At the end of Knock Down The House, Rachel Lears’s 2019 documentary about four left-wing women who run for office, insurgency still looked like a long shot. Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearengin lost their primary campaigns in Nevada and West Virginia; Cori Bush lost to William Lacy Clay, whose family has represented the first congressional district of Missouri since 1969, by 20 points. Of the film’s main stars, only Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary challenge against a powerful Democratic incumbent. Until Tuesday evening, anyway. Bush, a Ferguson activist, nurse, and single mother who was recruited, like Ocasio-Cortez, by Justice Democrats, will go to Congress. She ran against Clay again and, this time, she beat him by three.
What changed in those two years for Bush, and for Clay, and for the voters of St. Louis? Bush’s emphasis on grassroots organizing — the door-knocking, the phone calls, the rallies, the strategizing — all eventually paid off. But Bush’s victory was borne, too, of forces much larger than any individual campaign. The last two years in American political life have provided one long lesson in the value of insurgency. In a moment of crisis, Bush’s voters wanted solutions now, not half-measures and moderate reforms.
Bush herself understands this well. A working-class native of St. Louis, she’s spoken openly of her experiences with eviction, homelessness, and medical debt, and helped lead protests after a white cop killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Though Clay is a fairly mainstream Democrat and even supports Medicare for All, Bush still positioned herself to his left on policies like tuition-free public college and criticized his reliance on corporate donations. Her convictions, in addition to her background as an activist for Black lives, make her a figure of the moment; her campaign was a natural extension of demands protesters were already shouting from the streets.
And Clay never mustered a substantive response. Though he out-raised Bush, the progressive outspent him, investing far more in advertising as the day of the vote approached. In fact, Clay never seemed to believe he was in danger at all, even though Lears’s prizewinning documentary had raised Bush’s national profile, and Jamaal Bowman’s victory over Eliot Engel in New York signaled, perhaps, that the terrain had become more favorable for insurgents. Clay, who succeeded his father in his seat, reacted to Bush with the air of a man who believed he’d won — even deserved — a lifetime of secure power. The template was familiar by the time Clay tried it on; Engel could have told him of its limitations. He was pragmatic, yes, but only because that’s what his district expected of him. He was experienced, thanks to those long years in Congress. But Engel and Clay forgot something else about time: It moves forward. For their strategy to work, their districts needed to stand still and be spared the advance of American decay.
On Monday, CBS News reported that Clay called his primary “a simple choice” between “Cori Bush’s Empty Rhetoric, or my record of real results and real reforms for the people.” In the last weeks of his campaign, Clay attacked Bush in mailers for her links to Bernie Sanders–surrogate Linda Sarsour and for her sympathy toward the nonviolent Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, which targets Israel over its illegal settlements in Palestinian territory. But Bush only doubled down, announcing in a formal statement that she “stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives.”
Perhaps the old smears are beginning to lose their power. A Democrat no longer needs to be an Israel hawk to win. Socialism isn’t a death blow, either, not even in the Midwest: Bush was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. She’ll join Ocasio-Cortez and another socialist, Detroit’s Rashida Tlaib; both women defeated centrist challengers this year. Elsewhere, the odds favor Ilhan Omar, who is defending her Minnesota seat from another centrist, Antoine Melton-Meaux.
Not only has the left proven that it can keep the territory it takes, it continues to gain new ground — and not just in St. Louis. Marie Newman lost her race against conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski of Illinois in 2018, but beat him earlier this year. Not only did Bowman unseat Engel in New York, Mondaire Jones, a progressive who supports Medicare for All, won his race to replace the retiring Nita Lowrey in the 17th congressional district. And while Jessica Cisneros lost her primary challenge against Henry Cuellar in Texas, the anti-abortion Democrat should be worried. He defeated Cisneros by three points. Two years ago, Clay defeated Bush by 20. Family dynasties and institutional party support no longer count for as much as they once did. The party is slowly catching up to the demographics and priorities of its base, despite the stratagems of its leaders.
The insurgent theory of politics — that to the marginalized, the status quo is a gamble — now looks more pragmatic than idealistic. It put Ocasio-Cortez into office and kept her there, and now it’s elevated Bush, too.
Bush’s triumph is a signifier, one that might be even more meaningful than Bowman’s upset in New York. In 2018, the new left took its first steps; now it’s maturing. The process has already begun to transform the Democratic Party, and public life along with it. Though Bernie Sanders lost his second presidential run to the much more moderate Joe Biden, it’s Sanders, and not Biden, who can truly say that his ideas have popular momentum. Biden will never embrace the level of redistribution desired by the left, but according to Sanders himself, the former vice-president has moved somewhat from the center. Public support for Medicare for All, now a policy staple of progressive campaigns, continues to grow. Democratic voters also strongly support tuition-free public college. The political truism that insurgents will alienate Democrats, whether with protest or policy, grows more hollow with each victory. Public opinions on police reform, and the prevalence of racism, have shifted rapidly toward the left over the past few months. People rallied for George Floyd in the whitest parts of the Midwest, just as Brooklynites did. And there might never have been a Representative Cori Bush without Ferguson and the crucible it became.
But many years still separate the new left from major institutional power. Centrists still hold sway. Members of the Democratic National Committee just voted against putting Medicare for All in the party platform, a group that includes some labor leaders whose unions have passed resolutions in favor of the policy. Successful candidates on the left will also have to navigate the transition from outsider to insider, and that journey can be fraught. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, didn’t endorse Bush’s second run against Clay. There are compromises ahead, aspiring fascists to defeat, a party to conquer. Even so, the Bronx congresswoman’s optimistic advice from Knock Down The House still resonates. “For every ten rejections you get one acceptance,” she said, “and that’s how you win everything.”