Has the far-left peaked?
From 2015 to 2020, Bernie Sanders and Justice Democrats led a far-left insurgency to big wins that rewrote the left’s political narrative. But heading into 2022, the numbers show growth has stagnated.
The far-left had a remarkable five-year run.
In 2016, Bernie's momentum upended the presidential primary and spurred talk of revolution.
In 2018, AOC led the four-member “Squad,” channeling the energy of Trump blowback and making talk of revolution tangible.
In 2020, the Democratic presidential primaries were dominated by ideological litmus tests that would have been unthinkable in the Obama era while the Squad grew from four to seven.
The political narrative seems to assume permanent far-left growth, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary: Biden clinching the 2020 nomination, Eric Adams winning the NYC mayoral race, and Nina Turner losing in deep-blue OH-11, general polling on voter attitudes, etc. Like a kind of “Moore's Law” for the left, today’s dominant political narrative assumes that the Squad will continue to double every two years.
And yet the data shows otherwise. Justice Democrats, the far-left political arm launched by Bernie alums after the 2016 campaign, shot out of the gates in 2018. They supported four winning candidates (AOC, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar), two of whom mounted successful primary challenges to party incumbents. All three of Justice Democrats’ 2020 winners also won by primarying incumbents.
Beating five incumbents in two cycles was a major achievement. But two of the three 2020 winners were candidates recycled from 2018. And their 2022 slate is just six candidates — including two who ran previously.
Third Way’s Matt Bennett recently noted that it would take 45 years for this group to match the centrist New Democrats in numbers… if they continue to add two to four per cycle.
What rings most true about this insight is that the growth of far-left candidates has been linear, at best. We wrote in NBC THINK last year that many far-left political entrepreneurs — including the founder of Justice Democrats — have backgrounds in Silicon Valley and for-profit startups.
Justice Democrats looked like a unicorn in 2018. But they are only on pace to win one or two races per year in the 435-member House. In 2020, they only elected 1 candidate who was not on their 2018 slate. Next month marks seven years since Bernie’s presidential campaign launched, and the Squad only has seven members.
This shrinkage is not just on the ballot. It is also in the organizations and groups that prop up the far-left ecosystem. The founders of Justice Democrats went on to launch two major initiatives during and after 2020 — and both are now clearly floundering.
More on the what and why of the far-left’s sharp rise and current stagnation below, but first a few articles our team was reading and talking about this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Perry Bacon Jr. in the Washington Post with a breakdown of the four factions of modern American politics (the article highlights three of the seven Justice Democrats and only one of the 97 members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition — a strong example of how the media paints an exaggerated picture of the far-left’s influence within the party):
“Meanwhile, ‘Never Trump’ Republican activists and intellectuals have largely been absorbed into a third party, the Center-Left Democrats. This is the party of, for instance, President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), New York City Mayor Eric Adams, the policy group Third Way and the MSNBC show ‘Morning Joe.’”
2. Stephanie Murray in POLITICO explaining how Democratic senators running in battleground states aren’t mentioning their party affiliation in TV ads:
“Democratic senators in battleground states are hitting the airwaves, gearing up for reelection this fall. In new campaign ads, they touch on typical Democratic issues, like health care, rising costs, and pandemic recovery.
One thing they don’t mention in their TV spots? The fact that they are, well, Democrats.”
3. Nate Cohn in the New York Times on how, despite continued gerrymandering, this year’s congressional map is poised to have a nearly equal number of districts that lean Democratic and Republican:
“Despite the persistence of partisan gerrymandering, between 216 and 219 congressional districts, out of the 435 nationwide, appear likely to tilt toward the Democrats, according to a New York Times analysis based on recent presidential election results. An identical 216 to 219 districts appear likely to tilt toward Republicans, if the maps enacted so far withstand legal challenges. To reach a majority, a party needs to secure 218 districts. The surprisingly fair map defies the expectations of many analysts, who had believed that the Republicans would use the redistricting process to build an overwhelming structural advantage in the House, as they did a decade ago.”
New Cycle, (Mostly) Same Candidates
When Justice Democrats kicked off in 2018, they endorsed a broad slate of 69 new candidates running for both red and blue House seats across the country. The four candidates who won that year — AOC, Ayana Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — all did so in deep blue strongholds that Joe Biden carried two years later with more than 73% of the vote.
The group shifted to a far more targeted approach in 2020, endorsing a narrow slate of just eight candidates running in districts with an average Democratic advantage of 20 points. Of the three Justice Democrats who won that year — Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Marie Newman — two were second-time candidates (Bush and Newman) who had run unsuccessfully the cycle prior.
Six of the seven candidates that Justice Democrats has ever helped elect to Congress began running for office in the 2018 cycle.
Across 2021 and 2022, the group’s House endorsements were further tightened to a mere seven candidates — two of whom also ran unsuccessfully in the last election cycle and one of whom (Nina Turner) lost handily to a center-left Democrat in deep-blue Cleveland last summer. The 2022 crop of districts skews even bluer (22% average Democratic advantage) than the already-very-blue 2020 cohort.
In other words, Justice Democrats’ pool of endorsements is shrinking and the group continues to recycle the same candidates, cycle after cycle (five of its 15 endorsements from 2020 to 2022 have been second-timers). And the districts they’re targeting remain in the finite pool of blue dominance.
Oh, and don’t forget that the Squad makes up just seven of the 222 Democrats in the House:
Meet the Far-Left Political Entrepreneurs
During and after the 2020 election, the far-left entrepreneurs who created Justice Democrats made national news for launching two new, high-profile initiatives.
First, Saikat Chakrabarti, Corbin Trent, and Zack Exley (all Justice Democrats founders) launched a new think tank called “New Consensus” with the stated mission of developing “detailed plans that governments can follow to achieve economic renewable and transformation.”
How’s that going? Well, slowly.
Second, Trent, Exley, and Chakrabarti announced they were kicking off an effort to recruit progressive primary challengers to centrist Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema at the start of 2021. Aside from being quixotic at best and downright destructive at worst, the effort (dubbed the “No Excuses PAC” and launched mere weeks after the Jan. 6th insurrection) captured the attention of the mainstream press and ensured that what should have been a moment of Democratic (and national) unity was instead consumed by intra-party conflict.
In the heaps of coverage they received, No Excuses PAC and its director, Corbin Trent, framed their operation as a highly intensive, soon-to-be multimillion-dollar campaign to transform the landscape of the United States Senate and American politics at large. Trent played up the blitz of recruitment advertisements the group was preparing to launch across radio, digital, and newspapers in West Virginia and Arizona while Exley relished the opportunity to “shock” the senators into “seeing reality.”
A year later, the whole project seems to have fizzled out with little to show for it.
Despite disbursing $136,824 in 2021, No Excuses PAC only spent a meager $14,831 directly against candidates — and that money went exclusively to anti-Sinema ads that ran for a couple months around the time of the PAC’s launch. So much for the multi-channel ad blitz the founders described. The group hasn’t made a single independent expenditure since early March 2021, and not a cent has been spent targeting Manchin, ever.
But that’s not even the worst of it: Trent, the group’s co-founder and director, has received two thirds ($95,250) of all cash disbursed by the PAC over the course of the last year, netting a hefty $7,500 per month in exchange for “communications consulting.” Considering the group’s Twitter account has been wholly inactive since early last February, we’d be curious to see his performance review.
Time for the Next Big Thing
In the words of the philosopher Eric Hoffer, “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
The far-left began as a movement, with the revolutionary spirit of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign inspiring a new generation of political entrepreneurs to reimagine what was possible.
Then the far-left became a business, with those ex-Bernie entrepreneurs spinning up a handful of new ventures, from Justice Democrats to New Consensus to No Excuses PAC.
It may not yet be a racket — although the clicks-for-cash dynamic certainly incentivizes undermining Democratic causes to get attention — but it definitely is no longer a growing movement. Justice Democrats has backed a shrinking slate of candidates in each successive election year and relied increasingly upon a recycled cast of characters in an ever-more-insular crop of districts (bluer and bluer with each new cycle). And the organizations that launched to scale the far-left seem to be floundering.
There is much to admire — and learn from — in the early successes of these far-left entrepreneurs. They did a lot with a little right off the bat.
But times have changed since 2015, and so have the stakes. Leading up to 2024, it is up to the center to save democracy and ensure a Democratic majority. Time for the center-left to have its own big five year run.