For five long days and nights at the peak of Washington, D.C.’s most brutal dogs days of summer, in sun-baked oppressive humidity, broken only by the occasional thundershower, Rep. Cori Bush nevertheless persisted.
In many ways, Bush, a high-profile activist in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s 2014 police killing, now in her first year repping St. Louis on Capitol Hill, provided a real-world update on the Beltway’s most famous fictional tale — 1939′s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which an unlikely political newcomer from the West stays up around the clock to prove that a lost cause is the only kind worth fighting for.
Like Jimmy Stewart’s Sen. Jefferson Smith, Bush beat the odds. In her five-day protest on the Capitol Hill steps trying to convince her own party to find some way to restore a pandemic-long moratorium on renter evictions that had been allowed to expire on July 31, the Missouri congresswoman drew national attention and pressured the Biden administration to take a second look. It led to a novel approach that may pause evictions for two more months.
But unlike the movie character, Bush was no naive waif. Quite the opposite, she brought something to the fight that many of her Democratic colleagues — with their elite diplomas and backgrounds — do not, which is a sense of knowing exactly what it was like to stand in the shoes of as many as 3.6 million Americans on the brink of being forced from their homes.
The 45-year-old Bush had been there — when she was evicted 20 years ago after a fight with an abusive boyfriend and slept in a car with her two kids, and when she encountered homelessness while pushing through nursing school, and when they tried to evict her yet again while she was protesting in Ferguson.
“We just did the work — just by loving folks — to keep millions in their homes,” Bush said this week outside the Capitol as she brushed away tears. Officials both in the administration and congressional leadership agreed that the new plan — in which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed the new moratorium in most of the nation where the delta variant of the coronavirus is surging — would not have happened without Bush’s protest, which was joined by a half-dozen other top House progressives and galvanized Democrats’ younger voters. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer raced to embrace Bush outside the Capitol, proclaiming, “You did this!”
With her epic protest, Bush didn’t only win a reprieve for pandemic-weary renters — who now have more time to access $45 billion in housing aid approved by Congress but doled out in slow motion — but she also put down a critical new marker in the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party that’s been an ongoing saga since President Biden, a career centrist, won the 2020 primaries.
It seemed ironic that this progressive policy triumph came on the very same day that a congressional hopeful aiming to join the House’s “Squad” of far-left firebrands like Bush and her fellow Capitol-steps protester Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was defeated in a nationally watched special-election primary for an open seat in Cleveland and neighboring suburbs.
Thus, even as Bush was showered with flowers outside Congress, many political pundits were pointing to Tuesday’s Ohio defeat of Nina Turner, a close ally of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, by Shontel Brown — the choice of well-known establishment Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Rep. James Clyburn, a key Biden ally — as the exclamation point on a series of races in which Biden-styled centrists defeated candidates from the far left.
The reality on the ground — as always — is much more complicated than the TV talking heads would have you believe.
The prevailing wisdom of the commentariat — lampooned in the daily tweet from the mainstream-media-satire account New York Times Pitchbot, “Dems in Disarray” — is that the running battle between a younger and (for better or worse) “woke,” younger left and a Democratic center of Black and brown middle-class homeowners, plus suburbanites, is a sign of chaos that could doom the party’s chances of retaining power in 2022.
But if 2021′s special and municipal elections have taught us anything, it’s that a) the two wings of the Democratic Party are engaged in a competition of both ideas and personalities that seem healthy for democracy, rather than a sign of disarray and b) at the end of the day, all politics is local. In Cleveland, it seems likely that Turner’s defeat was less a rejection of progressive ideas than her abrasive style, which led her to publicly not support in Clinton in 2016 and to her crude analogy about voting for Biden — quite popular in her district — in 2020.
It’s certainly true that 2021 has brought a string of victories for center-left candidates like New York City’s all-but-certain next mayor Eric Adams, an ex-cop and former Republican who aims to expand police rather than reduce its funding in favor of social services — i.e., the progressive plank. But it seems way too early to declare a total victory for the Democratic establishment, because that doesn’t explain how left-wing rivals unseated party stalwarts in big cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo, or why progressive prosecutors like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner continue to win.
I’d argue that the Democrats have developed an innate — and highly positive — understanding that to continue to govern America as the 53% Party that emerged with Biden’s win in 2020, they need to become America’s Medium Big Tent Party. While millions of voters who reject facts and basic science are a lost cause at this stage of the game, the United States can still be governed through a union of the center and the left, as long as both factions feel they have a voice. More than a half-year into his presidency, Biden has been highly skilled in listening.
Step back and contrast what happened Tuesday in the race between Turner and Brown in Ohio’s 11th District and the special primary in the nearby but heavily Republican 15th District, where a previously little-known lobbyist cruised to victory for one sole reason: His endorsement by the GOP’s supreme leader, Donald Trump. Ask yourself: Which election reflected a decadent autocracy, and which reflected a messy but flourishing democratic ideal?
Which brings us back to Cori Bush’s big win on the eviction moratorium and why it’s so important. Biden and his team arrived at the White House with an innate understanding that he couldn’t follow the tired path of Bill Clinton and (most of the time) Barack Obama in seeking to marginalize the far left. For one thing, Democrats can’t win elections without enthusiasm from young voters radicalized around issues like college debt or racial inequity. But there’s also a crisis understanding that saving the American middle class requires some bold risk taking — like ignoring the first batch of experts who said the evictions move couldn’t be done.
Ocasio-Cortez has even angered some of her earliest supporters like Susan Sarandon with her willingness to work with the likes of Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the ability of progressives like her and Bush to lobby, prod, cajole and — when all else fails — protest Democratic leaders has led to initiatives around fighting climate change, expanding child care, curbing poverty or backing free community college that were unthinkable a year or two ago. Party leaders may still work to defeat some up-and-coming leftists like Ohio’s Turner, but — in spite of themselves — they’ve grasped how to harness the power of “the Squad.”
The cycle of vigorous competition and compromise between its two main factions is a win for the Democratic Party — and for America. For example, a true solution to the intertwined problems of gun violence and racist policing can only occur when crime-weary urban homeowners and the righteousness of those fighting structural racism find common ground, and I believe they can. Meanwhile, the likes of Bush and Ocasio-Cortez surely won’t rest on their anti-eviction laurels, but instead are likely to attack the next middle-class crisis — student debt — with the same energy, and I hope Team Biden keeps listening. Unfortunately, America in the 2020s has no shortage of lost causes worth fighting for.