Progressives see promise in more diverse candidates, voters ahead of 2024

The Democratic Party’s progressive wing has been through many iterations – from the upstart insurgency of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016 to the 2018 primary upsets inspired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the expanding Squad of 2022. 

Now, at the start of the 2024 election cycle, the movement has seen even more promising levels of diversity, particularly among Black and brown communities, with many on the left hoping to redefine the party around their flank. 

“Who and what does a progressive look like?” asked Danielle Deiseroth, a former Sanders campaign operative who now serves as executive director of the left-wing polling firm Data for Progress. “The progressive wing of the party increasingly becoming a bigger part of the Democratic base is really bringing that image more mainstream.”

“Not every progressive looks like Bernie Sanders,” she said.

Elected leaders, strategists, and grassroots organizers want the diversity evolution to show what modern leftism can look like in generations to come. The transition has been deliberate and gradual, with many seeking to course-correct the white male stereotype that defined the narrative around the early Sanders phenomenon.

“The diversity of progressives in Congress from Maxwell Frost to Greg Casar to Delia Ramirez and so many others is a strength for America,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The Hill. 

“There is a new generation of progressives in the House and their diversity and lived experiences are driving a big tent movement to uplift all Americans – especially those who have been forgotten or ignored for too long. It’s exciting to see the rush of ideas and new issues like water breaks for workers get the attention they deserve,” he said. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence onto the scene helped jumpstart that shift. She shocked the nation when, as a millennial Latina with modest roots, she successfully beat a wealthy former Rep. Joseph Crowley, a white man entrenched in the Democratic establishment class, setting the groundwork for more candidates to claim their own successes.

Just a few years later, more candidates of color, including Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), who has been candid about previously being homeless, Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a former school principal, and Summer Lee, an organizer and community advocate, won in 2018, 2020, and 2022, respectively. 

“A progressive can look like Summer Lee, they can look like Jammal Bowman, they can look like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” said Deiseroth. “The next generation of progressive leaders is really showcasing what every progressive looks like.”

Left-wing candidates’ strategies are often tied to their personal narratives in a way that few other mainstream Democrats can replicate. Politicians of all stripes use their lived experience as a tactic, but advisers who have worked closely with liberal contenders say their relatable, sometimes hardscrabble stories can be key to the movement’s growth in diversity and numbers. 

Many progressive candidates have found success by speaking candidly about everyday hardships like struggling to pay off student loans or afford housing and food. And in a political climate rife with spin and special interests, it’s been a way for candidates to level with people.

In recent cycles, those candidates have overwhelmingly hailed from racially diverse backgrounds, making their wins even more critical as the wing tries to outgrow its image of nearly five cycles ago.

“The progressive movement has always been multiracial, working class,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, a leading activist group aligned with Sanders. “The Bernie movement has been incredibly diverse, and it’s gotten even more diverse.”

“That’s a function of the movement’s message permeating deeper and deeper,” he said.

While the left’s policy priorities are consistent with agenda items like economic equality, universal health care, and climate justice at the forefront, the focus on electing and keeping new Capitol Hill leaders to help push those goals has ramped up. 

In turn, candidates’ stories have become powerful entry points for discussing the progressive platform. And as systematic racism further hinders progress in every major sector, progressives say candidates of color have made credible pitches for reform. 

“Young, progressive people of color are taking over,” said Aru Shiney-Ajay, a national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led disruptor force seeking climate reforms. 

“From the halls of Congress to voting on the local, state and federal level, we’re fighting for progressive, common-sense solutions,” she said. “And we’re gaining in numbers and power.”

At Data for Progress, Deiseroth has seen firsthand the popularity of progressives’ ideas on diverse communities show up in the polls.

“We find that among some of the more ‘progressive’ issues that we’ve conducted polling on recently, we’ve actually found higher levels of support for those policies among voters of color,” she said. 

She noted that student debt relief, an issue that’s been at the forefront of President Biden’s administration, has especially motivated voters of color. Her group’s recent polling found that the policy is “more popular with Black voters and Latino voters,” Deiseroth said. 

“There’s a real opportunity for the left and for the progressive left to continue strengthening this multiracial, multigenerational coalition that’s really in pursuit of more economic fairness,” she added.

This cycle, the left has not seen as significant engagement or fundraising figures as former President Trump and his mounting indictments zap voters’ attention. And with President Biden as the party’s presumptive nominee, there’s little debate about top-of-the-ticket progressivism for 2024.

Still, candidates are finding ways to make their cases relevant. They have looked to flip the urban power structures in major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, where Black progressives were both elected as mayor. 

And they still see ways to make inroads in the House, particularly among the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“You have people of color in senior positions both elected and not elected really helping plot the movement strategy forward. I think that’s key,” Geevarghese said. “We’ve got a much more diverse leadership structure within the progressive movement than we’ve ever had before.”

In California’s 12th Congressional District, for example, two Black progressive women are angling to diversify the party through racial justice activism and decades of deeply rooted community work. 

Lateefah Simon, a civil rights leader and member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors, hopes to rise to power as another leading racial justice advocate, Rep. Barbra Lee (D-CA), tries to ascend to higher office. Simon is running in Lee’s district as the Oakland congresswoman campaigns in close contention for a Senate seat.

Both candidates are hoping to build credibility with voters around shared experiences.

Simon, a MacArthur Genius Fellowship recipient, started her activism at just 16 years old. She has since been outspoken about the challenges single mothers and young women of color face in their daily lives.  

“With a baby on my hip, and still a baby myself, I worked with young women and children who were tracked in the street economy,” she told The Hill this week. 

“I’m going to Congress to fight for the mother who’s sleeping in her car,” she said. “For young people who are Black and brown to grow old. Just to grow old.”

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top