This is politics in 3D

Democrats made history again last Tuesday by choosing a 39-year-old African-American mayor as their nominee to be governor of Florida. Andrew Gillum beat Gwen Graham, daughter of former governor and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), one of the most popular politicians in the history of the Sunshine State.

In New York in June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a primary race against incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, a member of the House Democratic leadership. Crowley was in his 10th term and thought of as a possible House Speaker or majority leader in the future. He had the support of the entire Democratic financial and organizational leadership at his fingertips.

{mosads}In Georgia in May, Democrats nominated state House Leader Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman born in Gulfport, Mississippi, as their nominee for governor. To win, Abrams overcame a strong primary race against state Sen. Stacey Evans, a Georgia native supported by former Gov. Roy Barnes, former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), the mayor of Atlanta and several other longtime state leaders.

Most observers see the common thread between these candidates  as being their progressive positions on issues and endorsement from Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist senator who mounted a surprising challenge to Hillary Clinton in the party’s last presidential primaries. What if it wasn’t just their progressive stances on issues, or support from Sanders, but their uncharacteristic boldness and unconventional positioning against the establishment?

Politics is a three-dimensional business, and not all contests lie along the left/right axis. Some are up/down and others inside/out. Perhaps these outsiders are beating insiders because the longtime trend against institutional trust is flowering and the national electorate is diversifying more quickly than the Democratic establishment can adjust. According to recent Gallup polling, confidence has been declining in most American institutions except the military since the 1970s. Though elected officials, Abrams and Gillum weren’t the establishment’s preferences and didn’t look like the establishment either.

Fifteen years ago, I stood in the doorway of a South Carolina hotel with Gwen Graham’s father, as he waged a short-lived campaign for president. A middle-aged white woman grabbed Sen. Graham by the hand; she relayed an anecdote that encapsulated her belief that the system was rigged, stacked against people like her in favor of the wealthy and the connected. She wanted someone to take on those interests and rebalance things back toward her side.

I thought about that woman as I watched Donald Trump march toward the White House in 2016. Trump tapped that outsider, left-behind sentiment, doused it in racial and ethnic resentment, and then served it up as an aspirational promise to “Make America Great Again.” He was the bad-boy billionaire, disrespected by the elites, who shared a similar grievance about the system being rigged. He promised to reverse-engineer it in favor of the working class — mostly the white, working class. I wondered if he got that South Carolina woman’s support?

There are other Americans who feel left out too and Democratic candidates are tapping into their anxiety. The Democratic coalition includes many of the groups the Trump coalition would vote off their reality-show island. Black voters want someone to speak up for police accountability in the shootings of unarmed African Americans. Latino and Asian American voters are hungry for candidates to embrace their right to be Americans too and oppose anti-immigrant politics. Young voters of all backgrounds are motivated by issues like guns, racism and health care. In Florida that coalition nearly doubled Democratic primary turnout over four years ago.

It makes sense. America these days feels like a ballpark where all the people in the skyboxes are well cared for but those in the bleachers aren’t getting very much out of the game. Take wage growth for example. According to the Pew Research Center, American workers’ purchasing power hasn’t grown much since 1978, the year “Mork and Mindy” debuted on television. And, Pew reports, since 2000, “usual weekly wages have risen 3 percent (in real terms) among workers in the lowest tenth of the earnings distribution and 4.3 percent among the lowest quarter. But among people in the top tenth of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7 percent.”

Another hallmark outsider-versus-insider Democratic primary is coming on Tuesday, Sept. 4: Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman on Boston’s city council, is challenging ten-term Congressman Mike Capuano. They mostly agree on issues, but Pressley is pressing a case for change. Capuano is still the favorite, but if the “3D politics” trend continues, he might be in for a surprise.  

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist who has worked for the Clinton White House, Congress and the Clinton, Gore and Obama presidential campaigns. He is a liberal host for The Hill’s new Hill.TV video division.

Tags 2018 midterms Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Democratic socialism Donald Trump Gwen Graham Hillary Clinton Joe Crowley MAGA Politics of the United States progressive Republican Party

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