend to challenge Pelosi for the post, for now.
And black women are in fact one of the forces that are reshaping the identity of the Democrats and of the Left in America. They have always represented a loyal voter base. “Black women are demanding more. No longer willing to only build the party, they are now leading it, pushing the party farther left. In doing so, they’re also creating a new vision for what progressive politics should be and how to get there”, writes Britteny Cooper, an African American feminist author in the New York Times.
Cooper takes Stacey Abrams as her example. The Georgia Governorship candidate ran a campaign based on diversity – with a staff that was 46% African American, 15% Hispanic and 9% Asian – , on door to door mobilisation of the electorate to broaden the voter base and on an ultra-progressive platform. The result was that 60% more people cast their ballot compared to the 2014 election and in the area around Atlanta Abrams had twice the number of votes obtained by the Democratic candidate four years ago. Abrams was backed by Obama, but in the end she lost out to a (white) Republican Brian Kemp by a margin of 54,000 votes (50.2% to him, 48.8% to her).
Other significant “left wing” defeats were: Richard Cordray, the Ohio governor candidate backed by Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, the creator of the Consumer Protection office of which Cordray was the first director (he lost with 46.4% of the vote compared to the 50.7% obtained by the Republican; Andrew Gillum, an African American backed by Bernie Sanders, up for Governor of Florida (49.2% versus 49.6%); Beto O’Rourke, the Hispanic backed by various celebrities such as the singer Beyonce, who was up against Texas Republican Ted Cruz in the Senatorial race (48.3% versus 50.9%).
The debate among Democrats as to how these figures should be understood is wide open. The narrow margins of the defeats can be seen as an indication that the “radical” shift has been met with approval and an incentive to keep working along these lines in order to win out in 2020.
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