In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, a group of disaffected former Bernie Sanders campaign officials and progressive media personalities quietly formed an organization with a simple mission: to take over the Democratic Party and remold it in their own vision.
Justice Democrats, a registered Political Action Committee, was forged in January of 2017 around a vision for a new future for the Democratic Party. The group recruits candidates from across the country to run in primary elections – often against powerful incumbents – on its platform, which includes guaranteeing health care to all Americans as a right, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, subsidizing public higher education and rejecting campaign contributions from corporations and Super PAC’s.
Amongst the group’s founders were Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, a progressive online news show with over four million subscribers on Youtube, and Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk, a self-produced Youtube show with half a million subscribers in its own right.
“We’re going to try to save the soul of the Democratic Party by boarding the Democratic Party’s ship and taking it over,” Uygur said while announcing the launch of Justice Democrats on his show.
Uygur and Kulinski stepped away from their positions in the organization after misogynistic blog posts written by Uygur in the late 1990’s surfaced in December 2017. The two, however, have continued to enthusiastically support the group on their shows. Uygur acknowledged the posts were “totally offensive, insensitive and ignorant,” and apologized for them.
From its inception, Justice Democrats was ridiculed and dismissed by political pundits. In February of 2017, NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald characterized the organization’s rhetoric as “audacious” and cast doubt on its ability to be “any kind of a force to be reckoned with.”
“If they are able to follow through, the result would likely be a mass of underfunded token candidates, not necessarily serious challengers,” Seitz-Wald wrote.
Embracing their role as outsiders, Justice Democrats recruited and organized with dozens of candidates running in the 2018 midterm primaries. One of those candidates was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old latina woman from the Bronx who had been working at a New York bar before running for Congress.
On June 26, Ocasio-Cortez pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern political history, unseating ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley, who was rumored to potentially be the Democrats’ next Speaker of House.
Ocasio-Cortez has since become a progressive icon, making dozens of appearances on major cable news channels and late night talk shows. Her high-profile victory was a watershed moment for Justice Democrats and the progressive movement, defying skeptics and critics alike.
The significance of her win, however, was downplayed by Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, who framed it as an aberration. Justice Democrats is now focused on proving her wrong. A host of other candidates from the organization will be on the ballots in the general midterm elections in November, hoping to join Ocasio-Cortez in government and exert an influence on policy.
These candidates include Ayanna Pressley, an African American woman who also unseated a ten-term incumbent in Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American refugee who’s slated to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, and Ben Jealous, an African American man running for Governor in Maryland endorsed by comedian Dave Chappelle.
With the midterms approaching, The Globe Post spoke to Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, to discuss the future of her organization and the Democratic Party.
Q: Bernie Sanders in 2016 described his presidential campaign as a “political revolution.” One thing that was certainly revolutionary about his campaign was that he broke away from the decades-old political status quo and rejected corporate PAC money and funded his campaign entirely with small, individual donations. All Justice Democrats, I understand, are required to do the same. Is it fair to say that campaign finance is a sort-of foundational issue for Justice Democrats? And why is it so important to the organization for its candidates to not be reliant on big-money corporate donations?
Rojas: It’s absolutely a core piece of our platform. I would say the ultimate litmus test of being a Justice Democrat is a number of other policies, but refusing to accept corporate PAC and corporate lobbyist money is paramount, I think, to the success of our entire organization.
One of the things that I’m really proud that we accomplished this cycle is being one of the only organizations to run completely corporate-free candidates. I think the reason that we feel that way is because real reform that needs to happen in Washington – if we want things to change as quickly as possible – our elections need to be funded and to be overhauled from the bottom up.
Bernie Sanders, as you said, raised the majority of his donations from small-dollar contributors. When you look at candidates like Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez], she did exactly the same thing. Obviously, we support campaign finance reform policy-wise, but with a lot fo the different proposal out there, a lot them will take time. And in the meantime, we can start changing who actually gets into office and who they’re funded by.
So, it’s just so fundamental to our platform. If we want to tackle this problem head-on right now, it’s creating that litmus test and making sure that eventually, we get to every Democrat that wants to run has to run corporate-free.
Q: Do you think campaign finance is an issue that kind of absorbs all others?
Rojas: I think money, in this instance, is sort of the root of all evil. But, there’s a number of other institutions such as systemic racism and our fight for social and racial justice that I don’t want to cloud. But even in those instances, our entire economy and our structures when it comes to universities and our healthcare systems are totally driven by for-profit motives and greed stemming from money.
So, yea I think that money is essentially the root of all evil and it’s one of the biggest barriers to us actually being able to get things done. You have corporations and corporate lobbyists throughout all of these industries that are corrupting our political system and making sure that these policies are seen as pie-in-the-sky and can never happen. There’s plenty of money there, we just need to prioritize what we value as a country.
Q: After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s big upset victory, many pundits in the right-wing media pointed out her use of the term “democratic socialism” and tried to paint her and the progressive movement as a whole as extreme, radical and even dangerous. They repeatedly brought up Venezuela and even made comparisons to communism.
Others, though, have argued her platform – Medicare for All, better funding for public education, a living wage – really isn’t very radical at all in the context of American history and left-wing politics. Do you view the Justice Democrats platform as more of a radical departure from mainstream liberal politics? Or do you think it’s more rooted in traditional, New Deal liberal values and principles?
Rojas: I think our platform at Justice Democrats is completely common sense. It’s radical to us that these issues that we know are so overwhelmingly popular with the Ameican people and supported in public opinion poll after public opinion poll – this isn’t necessarily revolutionary. It’s just kind of catching up to where the rest of the world is. I’m not a super politico, but I think our platform is rooted in the same breadth of the New Deal.
We feel the same way about our candidates being united on this big economic vision of a “green New Deal.” These are massive projects that we’re talking about. They’re big overhauls to our current system. But it’s to prioritize the health and well-being of our citizens.
It’s just crazy to me that if you look at generic ballot polling and trends and even recent results like [Ocasio-Cortez’s], most Americans agree with this platform. And the pivot to the center is almost like poison to the Democratic primary electorate. You can call it Democratic Socialism but it’s the will of the people that drives what our candidates are running on.
Q: Since 2010, the Democratic Party has been sort of reeling electorally. It’s lost control of every branch of the federal government and has also lost a lot of ground at the state and local levels in a lot of areas. Justice Democrats and other progressives have seemed to be able to inspire a lot of people who have traditionally not been involved in the political process to come back into the arena and vote. How important do you think it is to the party to have bold, energetic candidates and generate excitement, particularly amongst young people, going forward?
Rojas: Ultimately, we believe at Justice Democrats that the only way to defeat the far right – which we and the Democratic Party have goals of doing – and not continue to lose thousands of seats up and down the ballot is with this new generation of Democratic leaders who are ready to implement a bold vision for America that stands in contrast to the dystopian vision of Trump’s future.
Much of the Democratic Party has adopted a tactic of allowing the far right to lead the agenda, whether it be on increased military spending or handouts to Wall Street. That tactic not only leaves millions of Americans behind in the long run, it’s just losing. The numbers don’t lie there. You look at public opinion polls, you look at electoral outcomes over the past decade, it’s just not working.
At Justice Democrats, we engage heavily specifically in primary elections and challenge current, sitting Democratic representatives as well as Republicans. Our goal is to build a really united cohort of progressive lawmakers in Congress who can shift the national conversation and neutralize the false populism of the far right and push visionary legislation.
All of that is because we’re listening to the grassroots. You talk to the American people and this is what they want and I think that’s why you see victories like [Ocasio-Cortez’s]. So yea, the Democratic Party has a losing tactic and that’s why we’re working to transform it.
Q: It’s no secret that in the 2016 primaries, the [Democratic National Committee] heavily favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. More broadly, the “establishment” of the party has been pretty resistant to embracing progressives. Has the DNC been supportive of the Justice Democrats candidates who have won primaries and are running in competitive general elections for Congress and Governor?
Rojas: Depending on the race. I’m not super involved in the Randy Bryce campaign (Bryce is running to fill Paul Ryan’s soon-to-be-vacant seat in Wisconsin), but he is a [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] endorsed candidate. I believe he’s the only one of the Justice Democrats to ever receive that.
But in some of our other races, no, they haven’t been supportive in the same way they have been in others. This happened in the primaries with the memos that they put out, encouraging people not to support Medicare for All. One of the litmus tests for being a Justice Democrat is running on things like Medicare for All.
I think we’re seeing a different prioritization for candidates that are like [Ocasio-Cortez] who are running on these sort-of common sense policies like canceling student debt or Medicare for All that just aren’t seeing the same support.
But that goes back to our bottom-up model. We’ve never been counting on that support. At least on the fundraising side, it’s really just small-dollar donors from across the country. A lot of our approach to being able to supplement big money is with big organizing and talking to your neighbors and really aggressively tackling the field.
So, yea, they have not been as supportive as we would have hoped going into the general elections.
Q: In the primaries, it seems like Justice Democrats had broadly mixed results. Obviously, there were some big victories like Ocasio-Cortez’s, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and many others. But there were also some tough loses – Cori Bush is Missouri, Abdul El-Sayed and Brent Welder weren’t able to secure nominations. That lead to some pundits in “mainstream” publications to downplay and minimize the success of Justice Democrats. If you reflect on where you stand as a very young organization, how do you think about the success you’ve had so far?
While there may have been some disappointment in some specific races, it seems to me that just a couple of years ago it might have been unimaginable to many that any of these candidates could have won on this sort of platform or that progressives more broadly could have had any real influence in the Democratic Party. Where would you say that your organization stands now and how does that inform the way you look to the future?
Rojas: I think it’s interesting. A few thoughts come to mind. As cheesy as it sounds, I think we’ve already won. If you look at politics and the way that it is right now, we missed so many moments, so many opportunities for learning and growth. Specifically, on the left and the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party, we haven’t really invested in electoral work in a really serious way.
For being an organization that started a little over 18 months ago and to already have about six people pretty much already confirmed to the House of Representatives that are raising our platform is massive.
With our victory in New York-14, [Ocasio-Cortez] is the only one that has not governed or not been a politico or been part of this machine. I think that’s extraordinary. We just elected someone that is one of us. That is truly inside and out one of us. Someone that just a month or two ago was trying to find where she can buy healthcare and was working at a bar in the service industry and had to watch her dad struggle through the financial recession. To have someone who is so like us is so immensely powerful I think.
Many look at politics as a zero-sum game or a horse race and so you look at win percentages. But what we’ve been able to do is shift the national conversation around who deserves to be in the halls of power. It’s no longer just the people who can afford it. It’s no longer the people that are ‘waiting their turn.’ It’s women, it’s people of color and working people of all backgrounds that are getting off the sidelines. They’re extraordinary, ordinary people who are ready to take power into their own hands to benefit their communities and are not millionaires and are not necessarily white men.
That’s huge, and if Justice Democrats and others who do similar work as us didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be here. Just getting involved in competitive primaries – just like we saw in 2016 when Bernie went from having zero name recognition to now being the most popular politician in America, and things like single-payer health care are in the national conversation – we’ve done that with the abolition of ICE, and elected working class heroes into Congress.
So, it’s hard for me to look at the things Politico or Washington Post or some of these mainstream outlets put out just because they’re looking at politics, again, in the same way that we’ve always viewed it and not coming from this sort of outside sphere and being able to think about things a little differently.
In each of those failures – I wouldn’t even call them failures – those lost elections, we still found amazing people. We still learned how to do our field strategies slightly differently. If we’ve already had some successes this year, each year it’s only going to continue to grow. So, for our first year of growth, it’s been really incredible to see what we can do. And now we’re taking a lot of those learning lessons and those people we had elected and we’re going to do more of it come 2020 and 2022 and beyond.
Q: You mentioned that there’s a number of Justice Democrats candidates who are poised to join Ocasio-Cortez in Congress in the next session. You talk about progressives having a presence in the national dialogue. While Ocasio-Cortez’s win was enormous in its impact and the level of media attention received, how important is it to you to have a caucus of progressives in office with her? And what kind of legislative impact could something like that have?
We have a ‘progressive caucus’ now but it happens to be the most ineffective caucus in the House. So, whether it’s the Justice Democrats causes or some other branded caucus, I think that’s absolutely right. You need individuals who aren’t just going to co-sponsor legislation but actively engage with supporters and have a conversation with the country about it.
I think the most effective legislator who’s currently doing that is someone like Bernie Sanders, right? Where millions of people watch his online town halls and follow his social media and can shift the national conversation and have these small victories like with Amazon is so, so important.
So, in the short term, if we only have these six members who really embrace this agenda, I think it’s important for us to recognize that this is a numbers game. It’s about chipping away at the majority in Congress. Obviously, I don’t want to compare us to the Tea Party, but if you have the people in there – I think even 20 – can block or propose serious legislation for the body. And if we can get the majority progressive faction in the House within the next five years, we could actually start implementing a lot of the policies that we’re pushing forward.
That’s why 2019 leading up to 2020 is so important because we have to continue that national conversation. Just even in the past two years, we’ve been able to get those public opinion polls to go up on the issue of health care as a right for everybody, or even something like a federal jobs guarantee being one of the most popular proposals in a place like New York-14.
Q: Ocasio Cortez said recently that “we’re starting to see a little more of a galvanized anti-war movement [in the House], and folks like Barbara Lee have really led the way on that.” A lot of young people cannot remember a time when the U.S. wasn’t at war. We’re now also seeing an administration under Trump that has withdrawn from the Paris Climate accord, attacked international institutions like the International Criminal Court and escalated military interventions in places like Yemen. I know the bread and butter of the progressive movement has been economic justice and domestic reforms, but how much thought and energy has Justice Democrats been devoting towards foreign policy? And what might a progressive foreign policy platform look like?
Rojas: That’s an interesting point to bring up. We have focused a lot on domestic policy. I think for us to really have a stronger impact on the rest of the world, especially with dealing with things like climate change and the refugee crisis that is being exacerbated by all of the wars in Yemen or Afghanistan or wherever, that’s fueling these things. And if we want to actually be a nation that helps people from all over the world, we have to be able to do the same her for ourselves.
Like you said, Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and our entire administration does not believe in climate change.
From an economic justice angle, we’ve been spending a ton of our money on these endless wars. Our approach to that is to run candidates that are pro-peace and are also ready to create a peace economy hopefully when we get out of those wars and lead better by example for ourselves.
We definitely are involved in and have opinions on other foreign policy planks. We just feel that the fundamental issue -at least on these wars- is having all of our candidates stop these unnecessary wars by voting against them in Congress. And again, making sure they aren’t accepting bad campaign contributions from military contractors and that sort of thing.
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