Recently, a septuagenarian old white man and longtime fixture of the swamp of D.C. politics—a politician who voted for the disastrous War in Iraq; who supported the vicious 1994 crime bill; who repeatedly opposed federal funding for abortion; and who has toed the generic Party line for a good deal of his career—achieved an unlikely win in his Democratic primary. I’m speaking, of course, about the victory last week of Senator and newly-rebranded progressive heartthrob, Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
There was much discussion and consternation over the airbrushing of Ed Markey’s record and his newfound status as the Bernie Sanders of Boston—particularly from disgruntled supporters of his unfortunate opponent, Joe Kennedy III. “This goes to show you that the left doesn’t do their homework and they’re easily won over by bright shiny objects,” one Kennedy aligned Democratic insider told Politico post-election. Kennedy had pitched himself as an ideological twin of Markey’s who would have nonetheless done something, er, differently, if he had been elected. But Kennedy and his inner circle were perplexed and frustrated by how impervious Markey proved to be from attacks to his left, despite holding decades of right-wing baggage that the short-serving Congressman did not. In fact, aside from a couple odd Congressional Progressive Caucus members, the American left largely backed Markey with tremendous enthusiasm.
Obviously, the evolution of Ed Markey from bog-standard liberal into Green New Deal champion of the Zoomer Left has been more dramatic than Joe Biden’s slow slog towards adopting basic moderate ideas like support for a $15 federal minimum wage, or his begrudging acknowledgement that the Iraq War was a disaster. But the truly interesting way of viewing the Markey v. Kennedy contest is as an election wherein the combined force of the insurgent progressive media and activist machine bent an old, sitting Senator left. In doing so, it proved its ability to protect sitting incumbents who demonstrate a willingness to do the same.
The emerging American left, youthful and encompassing everyone from progressive left-liberals to members of the newly-invigorated socialist movement, will still need to swat down literally hundreds, if not thousands, of ordinary liberals and Democratic Party stalwarts from the state House to the U.S. Senate in order to exert the type of influence over American politics that we would like. But incentives will need to be in place for opportunist electeds to slink leftwards if we offer them that path. Proving that we can and will defend incumbents when they do so is an essential message to send to elected Democrats everywhere.
In this sense, the double standard that exists between how the left forgave Markey’s poor votes but actively loathe Biden’s isn’t just about which politician has leaned further towards elements of the progressive movement—although it is about that, and Markey has obviously bent quite far, while Joe has bent little. Rather, much of the organizational left has now been able to provide proof of concept in a statewide campaign. We’ve shown that we possess not only the muscle and tenacity to defend our favored politicians at high levels of government, but also the willingness to forgive and embrace run-of-the-mill liberals who pivot hard to meet us.
While some insist that this contest was overblown, and that Markey and Kennedy would have voted identically in the Senate, that’s a narrow way of viewing what the race came to represent: it mattered for the left’s influence because the left decided to make it matter. Senator Markey is not simply a politician shifting positions to meet the chaotic moment we’re living through—he’s one whose very political survival is now hugely indebted to the defense offered by progressive media commentators and the tireless work of energized youth activists like those of the Sunrise Movement, who have rewarded the co-author of the Green New Deal with unmatched zeal in their quest to protect his seat.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), who introduced the Green New Deal with Markey, also stood by him through the race. One campaign ad, which aired statewide for weeks, did not feature Ed Markey for even a second—just half a minute of AOC speaking directly to the camera, telling voters that in politics, your age matters less than the age of your ideas. Had Kennedy been savvy, he might have tried to drive a wedge early by sharpening his attacks on Markey’s record even further, and courting AOC’s neutrality by making the Green New Deal an essential, loud element of his image. This seems to be the tactic used by Rep. Lacy Clay that mistakenly led AOC to snub Cori Bush in her rematch against Clay this year. Alas, Kennedy didn’t think this necessary, and AOC helped make Markey’s newfound progressive bona fides unquestionable in the eyes of many. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, could not help a Kennedy win Massachusetts, while a first-term democratic socialist was able to help turn a race toward the progressive with her star power.
Markey’s final full-length ad, one of the most captivating of this cycle, casts him as a pragmatic Senator, but one who is unafraid to crusade against the status quo and fight for a renewed social democratic contract. The closing moments of his video, now viral, features footage of young climate activists in the streets as Markey’s voiceover deliciously twists an iconic JFK line: “We asked what we could do for our country. We went out, we did it. With all due respect: It’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” It’s a fresh image for Markey, one for which he has only very recently been lent credibility.
Early polls out of Massachusetts at one point showed Markey in such a hole against Kennedy that commentators speculated he should announce his retirement to save himself some dignity. Markey ultimately won with double-digit breathing room. When his unlikely victory was sealed, Markey knew perfectly well who rebranded him as the True Progressive in the race and allowed him to serve another six years. Speaking to his supporters on election night, the Senator declared emphatically: “The time to be timid is past. The age of incrementalism is over.”
One could argue that this race was a very rare instance: insurgent challengers with name recognition and established political ties like a literal Kennedy don’t come along often to primary sitting Senators with mixed records and a willingness to cozy up more to progressives. But in the coming years, as the left knocks out more and more of the particularly odious Democrats, we will also need to convince left-curious (and left-frightened!) incumbents at every level of government that there is more to be gained by joining us than trying to distance themselves from us. The left offers you its protection—if you can earn it.
Additionally, we must be wary of a further, conscious drift towards the right at the national level of Democratic politics. As Joe Biden welcomes disaffected white suburbanite Republicans into the Democratic Party while asking they relinquish none of their existing right-wing views on austerity and imperialism, we can be sure that a Kennedy scion primarying Ed Markey on spurious grounds won’t be the last or most egregious attempt by the Democratic Party’s right flank to take out or intimidate incumbents who are looking too chummy with the left. Now, such incumbents can be sure they’ll have muscle backing them up if they’re targeted.
Ed Markey seems to have always been a well-meaning, if flawed liberal—but electoral victory for the left is going to look like “progressive” Democrats much more fickle than him deciding they need to get with our program to survive. The left isn’t historically burned by politicians because our ideas are unpopular election-losers (many of our ideas are very, very popular). The left is burned by politicians because they’ve always correctly seen us as a joke, capable of neither electoral protection nor retribution under any circumstances. Most of them knew that progressives had no oomph to discipline them for transgressions, and perhaps even more critically, no power to protect them when attacked viciously from their right flank.
This is clearly no longer the case: money, rising progressive media, and endless hours of phone calls by young activists across the country came together to completely reshape what was initially seen as an unwinnable U.S. Senate race for Markey, competing against a man with a family name that has literally never lost in Massachusetts. Blind triumphalism should be rejected: the left is still very, very weak as a national electoral force. But it’s clear we can put up a real fight for politicians who work with us, just as terrible House incumbents are seeing that if they draw our concentrated, targeted ire, they’re no longer safe. Future politicians who tact towards progressives in primaries and then look for re-election down the line will need to keep our emerging strength very much in mind.
Which is a first! While our favorite heroes may always be the Bernies and Ilhans of the world, whose principles never waver, a government full of Bernies and Ilhans is not what victory in politics tends to look like. It looks like plenty of fair-weather allies who feel emboldened to stick with us, know we’ll back them up in kind, and understand the consequences next election if they don’t.
An example to keep an eye on will be the conduct of establishment New York City council members in their upcoming 2021 municipal elections. Ever since the near-sweep that NYC Democratic Socialists of America led this primary cycle with the victory of state Senator Julia Salazar, soon-to-be state Senator Jabari Brisport, and soon-to-be state House members Zohran Kwame Mamdani, Phara Souffrant, and Marcela Mitaynes, the word is out in the New York political scene: if NYC DSA wants to unseat you, they can. While most of the machine will dig in their heels in the face of this challenge, some will almost certainly attempt to jump ship and ingratiate themselves with the young, emerging socialist powerhouse.
It will be up to NYC DSA to determine how to deal with these electeds looking to curry favor with them, but as a general rule, progressives should be mindful of opportunities to make perhaps well-meaning but wishy-washy liberal incumbents indebted to us for their political survival.
Senator Markey hopped on the bandwagon. Tell your representatives there’s plenty of room.