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Jamaal Bowman and the Democratic Insurgency That Could Help Save the Planet

Many establishment Democrats have failed to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis, but their challengers do.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Jamaal Bowman campaigns at a housing project in the Bronx on June 22.

Jamaal Bowman is going to Washington. The 44-year-old former public school principal with a Ph.D. in education—who ran to “complete the work of Reconstruction,” enact national rent control, and bring about a Green New Deal—has apparently defeated U.S. Representative Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary for New York’s 16th congressional district. (The Republicans did not field a candidate in the deep-blue district, which spans parts of the Bronx and Westchester.) A 16-term incumbent and the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel had received the full-throated backing of not just big-money donors but a party establishment—including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Hillary Clinton—that feared a repeat of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over longtime Representative Joe Crowley in 2018. Though ballots are still being counted, those endorsements seemed not to count for much, as Bowman is currently ahead by 25 points.

Last night was one in a long line of embarrassments for the party’s cautious and beleaguered old guard, whose mantra has been that a poll-tested and slow-moving centrism is the key to winning elections. For decades, Democratic leaders have avoided any proposals that smack of actual leftism, instead preferring to present anodyne policies to supposedly change-weary voters. With Donald Trump in the White House; an obscene corporate bailout of a congressional response to the coronavirus-induced recession; and persistent, systemic racism that’s sparked a nationwide uprising, that theory of politics has less and less to show for itself. It’s also a recipe for climate disaster, having produced precisely zero enduring wins at the federal level to scale back emissions.

Insurgent candidacies like Bowman’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s, in other words, may well be among the best hopes to start healing our sick planet. These politicians bring a working-class perspective to a climate crisis that was for decades defined by largely white and Beltway-centric Big Green groups, and their theory of politics doesn’t involve surrendering to a right that’s deeply hostile to decarbonization. Bowman’s victory will be the fourth for Justice Democrats, a group that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign to primary conservative Democrats. A kind of Tea Party of the left, Justice Democrats has sought to use volunteer armies and grassroots fundraising to remake the Democratic Party in the image of progressive social movements by promoting candidates who challenge the established wisdom—that is, to raise hell from inside and outside the halls of power. Though Justice Democrats–endorsed underdogs have lost more than they have won, Bowman’s victory is a sign that establishment types like Engel can no longer ignore challenges from their left.

Nowhere has this movement had more influence than on climate. The Green New Deal burst into headlines because Ocasio-Cortez made the risky move to join a Sunrise Movement sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office. The ambition of Democratic climate proposals in this year’s presidential primary suggests the climate left has successfully shifted the conversation. Mainstream Democrats no longer default to talk of modest carbon prices and tax credits. While leagues less ambitious than a proper Green New Deal, a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal unveiled by House leadership this week features—among other, less savory elements—tens of billions of dollars each for clean energy, green building retrofits, and a U.S. Postal Service run on clean energy. Responding to jabs from the GOP, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio said the bill “is the application of the principles of the Green New Deal. And this proves that we can both deal with climate change, fossil fuel pollution and actually create millions of new high-paying American jobs.”

Bowman wasn’t the only win for progressives on Tuesday night. Another Green New Deal supporter, progressive Mondaire Jones, appears to have won the Democratic primary for New York’s 17th District, where the seat is open. And Ocasio-Cortez dispatched a primary challenger backed by $2 million worth of big money donations, including from top executives Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman and Goldman Sachs’s David Solomon.

These victories do not mean that the Green New Deal or similar legislative efforts are on the verge of becoming law: Winning a battle of ideas isn’t enough. Any Democratic proposal will face an uphill battle in the Senate, even if Democrats manage to take it back over come November. But bolstered by the pressure of social movements now transforming politics in real time, a well-organized and outspoken core of progressives could play a massive role in shaping the legislative arm of the next Democratic administration—including a green recovery that places racial justice at its core.