Progressives must be willing to do what the establishment isn't

Progressives must be willing to do what the establishment isn't
© Julia Nikhinson

As the dust finally settles on the many electoral primary losses that progressives have endured over the past quarter, many are thinking, where does the movement go from here?  

For some of the high-profile losses in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, in New York City’s mayoral primary and Virginia’s gubernatorial primary, it’s a sign that a change in strategy is needed. I believe this to be true. But it begs questions: What direction does the progressive movement head in next? Do we stay the course and ramp up earlier canvass efforts, or do we target higher donor rolls earlier in races?

The main concern is that the momentum the Democratic left has built over the past couple election cycles will be lost in a haze of moderate electoral victories. For the left, this isn't just about losing elections, but about losing sway inside of Congress — the prominent place they’ve earned in the party during the 117th Congress and losing the influential pipeline they’ve built to the West Wing during the beginning of President BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE’s first term.

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So, what is the key? What will move progressives and young Democrats from being the contributing younger sibling of the party to taking the torch? Most that have experienced the major shifts within the Democratic Party representation over the last 50 years will probably say that it takes a charismatic leader to carry a new message to the people and electrify the electorate like a John F. Kennedy, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonLeft laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House MORE or Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBarack Obama wishes a happy 58th birthday to 'best friend' Michelle Voting rights is a constitutional right: Failure is not an option Florida looms large in Republican 2024 primary MORE

But charisma is not what the progressive movement is about. It isn’t a show or a slogan and it certainly isn’t a feeling. It is a way of life — an experience that has been lived by generations of abandoned Americans who have marched on Washington and still see no change. Those most impacted continue to march on Washington and can no longer wait. That is where the movement lives.

The change in strategy resides within the story of the people that decide to run as progressives. The life story of progressive people, their experience of abandonment, oppression and neglect, and being left behind by establishment representatives in Congress, is what propels them to run in the first place. For progressives to win, we must pay attention to the issues that impact the specific communities that make up the congressional district or state and be the better option through candidates that have also been genuinely impacted by those same issues throughout their lifetime. 

One of the big electoral wins for progressives in 2020 was the election of progressive Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). Before summer recess for the House, Bush led from her personal story of facing eviction, being homeless and sleeping in her car. Her leadership and the impacted representation of her district and country ensured that the White House extended the eviction moratorium. She refused to allow her constituents or any American to suffer the same pain that once impacted her life.  

Many leading operatives take issue with the lack of long-term campaign infrastructure meant to secure victories in consecutive elections cycles and see this as the main reason for the recent losses. This might have a hand in it, but I don’t believe it is the top issue. When trying to create change — not just alter the current system — you need to be more than just another option. People are willing to change for something better, but until that comes along, folks will bet on what is familiar.

Going up against an entity like the Democratic establishment with a mission of taking over the party is honorable, especially when the general platform is founded on human rights. However, to be successful, progressives need to campaign, message and then govern from a place of familial impact just like Rep. Bush. Progressives will need to present a better option, not just another option. 

Until progressives are willing to do what moderates are not — campaign and represent from an impacted place — unique to the communities and districts we say we are better suited to speak for, the journey to leading the Democratic Party will be longer than we hope and may end in a way we do not want. 

Michael Deegan-McCree is a progressive strategist, criminal justice reform advocate and the Advisory Board Chair for the New Leaders Council chapter in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @mdmccreeCA.