Two years ago this week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political world by successfully unseating one of the most established Democrats in Washington DC, Representative Joe Crowley.
Propelled by the organising machine of Justice Democrats, the election of Ocasio-Cortez set in motion a spate of progressive victories that saw the “squad” elected to the House of Representatives as part of a sweeping “blue wave” in the midterm elections.
Tomorrow – Tuesday 23 June – could be an equally defining day for the Democratic party.
With primary elections taking place across both New York and Kentucky, familiar factional battles are playing out: on the one hand, establishment-backed centrist candidates endorsed by the Democratic leadership; on the other, insurgent progressives building on the popular momentum of the Sanders campaign.
In the previous instalment of our Beyond Bernie series, Aaron White and I outlined some of these upcoming congressional races and considered how they might be impacted by the pandemic and the unprecedented Black Lives Matter protests.
As the day looms closer, however, it is clear that one primary, in particular, has become a proxy war for the future of the Democratic party.
In New York’s 16th congressional district, which neighbours Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th, Elliot Engel, 16-term incumbent Democrat and head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is under real threat of losing his seat to progressive political newcomer Jamaal Bowman.
A 44-year-old middle school principal and father of three, Bowman is everything that Engel is not: an articulate orator, active in the community and offering a relevant policy agenda to address the immediate demands of his potential constituents.
As a progressive, Bowman ticks almost every box. He backs single-payer Medicare-for-All, an investment-led Green New Deal and a wealth tax. Unlike many on the US left, he also speaks cogently on forming an internationalist foreign policy that “stands up to the global far-right”.
Perhaps most importantly in our current moment, Bowman has been at the forefront of protests against systemic racism.
He has spoken eloquently about his own experiences of discrimination, including an inexplicable arrest following a routine traffic stop, and another after he was accused of stealing his own car.
He has also described the harrowing examples of racial profiling he encountered as a public school educator in New York during the terms of former mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Drawing on this experience, Bowman has tabled a ‘Reconstruction Agenda’ which puts forward tangible steps for updating the post-civil war project of emancipation. Amongst these proposals is the establishment of a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would “investigate, document, and assess the federal government’s role in America’s history of racism”.
Standing on this prescient and popular platform, Bowman has moved from being an outsider to a likely contender to be the next representative of this safe blue district. Though it is fair to say, he has not done it alone.
Backed by Justice Democrats and organisations such as the Sunrise Movement and Brand New Congress, Bowman’s bid for office has been aided by the consolidation of progressive support.
I decided to run for Congress because I knew that our needs weren’t being met. Today, we’ve decided that the best way to ensure these needs are met is no longer through our own campaign. That’s why I’m suspending my campaign and endorsing @JamaalBowmanNY. pic.twitter.com/IasOLnRYgy
At the beginning of June, fellow Bronx educator Andom Ghebreghiorgis made the tough decision to suspend his own progressive campaign and throw his weight behind Bowman.
This momentum put real pressure on Engel, whose return to the campaign trail was marked by a calamitous ‘hot mic’. At a news conference held in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in the Bronx, the 32-year incumbent was caught saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t be here” – not once, but twice.
These gaffs, combined with Engel’s record of absenteeism in the district and his poor debate performances on local media stations, has seen Bowman surge ahead in recent polls.
With the realisation that this seat is now all to play for, the establishment has been scrambling to defend one of their own.
Over recent weeks, Engel has received endorsement from prominent Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York governor Andrew Cuomo and Hilary Clinton (her first House endorsement of the 2020 cycle).
In an embarrassing debacle that probably did more harm than good, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer also u-turned on previous comments that denied he had endorsed Engel.
With the Democratic leadership stacking up against him, Bowman has won his own high-profile progressive endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Ocasio-Cortez.
This race now has all the makings of a factional Democratic Party showdown, but it is important to recognise that the outcome is not about tit-for-tat politics or one-upmanship.
Like Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, Bowman’s campaign has spoken to the moment; to the material needs of working people within his community, and to a clear desperation for fresh representation, for new ideas and for new people.
This strikes at the heart of a debate that will define the future of the Democratic party moving forward.
In over a decade since the financial crash, we have seen one party evolve in American politics.
Under the auspices of Donald Trump, Republicans have profited from the decaying material conditions of working class Americans through an authoritarian and racist “America first” politics.
The Democratic party, however, which is rooted in the ‘moderate’ politics of neoliberal austerity and balanced budgets, has failed to adapt to the demands of the American electorate.
Despite the success of the Sanders movement in dragging the party’s discourse to the left, toward an investment-led social democracy, the Democratic leadership is still stubbornly stuck in the obsolete sensibilities of the past.
In a moment where antiquated statues are falling all across the country, the outdated politics of politicians like Elliot Engel is on the life-support of establishment funding.
Democrats didn’t learn from AOC in 2018, will they learn from Bowman in 2020?
Freddie Stuart is the producer of the ourVoices podcast at openDemocracy. His recent work covering the US elections can be found here.
This article is the second instalment in Beyond Bernie, a series tracking the US 2020 elections.