They have the energy, they have the narrative, and they have the generational advantage, but the insurgent, militant, leftist wing of the Democratic Party have yet to have their defining victory.
Tomorrow, they have two chances to win. In Queens, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking the kind of long shot that, should she win, will become legend and deeply shake the Democratic Party leadership. She is challenging Joe Crowley, a genial and effective machine pol who has worked his way, hard, to a shot at taking over from Nancy Pelosi. He is the sort of symbolic target who can define and energize an intraparty movement. He is, you could say, the Eric Cantor of his party.
The other New York race to watch is north of the city, where seven Democrats are competing for the 19th District. There, again, there is a clear voice of the progressive movement, Jeff Beals, a former CIA analyst, current high school teacher, and combative voice of the Democratic left.
Both candidates have what are probably crippling disadvantages, one of them money. Beals, whose lawn signs say “Fight Corporate Power,” told me back in February that “in order for me to take the positions that I'm taking I have to be the low fundraiser” — and he is.
What’s more, they are running in one of America’s old machine states at its machiniest. Crowley’s political roots are in a county organizational that is organized around enriching a handful of political lawyers at the courthouse. The Intercept just published an investigation on the subject in 2018, and I myself published more or less the same investigation — about the same Crowley allies — in 2002. And when I wrote that story, Michael Powell pointed out to me he’d written the same one years earlier. It’s a machine that goes deep, and whose ultimate master is now the powerful governor, Andrew Cuomo.
But — not to get all Peggy Noonan on you — money and the machine aren’t the only ingredients in politics. The other is narrative. And the Democrats of the left are the ones with a story to tell right now. Ocasio-Cortez’s flair for narrative is obvious — her Twitter feed is breathless and urgent, and took her down to the border during the last days of the campaign.
Beals captured the attention of the great narrator of public radio, Ira Glass, who devoted a full hour to his campaign on the Sunday before the vote:
Beals has made enemies by breaking the congenial rules of primary politics and attacking his rivals for what he sees as their status as tools of corporate interests. When I saw him in February, he was telling a group of Democrats that the “Democratic primary is just as important and maybe more important than the general election.”
The Trump era’s Democratic winners have not, to date, been mostly children of this revolution. They've mostly been traditional liberals, hard-to-pigeonhole figures like Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb. Incumbent senators don't face serious primary challenges.
The insurgents on the left are the ones with a story to tell, and while they may not win tomorrow, they’re at the gates.