Jamaal Bowman, right, upset Rep. Eliot Engel, a longtime hawk, in a congressional district spanning Westchester and the Bronx.
Electoral Politics Work : The Revolt of the Cities
By Harold Meyerson
The American Prospect
In 1951, the political journalist Samuel Lubell published a book with the modest title The Future of American Politics. Its most interesting chapter dealt with the shift of the nation’s cities from the Republican to the Democratic column, which began when they voted for the Democrats’ 1928 presidential nominee, New York Gov. Al Smith, and was consolidated four years later with their overwhelming support for Franklin Roosevelt. The “Revolt of the Cities,” Lubell called it.
Part of this shift was a function of demographics. Many Eastern and Southern European immigrants who came to America from the 1880s until Congress slammed the door on all but “Nordic” immigrants in 1924 didn’t really enter the electorate until 1928, when the Democrats nominated Smith, the nation’s first Catholic presidential nominee, and the first to grow up in an immigrant slum (New York’s Lower East Side). Those immigrants—Jews, Italians, Slavs—clustered in the nation’s cities, and Smith’s candidacy brought them to the polls in sufficient numbers to turn those cities, most of which had been longtime Republican bastions, into a reliable Democratic base. What Smith began, Roosevelt continued, as the Depression not only increased the Democratic surge of immigrants and their children, but also brought the urban young of all ethnicities under the Democrats’ banner, too.
Six years ago in the pages of the Prospect, I noted that another such revolt was taking shape. The great wave of Latin American, Asian, African, and Caribbean immigrants was finally beginning to shape the politics of cities. In 2013, a host of progressive mayors (at least by 2013 standards) were elected in New York, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Seattle, and other major cities, all brought to power in part by coalitions of left-leaning unions and community groups rooted chiefly in minority and immigrant communities. I noted that while Barack Obama in his 2012 race for re-election outpolled the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, by 10.5 percent nationally, he outpolled Mondale by well over 20 percentage points in large cities.
More from Harold Meyerson
But just as the immigrant surge of 1928 became both a broader and more radical force in cities once the Depression took hold, the movements for change in today’s cities have become broader and more radical in the wake of the Great Recession, the current pandemic and its accompanying economic dislocations, and the anti-racist upheavals following the murder of George Floyd. Just as millions of young people in the 1930s were at least partly radicalized by the Depression, so today’s millennials and zoomers, clustered in our cities, have been radicalized by the past 12 years of governmental and societal failures, not least the failure to come to terms with the climate crisis.
If anyone had doubts about where our cities—and much of the Democratic Party—are headed, they should have been dispelled by Tuesday’s primary elections. Young progressive insurgents won a host of Democratic contests in New York. Jamaal Bowman upset House Foreign Policy Committee Chair Eliot Engel, a longtime hawk, in a congressional district spanning Westchester and the Bronx, while in a neighboring New York suburban district, progressive Mondaire Jones won a multi-candidate contest for a seat vacated by retiring House member Nita Lowey. Both Bowman and Jones are African American. A progressive Indian American, Suraj Patel, is roughly tied with longtime House incumbent Carolyn Maloney in New York’s fabled “Silk Stocking” district on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with many votes still to be counted. And down-ballot, as my colleague Alex Sammon reports, progressive Democrats unseated incumbents and won open seats in state legislative contests.
Most of these candidates had backing from the leaders and institutions of America’s new left: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and New York’s own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who kicked off this generational and ideological revolution two years ago when she stunned the political world by unseating Joe Crowley, widely considered to be Nancy Pelosi’s successor as the Democrats’ House leader, in the 2018 primaries.
But it wasn’t just progressive pols who lined up behind Tuesday’s insurgent victors. Since at least the late 19th century, New York has been home to the largest and best-organized left in American politics, and their handiwork has been increasingly apparent in Gotham’s current move leftward. The Working Families Party has campaigned for progressive New York candidates for two decades, and in the 2018 elections, it succeeded in ousting the city’s conservative Democratic state senators, who for years had given Republicans control of the state Senate, in favor of a new generation of progressives. New York’s local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America cut their electoral teeth in 2018, too, playing a key role in Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory. Both those groups, and others like them, were instrumental in the progressive victories that swept New York on Tuesday. The mass protests against racism and police violence that have filled New York’s streets in recent weeks were not only a further factor in Tuesday’s victories, but they also appear to have elevated longtime Working Families Party standard-bearer Jumaane Williams, the city’s elected public advocate, to a front-running position should he choose to run for mayor in 2021.
New York may have moved farthest down this path of urban transformation, but it is hardly alone. Last year, six members of DSA were elected to Chicago’s city council, while in 2018, Ayanna Pressley ousted a longtime liberal incumbent for a congressional seat in Boston. Two other members of “The Squad”—Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar—won seats in inner-city Detroit and Minneapolis, respectively.
While the movement of cities is uniformly leftward, the composition of the cities determines just how far left that movement goes. The 2018 elections also saw Democratic challengers winning long-Republican congressional seats in Oklahoma City and Charleston, South Carolina. Those two Democrats are on the right flank of the party’s House delegation, but that Democrats represent those cities at all indicates just how different urban America has become from Donald Trump’s increasingly rural base. That difference may be highlighted again when all the votes in Tuesday’s Kentucky primary come in. Right now, centrist Amy McGrath holds a narrow lead over progressive Charles Booker in the race to determine who will be the Democratic nominee to oppose Mitch McConnell in the fall. But the vote of Kentucky’s one sizable city, Louisville, has yet to be tallied, and when it is, there’s a good chance that Booker—an African American state senator from Louisville’s poorest ZIP code who came to prominence during demonstrations for black lives over the past month—will emerge victorious.
In almost every major metropolitan area, particularly outside the non-union South, a generational tide is beginning to sweep away veteran moderates and even longtime center-left Democrats in favor of younger, leftier candidates. With the depredations of Donald Trump now pushing many hitherto Republican suburbs into the Democratic column as well, these two distinct evolutions foretell a wide ideological range within the Democrats’ future congressional delegations. But with Democrats clustered in cities and their leftward-moving inner suburbs, it’s clear that the future of the party is with the left, and that the efforts of its current legislative leaders to defend the old guard will increasingly call to mind those of Canute on the beach, helpless as the tide rolls in.