David Freedlander writes about politics and culture. He lives in New York.
Maybe you’ve heard the warning: The country is beset by a menace. A fringe conservative minority is holding Congress hostage, extracting radical policy concessions over the will of the majority. And it’s leading the nation to fiscal, environmental and moral ruin.
Maybe you haven’t heard this part: These dangerous conservatives are Democrats.
“I am talking about the radical conservatives in the Democratic Party,” said Saikat Chakrabarti. “That’s who we need to counter. It’s the same across any number of issues—pay-as-you-go, free college, “Medicare for all.” These are all enormously popular in the party, but they don’t pass because of the radical conservatives who are holding the party hostage.”
Not long ago, this would have been an outlier position even among American liberals. Today, it’s the organizing principle of a newly empowered segment of the Democratic Party, one with a foothold in the new Congress.
Chakrabarti is chief of staff to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the closest thing to a new celebrity Congress has had in years—a 29-year-old former activist and bartender who, on the most recent Martin Luther King Day, sat on the same New York stage as the rapper Common,
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and MacArthur “genius award” winner Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Although it’s Ocasio-Cortez who gets all the headlines, she arguably wouldn’t be in Congress in the first place without the group Chakrabarti founded: Justice Democrats, a new, central player in the ongoing war for the soul of the Democratic Party. It was the Justice Democrats who recruited her in a quixotic campaign early on, providing a neophyte candidate with enough infrastructure to take down a party leader. And it is the Justice Democrats who see Ocasio-Cortez as just the opening act in an astonishingly ambitious plan to do nothing less than re-imagine liberal politics in America—and do it by whatever means necessary.
If that requires knocking out well-known elected officials and replacing them with more radical newcomers, so be it. And if it ends up ripping apart the Democratic Party in the process—well, that might be the idea.
“There is going to be a war within the party. We are going to lean into it,” said Waleed Shahid, the group’s spokesman.
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The top Democrats in Congress have their hands full already, trying to use their new control of the House of Representatives to fight President Donald Trump, expand their majority in 2020, and maybe even capture the Senate. But they also find themselves with real anxieties about their left flank for the first time in memory. Justice Democrats is one of a handful of groups that represent a new and restive spirit in the party, a Tea Party-like populist coalition of voters awakened by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ cannonball run in 2016 and united by their superprogressive politics and a millennial disdain for the establishment.
Not all of their efforts have been successful—of the slate of 2018 candidates Justice Democrats recruited, only Ocasio-Cortez won—but they’ve been undeniably disruptive, and unafraid to go after people on their own side of the aisle. Nervous members of the Democratic establishment and leadership are watching, asking: Could they hurt the party as it tries to leverage its first majority in years and defeat Trump in 2020? And do they even care?
Four years ago, Ocasio-Cortez was waitressing at a Union Square taqueria, Donald Trump was the host of a fading reality-TV franchise, and Chakrabati was a digital entrepreneur who had nothing at all to do with politics. He was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and working for a digital payment processing company when he suddenly, unexpectedly found himself electrified by a 73-year-old presidential candidate named Bernie Sanders. “I liked what he was saying. He seemed like he was one of the people,” Chakrabarti says. “It wasn’t just that he was a progressive, but that he really cared about building a movement around these ideas.”
He reached out to Claire Sandberg, the digital organizing director of the Sanders campaign, who was arranging “Bernstorms” around the country, getting previously apolitical activists together to host phone banking and door-knocking parties.
Eventually, it became clear that Bernie wasn’t going to win. But it felt clear to Chakrabati that the political revolution Sanders had stoked was close to coming to fruition. He began meeting with a small group of his fellow Sandersistas to figure out how to channel that energy in the next election.
Like Chakrabarti, they were entirely from outside government, and mostly outside politics altogether. Corbin Trent was a political neophyte who’d been volunteering for Sanders in Knoxville, Tennessee; when the food truck he owned burned down, he left Knoxville and joined the campaign in Vermont. Alexandra Rojas was a student in community college in Orange County, Calif., when Sanders announced his run — “It was the first time I got excited about politics,” she said — and started volunteering on campus.
Today, she’s the executive director of Justice Democrats, and Trent, the group’s co-founder and former communications director, is Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesman. The group’s current communications director and perhaps fiercest firebrand is Shahid, the only member in its leadership who had any experience in politics before the Sanders campaign.
As the 2016 primary got underway, Shahid was working at an immigrants rights legal aid group in Philadelphia; people would come in—asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants—and Shahid recalls telling them, day after day, to just keep watching CNN because Obama was bound to pass something clarifying their status sooner or later. “It was the most demoralizing, uninspiring time of my life,” he said.
Disappointed with Obama, Shahid got a job with the Working Families Party, which was all-in for Sanders, and after the election began trying to figure out how to make big systemic changes in politics, or “cultureshifts”—not just winning arguments, but changing the terms of the whole debate.
“The idea is that you bring moral questions to the public’s attention, and have the public rally around it,” he says. “Reframe the issue so that the choices are stark, and let the public decide rather than people in power.” He points to how the “99 percent” became a buzzword after Occupy Wall Street; how Obama and Hillary Clinton eventually came to oppose the Keystone Pipeline after supporting it; how “Abolish ICE” quickly went from a fringy Twitter slogan to one embraced by mainstream Democrats. Either you favor ripping kids from their homes, or you don’t. And if you don’t, suddenly the policy choices aren’t incremental: They’re rather stark.
The group started meeting up even before the 2016 primary was over, and its members began looking ahead to the 2018 midterms—figuring that any Democratic president would need a very different Congress to get anything done. Along with Cenk Uygur, the progressive activist and founder of the liberal media company The Young Turks, they started a group called Brand New Congress.
The original idea was thrilling in its ambition, if absurdly unworkable: They would create a slate to replace Congress entirely, recruiting 435 people across both parties to run for the House, while BNC would serve as the back office for all of them, handling mail, digital, and press.
Chakrabarti, Uygur and others saw the effort begin to founder under its own weight. And in the wake of Trump’s shocking win, the notion of a nonpartisan effort to replace every member of Congress with some nonpolitical person didn’t seem as important as creating the sharpest possible counterweight on the left. And so after the election, Chakrabarti, Trent, Rojas, Uygur and others split off to found Justice Democrats.
This time, the goal was far more modest: Push the Democratic party closer to Sanders’ politics by challenging centrist Democrats in their primaries. The idea was to recruit 12 working-class candidates to confront incumbents, muster some of that Sanders-style populist energy on a local level and push incumbents to the left. If a couple of breaks went their way, they might even score an upset or two.
“After the election, was I mad at Donald Trump? I guess, kinda,” said Uygur, who ended up leaving the group when a series of previously deleted misogynistic blog posts were unearthed. “But mainly I was mad at the Democratic Party for blowing it.
How could you lose to this guy?”
“I came to realize Democrats are never going to learn,” he said, “and that the only way to make a difference is to defeat the corrupt corporate Democrats. They get paid to lose. The corporate donor pays them to be weak, and pays Republicans to be strong.”
The group didn’t have many litmus tests for candidates they were willing to support, but they drew a few red lines. One was a ban on all corporate PAC money, something that soon became standard fare for 2018 candidates. On policy, if you weren’t for Medicare for all, “it usually meant you weren’t our type of candidate,” said Uygur.
Even now, Justice Democrats is a shoestring operation. It has no headquarters, no major benefactors and raised less than $3 million in the 2018 cycle, mostly small dollar donations from people not used to much political giving. But it built a 300,000 strong email list by engaging with young activists on the ground and online.
A typical “big donor” to the group is Arden Buck, an 84-year-old retired research engineer in Colorado who gave $10,000 after receiving a windfall insurance payout. I found him through public fundraising records; when I asked him how he found about Justice Democrats, he said he saw them mentioned on MSNBC and that he was driven by concern about greenhouse gases and wanted to give money to groups that could use it the most. “I am focused on climate change. If we don’t take care of the environment, social justice is beside the point,” he told me.
For all its passion, the group might have been just another voice in the political wilderness if it hadn’t been for the success of Ocasio-Cortez. She had come to the founders’ attention in 2016 when her brother, Gabriel, who had heard about Brand New Congress, nominated her to be one of its candidates. Chakrabarti was still with BNC, and he told Business Insider earlier this month that the group didn’t really see her district as a likely target: It was occupied by Joe Crowley, the powerful 10-term incumbent from Queens, and seemed unwinnable. But after a few phone calls and a meeting, he had a different thought: “Holy Crap. You are an incredible candidate.”
As her race heated up, and it became clear that this 28-year-old was actually gaining ground on one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, Shahid encouraged the entire leadership of Justice Democrats to momentarily abandon their other efforts and go all in on running her campaign.
The challenge of running a young, underfunded working-class candidate became apparent early on. When Shahid joined Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, she was still working four nights a week as a bartender in Manhattan. He would set up meetings with community leaders only to have Ocasio-Cortez say that she couldn’t do them because they interfered with her work schedule.
“I would get so frustrated with her. ‘You can’t do this full-time bartending thing and run for Congress!’ And she would say, ‘What do you want me to do? I have to work.’”
They thought they were going to get 30 percent of the vote. Ocasio-Cortez would text Shahid excitedly whenever there was a report that Crowley had moved a little to the left—embracing Medicare for all, for example. That was proof, as they saw it, that their mission was advancing. Shahid says he felt more than a twinge of regret for leading people on.
“We would go to these fundraisers in the Bronx, and there would be ex-cops in the room and they would have tears in their eyes. It was a double thing for me. I had just come off the Bernie campaign and here AOC was, she was so fucking inspiring and so charismatic that grown men are crying and I would think to myself, ‘We just have no chance here. Everyone is going to be so disappointed!’”
At one level, Justice Democrats’ strategy failed. Their original goal was to recruit 12 candidates, provide them with media, field and fundraising help as needed, and try to pick off a few vulnerable seats. Of those candidates, 11 lost.
But they also notched a success beyond anything they’d planned for. Ocasio-Cortez took on one of the most powerful congressional Democrat not named Nancy Pelosi, and by a decisive margin, she unseated him—shaking the party’s power structure and getting nationwide attention for a democratic socialist newcomer who embodied nearly everything that thrilled young movement voters. Several other candidates they’d endorsed, but weren’t as closely involved with, also won, including Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
The Crowley defeat brought to mind Dave Brat’s surprise 2014 victory in Virginia, taking out Republican majority leader Eric Cantor by primarying him from the right. Shahid looks back at the power of what a single race can do, recalling the Politico headline that ran at the time: “Eric Cantor Loss Kills Immigration Reform.”
“It was just one fucking race,” he said. “One fucking race and suddenly immigration reform was dead.”
The Sanders race had established the existence of a populist Democratic base eager to vote against its own party’s establishment. Now there was an organization willing to lead the charge. “It’s remarkable,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which started a decade ago as a liberal alternative to what it saw as its stodgy counterparts in Washington. “Everybody is so concerned about clout and about relationships, and they have no relationships, so they just go for it, taking big chances.”
The fact that Ocasio-Cortez, and for that matter Pressley, Tlaib and Omar don’t hail from the traditional background in a body in which the median wealth is over $1 million is very much part of the point. As Ocasio-Cortez faces criticism for her bank account, her wardrobe and her supposed lack of knowledge of the details of policy, the strategy from Justice Democrats and her team has been to face it head on.
“Our theory is that when a working-class person wins, when a person without a political background wins, there is going to be a backlash—you don’t have experience, you don’t know anything, you are dumb,” said Shahid. “All of this happened with Ocasio.”
This, as he sees it, is the culture shift, a way of turning the lens around to reveal the now stark choices. “That is an awesome story for people to see, because the way the D.C. media and the conservative media in particular tear into AOC around being a working-class person or a person of color or a Puerto Rican, I don’t think the public likes it very much,” he said. “The public sees a Cinderella story, a bartender who goes against the machine and wins. And you see the way she is dragged by the D.C. establishment and the media, we lean into it, as if to say, ‘If that’s what they think about her, what do you think they think about you?’”
In Congress, fellow Democrats don’t know quite what to make of AOC or the Justice Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez’s bark may not be as serious as her bite; although she livestreamed a sit-in of Pelosi’s office, she also voted for her for Speaker and has been supportive of her fellow Democrats. It’s not lost on her colleagues, however, that the group that helped vault her into place—and who have two founders leading her office—is the sworn enemy of the establishment she needs to work with.
“In person, she is lovely and is trying to get along with her colleagues,” said the House Democrat. “But she is going to have to navigate the fact it was the Justice Democrats who brought her to prominence, and their currency is going to be continue to shake up what they call the establishment and run primaries against people.”
David Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, says systematically targeting fellow Democrats really crosses a line in American politics. “I mean, even the Freedom Caucus doesn’t do that,” he said. “We sort of know how stuff happens in Congress. It requires a lot of negotiation and compromise. Starting a bunch of internal fights within your party is not usually step one.”
Some people in Congress closely aligned with the group have publicly distanced themselves from any effort to cast a wide net of insurgent challenges. Ro Khanna, a second-term congressman from Silicon Valley who himself defeated an eight-term Democrat in a primary in 2016, sent Justice Democrats a direct message on Twitter to join the cause soon after they formed. The group considers him, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, to have been their closest allies in the last Congress; Khanna was the only sitting member of Congress to endorse Ocasio-Cortez. But today he said the party needs for all of its component parts to keep their eyes on the real prize. “Our primary focus has to be stop Donald Trump, to defeat the Republicans, particularly in the Senate. That is the single most effective thing we can do to advance progressive politics,” Khanna said. “I have been encouraging our party to save our fire for Republicans rather than on intraparty disputes.”
Ocasio-Cortez herself has sent mixed messages on this score. According to a report in POLITICO, New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone, a moderate Democrat,
fought with Ocasio-Cortez on her idea for a select committee on a Green New Deal in a closed-door meeting of Democrats in November. Rather than embrace the narrative of being a firebrand, Ocasio-Cortez, who hadn’t yet been sworn in, denied the story was true. A few weeks later, POLITICO also reported that Ocasio-Cortez and allies were eyeing a primary challenge to Hakeem Jeffries, a young Brooklyn lawmaker who angered progressives in part for taking Joe Crowley’s position in the leadership over the more liberal Barbara Lee in California. Ocasio-Cortez took issue with the story on Twitter, without denying it, lamenting that the article was “ printed + distributed to **Congressional offices**” and only later, when pressed by one of her followers, saying it wasn’t accurate.
Jeffries’ camp noted, pointedly, that the story didn’t include an on-the-record denial from Ocasio-Cortez herself. They also told me she hadn’t reached out to Jeffries herself to deny it. Jeffries himself was quoted citing the lyrics of Notorious B.I.G: “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”
“That quote was sending a message,” said one Jeffries supporter in New York. “I am from Brooklyn. Don’t fuck with me.”
For now, it is still unclear where Justice Democrats will fit in among the various groups that emerged in big numbers out of the 2016 election, including Democratic Socialists of America, Indivisible, Brand New Congress, Swing Left and the Sunrise Movement, just to name a few. Justice Democrats made a bet that a single giant felled would rewrite the political landscape, and so far they have been proven right.
The Green New Deal, a joint production of Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, has 45 co-sponsors and is embraced by several Democrats running for president. Justice Democrats helped galvanize support, getting 150 people to sit in at Nancy Pelosi’s office just after the midterms.
Shahid, the group’s spokesman, predicted that, besides further agitation on the Green New Deal, the group would attempt to push for free college and an end to mass incarceration. And to force some support, they won’t be afraid to threaten primary challenges against anyone unwilling to sign on.
“We already are a pariah in Washington, D.C.,” he said proudly. “It’s about attention. Either it helps you gain leverage because people are scared of you or you lose leverage because people are annoyed with you. We will see.”
So far, the results of this aggressive outside game are mixed, at best. Despite the group’s success attracting support for the Green New Deal, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denied calls for a select committee on the idea. And 45 co-sponsors is a long way from the 218 needed to actually pass something.
“You are not going to make 218 people in one session of Congress afraid,” said Hopkins. “How much leverage does Ocasio-Cortez have? If she can wave her hand and endanger the reelection prospects of even pretty liberal members, then that is one thing. They may not like it, but they will be forced to get in line. But does she have that kind of power? If you take a shot and miss, you are very much likely going to be worse off than even if you didn’t take a shot at all.”
“I view these outside groups like this skeptically. Are they trying to build a movement or start a riot?” said Colin Strother, a Texas operative and an adviser to Representative Henry Cuellar, one of Justice Democrats’ top targets in 2020. “I never heard anything about Justice Democrats until a few weeks ago. Are the people running it political professionals? Groups like them, they come along for a cycle or two, they disappear and something else crops up in their place. Democrats do best when we keep our disagreements around the kitchen table instead of in the front yard where everybody can see.”
Buck, the Colorado donor, says he is thrilled with Ocasio-Cortez—“She is fabulous”—but wary of what Justice Democrats want to do next. “It is little tricky. People without experience can shake things up, but I worry that they will be sitting ducks for the Republicans.”
As they move into the next election cycle, their hope is that Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Tlaib and Omar form more of a unit, one in which they share staff, best practices and strategy, and care less about personal brand-building. Justice Democrats plans to provide cover with its 350,000-person email list and active social media feeds.
Limited resources mean that playing in the presidential primary will be difficult, but the energized new left has already seen some of what were once considered its most outré ideas—the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, Abolish ICE and free college—become a central part of several likely presidential campaign platforms. Next cycle, members of the group plan to target from five to 10 House Democrats who occupy safe blue seats. Some names of the targets have already been floated out, like Henry Cuellar, but Sean McElwee, a liberal activist and co-founder of Data for Progress, where he works closely with Justice Democrats, listed a handful more who are vulnerable to a Crowley-sized challenge, including Kathleen Rice of Long Island, Jim Cooper of Nashville and Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore. (Shahid, asked if they were targets, declined to list any names.)
Strother, the Texas operative, said people from outside Cuellar’s South Texas district—a place where guns and gas drilling are a way of life and an economic driver—don’t understand the absolutism. How, he asked, could a party that prides itself on being welcoming now try to kick apostates out of the tent?
“The Republican Party went through a lot of these same fights after they won in 2010, and they were not well-served by them,” he said, “and the Democrats should learn that lesson.”
“Diversity is one of the values of our party,” he said. “We have Muslims in our party, we have Buddhists in our party, we have Baptists in our party, we have everything under the sun in our party. We say you can worship what you want, you can love what you want and you can be what you want. Then how is it that we are going to tell people you can’t think what you want?”