By Kira Taylor |
A small organisation in America is attempting to overthrow the status quo and fill Congress with diverse people to represent a diverse nation.
In June 2018, a waitress from New York took on one of the most powerful men in the Democratic Party. She was young, passionate and crowd-funded. He was a ten-term incumbent with the full weight of the Democrats behind him.
Since then, Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has been thrown into stardom. Her journey casts light on a new vision for American politics, one where Congress reflects the diversity of the melting-pot country.
She has championed the way for the organisation who promoted her campaign – and left behind the key to the door she opened.
That caucus, called the Justice Democrats, asks people to suggest candidates you wouldn’t normally see in Congress – women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community – and promotes their campaigns.
Their aim is to create a fairer America with left-wing policies and a diverse Congress.
Their message rings louder in Trump’s America.
One of the next hopefuls is Alex Morse. He was elected Mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, at 22 and is the first openly gay man to hold the job. For him, LGBTQ+ representation in Congress is key.
He said: “There’s still nearly 25 states where you can be fired for being LGBT … We see LGBT rights under attack by the Trump Administration and Republicans across the country and it’s important that we have a seat at the table.”
Like Cortez, he’s running against a Democrat incumbent, Richard Neal, who has held the seat for 30 years. He criticises Congressman Neal for becoming complacent in a time when urgency is needed.
Mayor Morse said: “I think he’s out of touch with reality. He certainly has power, but he’s not using that power to help the people and places here in the first congressional district.”
In 2019, the average tenure in Congress is 8.6 years in the House and 10.1 years in the Senate. However, some spend far longer in the Capitol or move on from Congress to become lobbyists.
Mayor Morse criticises Congressman Neal for not holding Trump to account, adding: “I think we need a strong, progressive voice in Washington – people that are unbought by corporations and special interests.
“I want to go to congress to represent everyday people that are struggling on a variety of issues and not go to Washington to work for corporations and special interests.”
First and foremost for him is promoting the voice of his electorate. Asked what the first thing he would do in office is, he said: “Our member of congress hasn’t had a town hall in two years and so I would immediately schedule town halls in the district to hear from people that I represent.
“I would also move my congressional office to more accessible locations in the district so that people have access to the office.”
He would also support the Justice Democrat’s policies in Congress, including co-sponsoring the Medicare for All bill and the Green New Deal that could change the face of Trump’s America.
Whilst Trump’s Twitter fireworks and fake news accusations blare, legislators have been reversing Obama era policies. The Justice Democrats’ policies are the complete opposite – socialist policies yet to be truly tested in America, a country renowned for balking at the C-word.
Of course, we’re talking about “communism”. Communism and socialism. Words that don’t sit well with America and its history.
McCarthyism, or the Red Scare, ended 62 years ago.
The Vietnam War ended 44 years ago.
The Cold War ended 28 years ago.
These events are still fresh in people’s memories. The Justice Democrats stand out in this country where the centre of gravity for American politics – or the middle of the spectrum – is considerably further to the right than it is in the UK.
Jordan Schneider, a Democrat supporter from Virginia, admitted there’s a danger for the caucus, saying: “I have some fears that they are seen as too progressive and that this turns some people off.”
The Justice Democrats and other promoters of policies like Medicare for All argue they’re needed to create a fairer, more just society.
America has no free healthcare system. It is privatised and obtained through insurance companies. Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, tried to roll out more coverage, but it is far from universal.
In 2018, 27.5 million people didn’t have health insurance. That’s over five times the population of Ireland.
One in five of those people will go without the care they need. They’re unlikely to receive preventive care. They’re likely to be on a low income, likely to be adults and likely to be non-white.
Mayor Morse argues that for-profit companies are able to intervene and make medical decisions for patients. He said: “The American government, elected officials, have allowed there to be a third party that has profited billions and billions of dollars off of people’s sickness and we don’t have a healthcare system, we have a sickness system.”
In his district, thousands of people don’t have health insurance or are underinsured. Medicare would provide dental and vision insurance as well as access to services like mental health and support for victims of abuse.
There’s a big hurdle for politicians supporting universal healthcare to clear: pharmaceutical companies and the money they pump into campaigns. In the 2018 midterms, pharmaceutical companies provided candidate funding totalling $54,664,563.
For the 2020 election, that amount has already hit $17,033,737.
Donald Trump wasn’t wrong when he said there’s a swamp in Washington needing to be drained. Aside from Washington DC actually being built on a swamp, there’s swirling money and lobbyists that drag Capitol Hill into a quagmire.
Mayor Morse said: “[PAC money is] incredibly influential and it’s incredibly damaging … corporations can invest vast amounts of money in candidates and then, in return, basically write policy on behalf of elected officials, have full access to their officers and their staff.”
Political Action Committees, known as PACs, have become the root of political campaigning since their formation in 1944. There are now over 4,000 PACs in America representing everything from drugs companies to fossil fuel interests.
They’re rich, have an agenda and are more likely to donate to incumbent politicians.
Mayor Morse says PAC money is an issue affecting Democrats and Republicans. The congressman he’s challenging takes “hundreds of thousands of dollars from big pharmaceutical companies” and donations from fossil fuel companies, stopping him voting for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
He said: “I think it’s important for people that you represent to know that the only special interests you have are the people that actually vote for you and when you look at issues that you’re not influenced by the money you’re receiving from these companies.”
PACs are key in elections. To ditch them is brave, heroic and risky.
Mr Schneider said: “I think it’s important to get corporate and dark money out of politics. My fear is that right now, when the other side is utilizing PACs and corporate donors, it could put the Democratic candidate at a disadvantage in the general election.”
But for Mayor Morse it sends a strong signal, proving he’s running a people-powered campaign where those who’ve never met their Congressman, never felt represented, are invested:
“We need elected officials that actually try and dismantle the system and push for campaign finance reform … Our whole democracy needs to be reborn again and the politicians there certainly aren’t going to do it.”
One of the ways he wants to see America reborn is through a Green New Deal. It was voted down in spring this year, receiving huge criticism from the right. It’s a non-binding resolution with extremely aggressive goals, including net zero emissions and complete reliance on renewable energy by 2030.
Whether that’s realistic or not is debatable, but Mayor Morse wants to see the return of big, bold ideas to America, battling the ideology of his rival, who he says is beholden to corporate interests.
He said: “The United States needs to be a leader again on climate and we certainly have the talent and we need to focus that talent on creating, on going towards 100% renewable carbon free future in this country.”
If there’s something missing from this utopia – or dystopia, depending on your political colour – the Justice Democrats promote, it’s gun control.
Amanda Aguilera, who was at school in Florida, just 25 miles from where the Parkland school shooting took place, highlighted this as the one thing she’d add to their policies.
She said: “Recently, the Democratic Party has been known to be filled with young, new minds with a persistent mindset. A good example of this would be The Parkland students.
“After a shooting that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, they have been traveling the country pushing for stricter gun laws.”
Mayor Morse agreed, saying: “It’s a stain on our country that we haven’t done what we need to do to protect American people and children in particular and the NRA has a … strangle-hold on congressional republicans in particular.”
He wants members of Congress and candidates to embrace the platform put forward by March for Our Lives, the movement that followed Parkland.
The litmus paper for Alex Morse’s and the Justice Democrat’s success is Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Saunders. They are trying to achieve on a presidential level what people like Mayor Morse are on a Congress level.
Jon Sopel, the BBC North American Editor, said: “I think we will know after 2020 if the Democrats select Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as their candidates whether you could win from the left in America with policies that are much more akin to European social democratic parties than they are to the traditions of the democratic party in the US.
He’s unconvinced that someone can win in America on such a left platform: “I think that Americans will reach to their [wallets] and even people I know who detest Donald Trump would in the end probably chose him over Elizabeth Warren, but [it’s] early days.”
He adds it’s too soon to make a judgement on the impact of people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez: “In terms of headlines, column inches, in terms of her performances at congressional hearings, she’s very, very effective, very successful. She is the star of the new generation.”
Mr Sopel added that the key will be to see how she evolves into politics. “People that are the new bright, shiny thing. Politics is a marathon, not a sprint and therefore you’ve got to show longevity and how you can develop your platform over the years.”
For Mayor Morse, his supporters cross age, background, race and even political ideology. People don’t always agree on every single policy, but their support comes from agreeing no-one should be in a congressional seat for so long.
However, they have one other hurdle alongside PACs – Donald Trump and the hype that surrounds him.
Mr Sopel said: “If you go to a Trump rally, the enthusiasm you will find there with people in costumes and dressed up is like nothing you’ve seen before.
“I went to the Trump rally in Orlando a couple of months back when he relaunched his campaign for 2020 and it was like going to see a boyband – huge enthusiasm, people dressed up. It wasn’t adolescent girls in the queue, it was grown men and women.”
Trump’s presidency is rare in that his approval ratings have been constant, between 35% and 40%. Those who liked him in the first place still do.
It’s yet to be seen how these two very different people-powered movements will play out, but for now, Mayor Morse is confident in the people he’s representing.
“I think people regardless of whether they agree with me on every policy want elected officials that represent people and not corporations, that are rooted in the district, that are accessible and available and are very honest about where they stand on issues.”