By Emma Niles
Demonstrators in New York protest Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s weak opposition to President Trump’s administration. (Kathy Willens / AP)
It’s no secret that the 2016 election left progressive Americans eager for the midterm elections in 2018. But for many voters, the traditional pendulum swing between Republicans and Democrats is no longer cutting it—and liberals are hunting for a new type of candidate.
New organizations have cropped up in response to this need—groups such as Our Revolution, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats (a wing of the Democratic Party, partnered with Brand New Congress) are all striving to produce grass-roots-supported, anti-establishment, progressive candidates to compete in 2018.
Kyle Kulinski, one of the co-founders of Justice Democrats (along with The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur) doesn’t mince words when expressing his disdain for current Democratic politicians in Washington: “They’re just Republican-lite.”
Kulinski spoke with Truthdig about the effort to revitalize the Democratic Party. As host of “The Kyle Kulinski Show” on the Secular Talk Radio Network, Kulinski regularly criticizes President Trump’s administration, as well as establishment Democrats—but he’s passionate and surprisingly uncynical about the future of the party.
“We have 80 people who have gotten through candidate vetting and training, and we have 30 who are currently in it right now,” he says of Justice Democrats’ roster. “The main thing that differentiates us from establishment Democrats is that [the candidates] pledge to take no corporate money, no PAC money. It’s basically grass roots by its nature.”
American voters crave a change. Despite Trump’s victory and the GOP takeover in Congress, recent special elections across the country suggest there are new attitudes in red states.
Take, for instance, a special congressional election in Kentucky, in which the Republican candidate beat a Democratic challenger by an extremely narrow margin. Or, more recently, Democrat Jon Ossoff’s near-win in a special election in Georgia. Ossoff received 48.1 percent of the vote, just shy of the 50 percent he needed for an outright win. He is now headed into a runoff election against Republican Karen Handel.
Much of this stems from the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders—a politician who continues to use his popularity to bolster progressive campaigns. Even residents in deeply red states are turning out in huge numbers for Sanders’ events. Sanders himself hasn’t held back from criticizing fellow Democrats. He questioned, for instance, Ossoff’s progressivism shortly after Georgia’s special election.
“Some Democrats are progressive, and some Democrats are not,” Sanders noted.
Kulinski acknowledges Sanders’ influence on Justice Democrats and its candidates. “We have top former Bernie Sanders campaign officials who are really working hard and doing the infrastructure work and vetting the candidates. They’ve really done a fantastic job cultivating candidates in Bernie Sanders’ mold,” he said.
That mold produces candidates who support such issues as free college tuition and single-payer health care—“All things that the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with, if you look at the polls,” Kulinski said.
He’s right: Recent polls indicate that a majority of American voters support single-payer health care and Medicaid expansion.
American politics runs on a seemingly endless cycle of campaigning, but the wave of interest in the 2018 election is at odds with the stagnant pattern of previous elections. The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election, and 34 seats are up for grabs in the Senate. In a Republican-held Congress and White House, liberals are desperate for a high voter turnout—usually an elusive goal in midterm elections.
“I do think Trump will actually help to turn out liberals and progressives for the midterm,” Kulinski said, “[but] you have to give them something to vote for, not just something to vote against.”
Justice Democrats certainly have a comprehensive platform of issues, many of which are at odds with the mainstream Democrat stance.
By way of example, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, California’s longtime senator, recently faced harsh criticism from her constituents at a town hall, particularly when it came to the issue of single-payer health care.
“How are you going to help support single-payer health care?” one attendee asked.
“If single-payer health care is going to mean complete takeover by the government of all health care, I’m not there yet,” she answered.
Her response prompted boos from the crowd.
“We’re applying grass-roots pressure to these issues,” Kulinski said, a strategy that has already seen success. Kulinski cites HR 676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act, as an example.
Reintroduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the bill would expand Medicare to “provide for comprehensive health insurance coverage for all United States residents.”
Numerous groups, including Justice Democrats, created online petitions to pressure members of Congress to co-sponsor the bill, and activists rallied across the nation. The bill was originally reintroduced with 51 co-sponsors in January, a number that has since swelled to 98.
Another key issue that separates this new wave of progressive candidates from Democratic mainstays is campaign finance.
“If somebody gives you a check for a tremendous amount of money, you’re going to look out for them,” Kulinski said. “The Democratic Party is a shell of its former self. Get rid of the corporate money. We need to focus on the issues.”
Progressives also are increasingly frustrated by congressional Democrats’ reactions to Trump’s foreign policy. Numerous Democrats responded positively to his increased military action in the Middle East, shocking liberal voters.
Kulinski lambasted Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi in particular for their reaction to Trump’s Syria strikes. He doesn’t want Democrats to repeat their mistakes and get the U.S. embroiled in another Iraq War. So while he describes Syrian President Bashar Assad as “terrible” man, Kulinski argues that he isn’t a direct threat to America.
“He’s not about to attack Kentucky,” Kulinski said. “So no, you don’t go in there and topple him and make the exact same mistakes that we did in Iraq.”
Many Democrats in Congress, including Feinstein, also have faced criticism for voting in favor of the majority of Trump’s Cabinet picks.
Kulinski called their response to Trump “horrific” and “terrible,” although he noted that there are some exceptions. One is Ro Khanna, representative of California’s 17th Congressional District.
“Have we still not learned from the disasters in Iraq and Libya? Now Syria?” Khanna tweeted after Trump’s strike on Syria. “Every time we have attacked since 2001, terrorism has spread.”
Such exceptions have Justice Democrats and many other liberals convinced that change can take place within the Democratic Party. One of the most common questions posed to Justice Democrats is why its founders decided to work within the party, instead of starting a new one altogether.
“While we agree with and often champion many third-party candidates and movements, the reality is that right now, it is next to impossible for a third-party candidate to win a national election,” Justice Democrats’ FAQ states. “The best way to do this is by working to change the Democratic [P]arty from the inside out.”
“We just try to find the best candidate who has the best chance of winning, but also have a fundamental core to what they’re doing, which is raising money from small donors,” Kulinski said.
The debate over what constitutes a truly progressive Democrat will continue as the 2018 midterms draw closer. Expect Justice Democrats to start rolling out candidates soon, in plenty of time for voters to learn what progressive candidates stand for, as well as what their opponents stand for, Kulinski said.
He is confident that Justice Democrats will successfully reform the Democratic Party in the midterm elections.
“If you care about the issues and you push for the things the people actually want, then you win,” he said.