David Moscrop, Ph.D., is a #FESFellow2020. This is his fifth piece in a series on social democracy and the U.S. elections.
Following Hillary Clinton’s failed centrist campaign for president and the election of Donald Trump, Democrats on the left began to make noticeable inroads around the country and within their own party. In 2018, the Squad—a group of four progressive women—were elected to the House of Representatives. Two of them, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, got to Washington by way of defeating incumbent Democrats in primaries before winning in the general election. In 2020, three other progressive candidates unseated Democratic Party incumbents in primary contests, for a total of five insurgent progressive Representatives or likely Representatives emerging in the House since Trump’s election to the presidency.
While the Democratic Party establishment remains centrist, pressure from the left is growing, wins are piling up, and even Presidential nominee Joe Biden — who has spent a lifetime on the center line —has offered up a progressive platform. While it is not without serious flaws and shortcomings, the Biden-Harris agenda, as I argued previously, offers encouraging social democratic policies on healthcare, education, labor, the environment, entitlements, and taxes. Further wins by left Democrats and returning incumbents would go a long way in keeping Biden honest on his progressive commitments and in shepherding bills through Congress — past potential roadblocks from Republicans and Democrats alike.
The nomenclature around how to label left candidates is tricky: left-wing, progressive, social democrat, even democratic socialist come up. It’s clear that democratic socialism is not widely on the ballot in 2020, though social democracy is. While not a perfect fit in every case, “progressive” and “left-wing” in the American context map onto the moniker “social democratic” well enough to use them interchangeably.
What follows here is an overview of some of the social democratic—or adjacent—downballot candidates for office who might help secure progressive left-wing legislative victories, and a sample of their stances on key issues and proposed policies.
Last summer, Bush defeated Representative William Lacy Clay by three points in a party primary. Clay is an entrenched establishment Democrat from a political family, Bush is a registered nurse, pastor, and Black Lives Matter activist who supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. In a recent interview, she discussed being called to politics after Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson while also making the case to defund the Pentagon to spend on social programs. She has been endorsed by both the Democratic Socialists of America’s National Electoral Committee (DSA NEC) and the Justice Democrats. She is very likely to win the seat.
With endorsements from both the DSA NEC and the Justice Democrats, Tlaib is a backer of Medicare for All and abolishing the Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). In June 2019, Tlaib voted against emergency appropriations for the agency. She has also said “…canceling student debt is a racial justice issue,” adding “Canceling all student debt would restore access to education as a right.”She is all but certain to hold on to her seat.
The central figure in the rise of the new progressive left in the Democratic Party, AOC backs Medicare for All, a major boost in federal support for Puerto Rico, and the Green New Deal. She also supports ending “forever wars” by returning troops to the United States and committing to refraining from destabilizing foreign states. On gun control, she supports a federal assault rifle ban and outlawing both high capacity magazines and bump stocks. She is backed by the DSA and the Justice Democrats. She will win again.
In late October, Omar told Axios on HBO that left Democrats had influenced the Biden platform and that she and her colleagues intend to hold a Democratic administration accountable on progressive policy. Omar, who is backed by the Justice Democrats, supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She also opposes fracking (which Biden supports) and the idea of appointing a Republican to a Biden Cabinet. She’ll have a chance to put those ideas to work, too, as she is expected to win again.
Pressley was the first Black woman to be elected to the Boston City Council and the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Supported by the Justice Democrats and current House incumbent Pressley is up for re-election after defeating a ten-term incumbent Democrat, Mike Capuano, in the party primary in 2018. Pressley is a strong proponent of criminal justice system reform, including undoing inequities and ending the war on drugs. She also backs Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Pressley’s district is solidly Democratic, and she’s expected to be returned.
With the backing of the DSA and the Justice Democrats, Jamaal Bowman backs more than just the Green New Deal: he is also proposing a New Deal for Housing, and a New Deal for education alongside a reconstruction agenda and Medicare for All. He also supports universal background checks for gun sales, “including at gun shows and online.” Bowman is an educator—a former middle school principal—who was recruited by the Justice Democrats and defeated a 15-term incumbent, Eliot Engel, in the Democratic primary. Bowman is favored to win in a district that tends to go Democrat.
After serving in the House for over three decades, Markey was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2013 in a special election, then returned for a full-term in 2014. In 2020, he was challenged by Joseph Kennedy III in the Democratic primary. Markey defeated Kennedy by over ten points, marking the first time a Kennedy had lost an election in Massachusetts. Markey is a central proponent of the Green New Deal, authoring the GND bill in the Senate. He also supports Medicare for All. He is the junior senator from Massachusetts, sitting alongside the senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, herself a progressive and recent presidential primary contender within the Democratic Party. Markey is all but certain to win.
Supported by the DSA and the Sunrise Movement, Bradshaw was also endorsed by Joe Biden in late October (and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren before that). Bradshaw is an environmental activist, and supports the Green New Deal. She also backs Medicare for All. She also backs a $15 minimum wage and doing away with right to work legislation in the state. Bradshaw is a long shot to win, but has breathed some new life into Democrats in the state.
These are just a handful of the many races around the country that will shape Congress, policy, and law for years to come -- and a mere sampling of progressive candidates down-ballot around the country. But the candidates featured here, most of whom are overwhelmingly expected to win, and a handful of whom have reached this point by defeating incumbent establishment Democrats, point to a progressive undercurrent. And that current may be carrying along with it a coming era of social democratic politics in the United States the likes of which has not been seen for decades.
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