On Eugene V. Debs’ birthday, no less.
In Minneapolis’ city council election last night, an interesting thing happened: a Socialist candidate came close to defeating a conventional Democrat. Only 131 votes separated Ty Moore, a Socialist and former bus driver, from Alondra Cano in Minneapolis’ Ward 9. No victor has been declared because the election is a ranked-choice system and neither candidate has yet received a sufficient margin to call the election.
Moore remarked in a recent interview that he would like to see “an independent, working-class, Left political party that is viable in this country,” and if he wins a seat in Minneapolis, a wealthy city owned for generations by Democrats, it would be an upset worthy of notice. Moore received endorsements from the Green Party, SEIU, the Democratic Socialists of America Twin Cities, and Socialist Action, but did not receive support from several major unions, including Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 5, a local IBEW chapter, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the Laborers District Council of MN & ND, all which endorsed his Democratic opponent. Nonetheless, Moore out-raised his opponent $46,074 to $29,470.
Regardless of whether Moore wins his bid to become the first Socialist elected to the Minneapolis City Council in modern history, his viable candidacy suggests that, at least in Minneapolis’ struggling Ward 9, voters are beginning to act on a the gap they perceive between Democratic rhetoric and the actual governance of Democrats when they hold political power. While the Republican party, at all levels, has been susceptible to pressure from its furthest right blocs for decades, over the last generation or two the national Democratic party has been relatively impervious to challenges from the Left. (This regardless of the popular narrative surrounding the outcome of the vote in Florida and the Green Party’s Ralph Nader “stealing” the 2000 election from then-Vice President Al Gore.)
The diminishing influence of the political Left over the national Democratic party can be traced from Eugene McCarthy’s challenge to his party’s (quasi-liberal) sitting President in 1968, to George McGovern’s landslide loss in 1972, to Jimmy Carter’s outsider candidacy in 1976 and the unsuccessful presidency that followed, to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge to his party’s sitting President in 1980, and finally to the emergence of the New (centrist) Democrats in the wake of Walter Mondale’s landslide loss in 1984. Democrats who lived through the difficult years of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s might be justified in saying that policy matters little when one doesn’t hold the offices necessary to turn policy into governance, but the records of Clinton and Obama-era Democrats suggest a party which runs on liberal policy but governs as centrist establishmentarians or, at best, incrementalists. This multi-generational trend likely has hundreds of variations at state and local levels, and it may not represent the state of relations between the Democratic party and its left-most potential constituents in every case. However, serious questions remain: Why has the Democratic party been so free from pressure on its left? Can this situation endure? If so, under what conditions can Democrats continue to fend off challenges from the Left?
One wonders where the next viable challenge to Democratic politicians’ claims to progressive, or even liberal, principles will originate. Will Hillary Clinton face serious challenge from her left in 2016, or will the Democratic Party re-embrace Clintonism as it attempts to retain control over the White House? Will the most liberal and progressive constituents of the Democratic Party remain loyal after Barack Obama, a quasi-progressive ideologue turned moderate conservative president, leaves office? Where will progressive and liberal voters wind up in states where the Democratic Party has conceded significant ground to the latest iteration of far-right Republican governors and state legislators? How long will those voters tolerate Democratic candidates who sprint to the center, hoping to capture enough votes from the middle to eke out a general election victory and regain control?
Up until now, questions like these might seem foolish or at best politically naive, but a Socialist candidate just gave a well-supported Democrat a serious electoral challenge in one of the bluest cities in the United States. It would be foolish to look for a tidal change at the national level in the next three years, but perhaps some serious erosion is finally occurring at the local level. Ty Moore just might be the beginning of something, rather than simply a flash in the pan. Time, as it always does, will tell.