What Left-Wing Democrats Haven’t Learned From Defeat

If those on the left wing of the Democratic Party hope to exercise power and bend the national party to their will, they might try to stifle any self-righteousness and learn different lessons from Representative Jamaal Bowman’s defeat. In a primary earlier this week, the soon-to-be-former member of Congress from New York took less than 42 percent of the vote—finishing 17 points behind the winner, Westchester County Executive George Latimer.

Bowman remained curiously unreflective about his varied missteps, particularly his decision to center attacks on Israel in a district with a significant population of liberal Jewish voters whose sympathies for that country run deep. Last November, he addressed a pro-Palestine rally and insisted that there was “no evidence” Hamas attackers had raped Israeli women. That, he said, was an Israeli “lie.” It was a stunning moment, not least because the evidence of sexual assaults by Hamas is copious. Many constituents, including quite a few who’d voted for him in previous elections, would describe recoiling at this rhetoric. Only when trailing in polls last week—seven months later—did Bowman finally offer a brief apology for those remarks.

In Yonkers on Election Night, Bowman used his concession speech to rumble about the ostensibly nefarious involvement of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and affiliated groups, which, according to The New York Times, spent about $15 million opposing him. He never mentioned Latimer by name. “Our opponent may have won this round in this place,” he said. “We should be outraged … when a super PAC of dark money can spend $20 million to brainwash people into believing something that isn’t true.”

The possibility that some voters might have had honest objections to Bowman’s views or rhetoric barely registered with him or the left-wing groups supporting his candidacy. After his lopsided loss, a spokesperson for the group Justice Democrats declared: “Jamaal Bowman is a model, not a warning, for what political leadership can look like.”

Too many on the left wing of American politics have become inured to the effect of their overheated rhetoric and histrionic displays of fealty to in-group norms. This approach to politics promises more pain than hope for a Democratic Party with so many election-year worries—voters’ malaise, high food and housing prices, and a superannuated nominee whose feeble debate performance has sent his partisans into a panic.

Bowman’s supporters sought easy explanations for his defeat, including that redistricting had shifted his district northward out of much of the Bronx and into Westchester. But Bowman in fact had fared well in the predominantly Democratic suburban county in his 2020 and 2022 campaigns.

Meanwhile, claims that the massive spending of pro-Israel groups was responsible for Bowman’s defeat warrant skepticism. This fits a narrative that pleases both AIPAC and the left. AIPAC can take national credit for knocking off a nettlesome congressman, and the left can take comfort in its claim that laying its man low required the combined repressive power of billionaires, Republicans, and the Israel lobby. But as the writer Alexis Grenell pointed out in The Nation, Bowman’s rhetoric was undisciplined and incendiary, while Latimer was a popular local politician whose internal polls showed him leading by double digits before AIPAC spent anything.

For weeks, prominent left-wing organizers on social media slammed Latimer, a centrist liberal, as a reactionary white man backed by billionaires. The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which endorsed Bowman, decried Latimer as an AIPAC-picked, MAGA-bought racist.

In most of the country outside of left-wing precincts, the claim that Israel has committed genocide in Gaza—as opposed to aggressively prosecuting a war that Hamas started and has the power to end—is highly contested at best. But using the term genocide has become de rigueur for candidates seeking an endorsement from DSA and Justice Democrats. Bowman obliged, repeatedly.

Bowman also indulged a penchant—again shared broadly on the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist left—for performative and self-righteous politics. In 1964, the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a celebrated essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” A modern left-wing update might be titled “The Infantile Style in American Politics”—as the conspiratorial mixes with obstinacy and braggadocio.

Days before the election, Bowman held a rally in the South Bronx. When Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed up, press attention was guaranteed. As her turn came to speak, Ocasio-Cortez—typically a shrewd and image-savvy politician—appeared overcaffeinated, bouncing about onstage, waving her arms, and proclaiming herself “ready to fight. I’m so excited!” She was indignant that “our brother Jamaal Bowman” should find himself facing a primary challenge—one driven, she said, by racism, by greed, and by the corruption of American politics. This was an odd assertion of political privilege—Ocasio-Cortez won her own seat by beating a Democratic incumbent in 2018. After Bowman did the same in 2020, the two appeared harbingers of a new day for the left.

At the rally, Bowman, a former college linebacker, hopped onstage, lifted a stool, and shook it at the audience. “We’re going to show fucking AIPAC the power of the motherfucking South Bronx,” he bellowed. “What am I supposed to do? You coming after me, you coming after me, you coming after my family?” He added, “We are going to show them who the fuck we are!”

Bowman lives in Yonkers and does not represent the South Bronx.

The Bronx rally offered a glimpse, too, of the sectarianism that routinely afflicts the left. Pro-Palestine protesters from Within Our Lifetime showed up and beat drums and chanted throughout the rally, doing their best to disrupt the proceedings. They denounced Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez, and Sanders as “Zionists” who backed “Genocide Joe” for president. The protesters reached an impressively overwrought peak with the chants: “AOC, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” At rally’s end, protesters charged the candidates’ bus and defaced its flanks with stickers and handwritten slogans.

In recent years, the progressive movement has made impressive inroads within the national Democratic Party, which has shifted noticeably leftward. In New York, left-wing politicians backed by DSA and the Working Families Party have scored victories on such issues as rent control, affordable housing, and bail reform.

Yet these victories coexist with a growing shrillness and insistence by many on the left upon political purity. So longtime liberal Democratic politicians find themselves denounced as pro-genocide for supporting Israel and Biden’s position on the Gaza conflict. Just two years ago—in an episode all but forgotten during the recent campaign—DSA’s political committee debated whether to expel Bowman for the perfidy of voting to fund the Iron Dome, the defensive system that lets Israel shoot down rockets from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran before they strike civilian homes.

DSA stopped short of expelling him. Bowman told the media at the time that he had resigned from the group. He has since claimed that he kept paying his DSA dues, and has apologized for his heresy.

Many mainstream Democrats seem less and less patient with the activist left. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader and possible future speaker, would have none of the Bowman camp’s talk of martyrdom. He has often tangled with DSA and Justice Democrats, and agreed to record a single robocall for the embattled Bowman. Jeffries took a noticeably removed and dispassionate view of that loss. “The results speak for themselves. The voters have spoken,” he said, sounding less than distraught. A senior Jeffries adviser later noted on social media that the minority leader has now supported six candidates challenged by DSA, and his candidates have won all six races.

The question, very much open, is whether this registers among the party’s left wing. Late in Bowman’s concession speech, he expressed regrets, to a point, for his foul language that day in St. Mary’s Park. “I want to make an apology, a public apology, for, you know, sometimes using foul language. I’m sorry,” he said.

At that he paused. “But.” He paused again. “But … we should not be well adjusted to a sick society.”

We will not adjust to a sick society falls short of being a campaign slogan for the ages. In its performative extravagance, however, it demonstrates what some on the left seem to miss. Politicians and movements are most successful when they try to win people over, and change course when they fail—rather than chiding voters for being brainwashed.

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