In May, three young progressive women running for the state Legislature in Pennsylvania, each endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, won decisive primary victories over men heavily favored by the political establishment. Two of the women, Summer Lee, 30, and Sara Innamorato, 32, ousted incumbents, the distant cousins Dom Costa and Paul Costa, members of an iconic Pennsylvania political family.
Elizabeth Fiedler, 37, announced her run three months after giving birth to her second child, and she had a nursery in her Philadelphia campaign office so other parents could drop off their kids before canvassing shifts. Talking to voters, she spoke of depending on Medicaid and CHIP for her kids’ health insurance, and of the anxiety she felt during two weeks when their insurance lapsed.
Lee was open about the more than $200,000 in student loans that have weighed on her since graduating from law school, which gave her a visceral sense, she told me, of the “need for free, quality education for everybody.” (An African-American woman running in a largely white district, she ended up with 68 percent of the vote.) Innamorato spoke about how her father’s opioid addiction had pushed her and her mother from the middle class. “I’ve lived the struggles of my district,” she told me.
Their races were part of a grass-roots civic renewal that is happening across this country, something that is, for me, the sole source of optimism in this very dark time. Marinating in the news in New York City, I’m often sick with despair. An authoritarian president of dubious legitimacy and depraved character is poised to remake America for generations with a second Supreme Court pick. The federal government is a festival of kleptocratic impunity. Kids the same age as my own are ripped from their migrant parents.
But all over the nation, people, particularly women, are working with near supernatural energy to rebuild democracy from the ground up, finding ways to exercise political power however they can. For the middle-aged suburbanites who are the backbone of the anti-Trump resistance, that often means shoring up the Democratic Party. For younger people who see Donald Trump’s election as the apotheosis of a rotten political and economic system, it often means trying to remake that party as a vehicle for democratic socialism.
Today, the victories of Lee, Innamorato and Fielder look like a portent. On Tuesday, a similar pattern played out on a grander scale in New York City, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, shook the Democratic Party by toppling Joseph Crowley, a 19-year incumbent, chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party and potential heir to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Weeks before the election, Crowley’s own polling showed him up by 36 percentage points. Ocasio-Cortez ended up winning by 15.
She did it the same way as the women in Pennsylvania — by mobilizing scores of volunteers and connecting with voters one-on-one. “There were folks on the ground there for months without any national attention, talking to people at the subway stops,” said Zephyr Teachout, a candidate for New York attorney general who endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in May.