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Centrist Democrats are crucial to building the left’s power in the Midwest

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shows that Democrats are moving left. But liberal centrists are still necessary.

Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leaves her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley on June 26, 2018, in New York City.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

Since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory in New York’s 14th District Democratic primary on June 26, there’s been much hand-wringing and debate over what she and her candidacy mean for the Democratic Party. Her victory electrified the left, but moderate Democrats (and Republicans) were quick to dismiss the possibility that Ocasio-Cortez’s win represents a watershed moment for the party — or that as a self-avowed democratic socialist, she personifies a winning electoral future for Democrats.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth best encapsulated the centrist response to Ocasio-Cortez in a CNN interview with Jake Tapper where she said Ocasio-Cortez is only “the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is.” She added: “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.” Leftist outlets like Jacobin and In These Times quickly denounced Duckworth, arguing that a muscular left-wing message would and has resonated in the Midwest.

So are Duckworth and her colleagues correct? No, and yes. It’s wrong to dismiss any appetite for far-left politics in the Midwest wholesale. But her overarching point — that Democrats need to be strategic and run more centrist candidates in conservative-leaning districts — is the smart path.

The Midwest has a long history of left-wing populism

Duckworth’s comment was far too sweeping. The Midwest, much like the rest of the country, is a complex, multifaceted region that cannot be reduced to a blanket generalization about its politics. While the region is predominantly white (which, one presumes, was a chief reason for Duckworth’s comment), it is also home to new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. And yes, black Americans live there too. These demographics — and the economic backgrounds of Midwesterners — make for diverse politics.

Just take the state of Minnesota. Minnesota has a rich tradition of left-wing populism that dates back to World War I. Minnesota birthed the Farmer-Labor Party in 1918, a party created by socialists and members of the working class that arguably remains the most successful labor party in American history.

When the Farmer-Labor Party merged with the Democratic Party in the ’40s, forming the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, or the DFL, the new party was at the forefront of civil rights initiatives like housing desegregation after World War II.

Minnesotans regularly elected DFL left-liberals to Congress: Hubert Humphrey in the 1940s, Walter Mondale in the 1960s, Paul Wellstone in the 1990s, and most recently, Keith Ellison. DFL member Ilan Omar, the first Somali-American woman in the Minnesota House, is now a strong contender to succeed Ellison in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District on an agenda of universal health care, free tuition at all public colleges, and abolishing ICE.

Conservatism is still hugely powerful in much of the Midwest

But large swaths of the Midwest remain deeply red. In Minnesota, Republicans dominate in Minneapolis’ suburbs and exurbs. St. Cloud, one of central Minnesota’s biggest cities, is home to a vibrant community of Somali immigrants but also to a nativist backlash against them. Minnesota’s 6th District, which includes St. Cloud, was led by conservative firebrand and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann for eight years.

In these heavily Republican districts, the most successful Democratic challengers have been moderate centrists: wealthy business owners who are socially liberal but economically conservative; in other words, neoliberal. Republicans occupy three of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts; two of the three have been Republican-led for years, if not decades.

An even better example is Minnesota’s 3rd District, overseen by Republican Erik Paulsen since 2009, yet which went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Paulsen this year faces a tough challenge from centrist Democrat Dean Phillips, a millionaire entrepreneur and former owner of Phillips Distilling, Co.

Phillips is far from the ideal left-wing candidate, as he claims to be “fiscally conservative, but socially inclusive”; but he is popular in the district. (One early poll put Phillips up by 4 percentage points.) And he checks off some left-wing boxes: He supports pay equity for men and women and Medicare-for-all. This might be sufficient to garner him a coalition big enough to defeat Paulsen. And if elected, he will be the first Democrat to lead the district since the 1960s — a crucial development, since Minnesota is ground zero for the 2018 midterms and possible Democratic control of the House.

These Midwestern districts are microcosms of most states in the United States. Even a liberal state like New York has solid Republican and conservative districts, particularly in Western New York. Duckworth’s point is obvious and legitimate: Not every insurgent or left-wing candidate will win in the 2018 midterms. Democrats must be strategic about their choice of candidates; a left-wing candidate could sink a seat that might otherwise be turned blue.

Even Ocasio-Cortez does not share the expectations of some of her enthusiastic left-wing supporters. In a tweet, she said that in solidly Democratic districts and states, progressives need “leaders swinging for the most ambitious ideas possible for working-class Americans”; but in close elections — in moderate, or Republican-leaning areas of the country — progressives are “not going to get gutsy risk-taking” from candidates.

She understands the tradeoffs. This is smart politics, and how the Democratic Party will build not just an electoral coalition but a governing one. The zeitgeist is with Ocasio-Cortez and her followers, but it will take years of coalition-building to make the Democratic Party into a leftist party, if ever. Right now, Democrats need a governing plurality.

Democrats have historically succeeded by embracing both ends of the liberal spectrum

This gets to the core problem in the debate over the soul of the Democratic Party: the search for party unity through party purity. Political parties have not traditionally been vessels for a single ideological agenda. The Democratic Party — and, to a certain extent, the Republican Party — has historically operated as a confederation of sorts, a loose amalgam of state-centered interests and ideas. It has neither had a national structure or design.

Think of the most successful era for the Democratic Party, from the New Deal to the Great Society in the 1930s to the ’60s. The regional complexity of the New Deal coalition (its mixture of racist, Southern Democrats and left-liberals within the Democratic Farmer-Labor party) animated its limitations, contradictions, and accomplishments, particularly on civil rights and racial inequality. Expecting the modern version of the Democratic Party to behave differently and uniformly leftist is ahistorical.

True, some areas of the Midwest might be “hungry for socialism,” particularly urban areas like Chicago and Detroit. And while Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in several Midwest states (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), congressional races are different. The maxim that “all politics is local” means understanding the political affectations of localities, where voters might support elements of left-wing populism but remain fiscally conservative.

Clinton’s defeat in 2016 proved that Democrats cannot always operate from the center. Running a centrist candidate in all congressional races would be as foolish as running a socialist everywhere.

And the left can take comfort in the fact that moderates will be beholden to the overall leftward direction of the Party today. Just look at Kirsten Gillibrand’s and Cory Booker’s support for a federal job guarantee. But Democrats need a sustainable majority above all — and for now, that includes centrist candidates.

Michael Brenes is a historian and the senior archivist for American diplomacy at Yale University and the author of the forthcoming book, The Price of Loyalty: Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, and the Struggle for American Liberalism.

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