international analysis and commentary

Understanding the blue wave


The 2018 primary season has been interesting for the Democratic Party. Many relatively small results made huge waves on the web and social media as several new faces emerged as game changers both in generational and ideological terms. When asked about rising stars on the blue side of the aisle, one might tell you about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young and passionate socialist-democrat who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district in June 2018. Anyone who is young, active on social media and lives in a metropolitan area is likely to know about Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a political heavyweight and will likely win on November 6th.

Is the bright, straight-talking woman of Puerto Rican descent the face of the new Democratic Party? Is her well-deserved success in campaigning a sign that the end is near for the politics of the 1990s that Barack Obama reshaped but did not fully transform – as many of his young supporters in 2008 had hoped? While the answers are likely positive, this is not a shift of the democratic electorate and American society towards socialist ideals.

Elizabeth Warren speaking at a Democratic rally


Today, 46% of registered Democrats identify themselves as “liberals”. That is up from 28% in 2000. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are socialists and, more importantly, the number of voters who identify themselves as “non-affiliated” (or “independents”) has been steadily growing. While independent does not mean “moderate” or “centrist”, the growing number of liberals in the Democratic Party does not necessarily reflect a shift to the left in the American electorate as a whole. What we can likely say is that on many issues (inequality, finance, same-sex marriage, healthcare, just to mention few) today’s Americans see things in a different way than in 2001.

The primary season also tells us that the “socialist” or “liberal” effect was not felt everywhere: in Michigan, Democratic  candidate for Governor Abdul Al-Sayed, an excellent speaker and a good campaigner who supported Ocasio-Cortez, did lose to a more traditional candidate: Gretchen Whitmer, a woman, like the last Democratic governor of the State, Jennifer Granholm. The same thing happened to Cynthia Nixon, another non-traditional Democrat, who tried to unsettle Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York: the Democratic political machine, some progressive measures and the reassuring appeal of Cuomo helped keep things as they were.

Elaine Kamarck and Alexander Podkul have analyzed the Democratic primary numbers for the Brookings Institution and they found that 101 House non-incumbent “progressives” won their primaries, while 139 “establishment” Democrats did (25 moderates and 96 “other”). Many progressives are running in Republican-leaning districts and many others (Ocasio-Cortez for example) will replace liberal incumbents, probably maintaining the same weight of liberals in the Democratic Caucus. A Democratic tsunami could, though, prove this prediction wrong and bring more leftwing elected officials to Washington.

If the shift is not exactly to the left, what is new in the 2018 primary season and, potentially, in the November midterms? Three words: young minority women (and even some young men). In fact, the real shift is towards a Democratic Party that resembles more its diverse, younger and urban electorate. The next Caucus and State assemblies will see less males of Irish, Italian or German descent and more African-Americans, Latinos and women. Furthermore, this is not a “revenge” of the minorities, rather the ability to build campaigns around issues and mobilize people who do not usually participate in the democratic process. This is why a white district in Pennsylvania nominated a young black woman, Summer Lee; or why Sara Innamorato beat ten-term incumbent Don Costa in Pittsburgh. How these new generation of candidates performs in State legislatures will also be crucial to understand how far this generational change in the Democratic party will get.

The change in the composition of the Caucus might also change the priorities or bring more focus to issues that are already on the political agenda and are seen as crucial for liberals, including gun control and police behavior towards minorities. More women will also mean more attention and a shift to the left on some major socio-economic issues such as healthcare, student debt and public school funding. They are likely to put their energy into matters that concern everyday life and that are crucial for a well-functioning society. Such a shift would respond to the worries of younger generations and middle class families in general.

Many long lasting effects of the 2008 crisis are still there: in many areas of the country savings and home values are not where they used to be. The loss of financial certainties has brought more people to listen to policy proposals such a single payer healthcare system or to new rules for student loans. This shift to the left is not ideological, it just makes more sense for a growing number of Americans to find different answers to long-lasting problems. More women on the ballot and the re-emerging of sensitive issues, such as the sexual harassment allegations in the Brett Kanavaugh confirmation process for the Supreme Court, might bring more women to vote for Democrats.

Other factors that proved crucial during the primaries and will likely work again in the electoral campaign are enthusiasm and organization. As is well known, to carry out an assault on a well-fortified and traditional castle, the new generation of candidates needs ideas and people, while the incumbent sitting in the castle only needs money to buy tv and web ads, meetings and strong ties. The political climate helped the insurgents build their armies. Then the young candidates talked about the issues that people are worried about. They walked, knocked on doors, listened. This kind of action, not only his disdain for President Trump, brought Beto O’Rourke close to Ted Cruz in the senatorial race in Texas.

It is far too soon to say if 2018 will be a game changer for the Democratic Party as 2010 was for the Republicans. In the Tea Party midterms, many longstanding factors  precipitated into a revolt against the party establishment and the Obama White House. This year we are not witnessing such an enraged revolt, instead it is a more legitimate way to present the change (a spin) by Democratic Socialists of America and Bernie Sanders enthusiasts. Indeed, the left has made gains, but what we are seeing is more of a rebuilding of the Democratic Party on the basis of many issues that have been cooking for some time and that have grown in civil society, not in government buildings. The Florida kids asking for gun control, the Fight for $15 campaign, the Dreamers campaign (and the opposition to Trump’s separation of families at the border), are good examples of a structure that is not strictly political, but forces politics to discuss issues without hiding under empty promises.

Then there are the women. Every poll suggests that this half of the electorate is not happy with the Trump presidency. Democrats are stronger in this constituency and many women may have been galvanized by the  the Kanavaugh affaire e. Women have organized the biggest opposition march in Washington so far, and women, as political scientists Telda Scokpol and Lara Putnam argue, are bringing new blood to canvassing and organizing. These local groups have been growing in number since the shocking results of November 2016 elections, and they connect to national organizations and campaigns and among each other.

The candidates who upset incumbents and will represent the new faces of Democratic Party in Washington are only the tip of the iceberg of this political and social activism. A movement that is certainly more progressive than the Blue Dogs (the shrinking democratic caucus that whose members identify as “conservative democrats”) or the average Clintonite Democrat, but that has at its core a demand for change in the way politics is run and policies are drafted. Not for socialism.