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The War For The Democratic Party Has Been Brewing For A Long Time

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Saurabh Sharma Contributor

The strained kumbaya the Democratic coalition has feigned since regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 finally broke last week, as the political class witnessed this train wreck.

Needless to say, the official twitter account of the majority party in Congress singling out a staffer of their own caucus for criticism is unprecedented. Even in the most fractious moments of the tea party era, it never got quite that heated on the right. But Saikat Chakrabarti is no ordinary staffer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is no ordinary politician, and the movement they are building has no analogue in American politics. (RELATED: Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief Of Staff Admits What The Green New Deal Is Really About — And It’s Not The Climate)

Most political commentators started paying attention to AOC and her allies in the Summer of 2018, when she successfully primaried the 4th highest ranking Democrat in the House and political equivalent of a medium glass of lukewarm skim milk, Joe Crowley. But the ascendant leftist wing of the Democratic Party’s story starts in 2015, during the presidential primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton listens as Bernie Sanders speaks during an event at the University of New Hampshire on September 28, 2016 (Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton listens as Bernie Sanders speaks during an event at the University of New Hampshire on September 28, 2016 (Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti both worked tirelessly on that campaign, and Chakrabarti specifically was later credited with building the digital infrastructure that allowed Sanders to utilize the power of his grassroots support effectively. In the middle of that campaign he founded Brand New Congress, the first of a constellation of political action committees that would make its goal the complete overturning of the political status quo on the left. Its goal was simple, find new candidates to challenge entrenched incumbents who, in the view of the Sanders wing of the party, had stymied progressive reform for decades.

Most of the left-wing press hated Bernie Sanders. The Clinton political machine had spent decades brokering relationships with the corporate media and many members of the media expected to end up in the administration one day, and competitive primary left them in a bind. They had to choose between sacrificing their journalistic integrity by downplaying the Sanders candidacy or risk the Clintons’ wrath by subverting their carefully crafted runway to the nomination.

One media organization, however, was unabashedly pro-Sanders. The Young Turks.

YouTube announced it will add The Young Turks, a left-wing political YouTube channel, to its paid subscription service called "YouTube TV."(Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Louisiana , United States – 1 May 2018; Cenk Uygur, The Young Turks on centre stage during day one of Collision 2018 at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. (Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

If you spend any time on YouTube and Facebook you’ve undoubtedly seen parts of TYT’s media empire. Cenk Uygur has built the most watched political news show on the internet, and with over 4 million subscribers and over 5 billion views on their main YouTube channel alone, they were poised to influence the young, online left in a major way in 2016.

And influence they did. TYT gave airtime to Sanders’ ideas and political organizing efforts with a frequency no other major news outlet did, and when Sanders started racking up states, they weren’t only not surprised, they were excited. In an odd mirror of the right’s political fights over the years, they even called for the Democratic convention to award the nomination to Bernie, a parallel to the “free the delegates” movement on the right.

Bill and Hillary Clinton at the 2016 DNC (Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and husband former President Bill Clinton look at the balloons at the end of the fourth and final day of the Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

So, what are radicalized young internet personalities and former Bernie Sanders staffers to do in the era of Trump, when the calls for a moderate Democratic party that appeals to swing voters are getting louder, and the blame for weakening Hillary Clinton as a candidate is getting placed on Sanders acolytes? (RELATED: Bernie Sanders Pushed False Flag Conspiracy Theory About Domestic Bombings)

Start a revolution.

Cenk Uygur, the founder of the Young Turks, another of his hosts Kyle Kulinski, and 10 former Sanders staffers founded Justice Democrats in January of 2017, three days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

Justice Democrats’ goal was simple: find dynamic, unabashedly left-wing candidates for office, and give them access to the Sanders political machine, in exchange for a complete renunciation of corporate and large-dollar fundraising. They figured that the best way to keep a left-wing populist movement alive was to make sure the politicians elected from it remain financially reliant on the people who got them there.

They had some hiccups along the way, Uygur and Kulinski resigned in December of 2017 after Justice Democrats staff demanded Uygur resign for offensive blog posts he had written years prior. It didn’t really matter, Uygur’s job was always to provide the media platform for the Justice Democrats, something he could do without any formal affiliation. Considering the $20 million in venture capital funding TYT had raised just a few months prior to Uygur’s resignation, they were poised to give Justice Democrats’ views more airtime than ever before.

PASADENA, CA - JULY 30: Cenk Uygur at the 'Cenk Uygur vs. Ben Shapiro' panel during Politicon at Pasadena Convention Center on July 30, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon)

PASADENA, CA – JULY 30: Cenk Uygur at the ‘Cenk Uygur vs. Ben Shapiro’ panel during Politicon at Pasadena Convention Center on July 30, 2017 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon)

Throughout the 2018 cycle, Justice Democrats-endorsed candidates, 79 in total, were perennial guests on TYT’s shows, giving them much needed progressive visibility, and consequently financial support, across the nation. Many of the bids were longshots, like Alison Hartson’s quixotic bid against both longtime incumbent California Senator Dianne Feinstein but also her more progressive, but still establishment challenger, Kevin De León. But some, like Ocasio-Cortez and other members of what would eventually become “the squad” were on the path to victory. (RELATED: OPINION: Feinstein Is The True Villain Of The Kavanaugh Hearings)

As the first half of 2018 rolled along, and 26 Justice Democrats won their primary elections across the country, the fledgling political group immediately became a highly visible force in American politics. Primary night after primary night, viewers of The Young Turks were greeted with the sight of Uygur jubilantly pounding the table, his erstwhile divorce from the group he helped found fading away — this was their victory, all of their victory.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 06: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hugs a supporter during her victory celebration at La Boom night club in Queens on November 6, 2018 in New York City. With her win against Republican Anthony Pappas, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 06: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hugs a supporter during her victory celebration at La Boom night club in Queens on November 6, 2018 in New York City. With her win against Republican Anthony Pappas, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez became the face of the movement, the avatar of a younger, more racially diverse, and more progressive party. In the twilight between the primaries and the general election however, Democratic leadership had a problem, how do they prevent the ascendance of these enthusiastic Jacobins from damaging their prospects in the districts they needed to win?

By letting them run their own races.

If you looked at some of the most hotly contested races in 2018, the races that would deliver Nancy Pelosi the speakership she had spent half a decade working to win back, you would watch as candidate after candidate not only disavowed the progressive dreams of AOC et al., but also actively disavow Nancy Pelosi as well. Most of the districts that made Nancy Pelosi the most powerful woman in America were won by people running against her, Republican and Democrat alike. (RELATED: Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez Join Forces To Threaten Dems Tempted To Vote With GOP)

It didn’t matter, after all, Ocasio-Cortez had knocked out Pelosi’s most likely successor.

Come general election night, Justice Democrats had a much more tempered victory, the echoes of which are still felt today in Pelosi’s “they’re just four people” comments. Seven Justice Democrats won election to the U.S. House, three incumbents and four freshmen; Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the squad.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pauses while speaking as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump stepped up his attacks on the four progressive Democratic congresswomen, saying that if they're not happy in the U.S. "they can leave." (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 15: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pauses while speaking as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump stepped up his attacks on the four progressive Democratic congresswomen, saying that if they’re not happy in the U.S. “they can leave.” (Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

They all won in solidly Democratic districts, and their victory had been cemented earlier in the year when they won the primary, but once they became congresswoman-elects, they became bolder, drowning out the candidates that won elections in the kind of districts that delivered Democrats the majority. A rocky start to Cortez and Pelosi’s relationship when Cortez participated in a climate change protest in Pelosi’s office drowned out any moderate opposition to Pelosi’s bid for speakership, which had been building for over a year. Given the choice between an establishment Democrat or a moderate insurgent, they picked the establishment, and helped Pelosi squash the rebellion from the right. (RELATED: Protesters Arrested Inside Nancy Pelosi’s Office Demanding Dems Address Climate Change)

They were rewarded handsomely for their cooperation with some of the most plum committee assignments of their entire class. Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib got Financial Services and Oversight, Omar Foreign Affairs, Budget, and Education.

And then the squad started talking.

Green New Deals, reparations, abolishing student debt, nationalizing healthcare, and abolishing money in politics immediately became headaches for the Democratic leadership in the House, both for forcing swing district reps to take positions on difficult votes, but also dictating the terms of the presidential primary, which was heating up in record time. Every senator running was incentivized to endorse the squad’s legislative proposal, and many did.

Ironically, in doing so, they may have shut off their godfather, Sanders, from the nomination. What makes him different from almost a dozen other senators and governors endorsing the same legislative proposals, albeit likely less sincerely?

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 09: U.S. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaks as House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark (D-MA) listens during a news conference after a caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol January 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. House Democrats gathered to discuss the Democratic agenda as the partial government shutdown enters day 19. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 09: U.S. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) speaks as House Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark (D-MA) listens during a news conference after a caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol January 9, 2019 in Washington, DC. House Democrats gathered to discuss the Democratic agenda as the partial government shutdown enters day 19. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Immediately after their election there were whispers of who the squad would target next. Representative Hakeem Jeffries from the deep blue NY-8 was one of the most antsy, as chair of the Democratic Caucus and one of the potential replacements for Pelosi in coming years, he’s a prime target for Justice Democrats. A few POLITICO articles were all it took, and immediately the intra-party sniping began. While Justice Democrats feigned ignorance about the rumors that they were planning a primary challenge, the simple possibility was enough to cause division in the caucus. (RELATED: Justice Democrats Name 8-Term Incumbent As First Target In Bid To Primary Moderate Democrats)

The conflict between high-ranking Democrats, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus like Jeffries and Justice Democrats highlights a difference in priorities: race versus class. While Justice Democrats frequently tout their diversity, the overwhelming emphasis of their political activism is democratic socialism and the redistribution of wealth. Most of the time they’re able to seamlessly combine their racial politics and class politics, but it causes tension when the establishment isn’t the archetypical white man, but a woman, or person of color.

OLATHE, KS - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic candidate for Kansas' 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids speaks to supporters during an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas. Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

OLATHE, KS – NOVEMBER 06: Democratic candidate for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids speaks to supporters during an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas. Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

One of the best examples of this tension is actually a Native-American congresswoman that Justice Democrats actively opposed, Sharice Davids. First elected in 2018, Davids ran against one the original Justice Democrats, one of the first mega-fans of TYT, attorney Brent Welder, a white man. While Justice Democrats certainly prefer ethnic minorities and women as their candidates, they’re willing to support whites over them if it means furthering their political goals. In an era where identity politics has been co-opted by the Democratic establishment as a veneer for more moderate politics, this makes Davids, a self-identified member of a centrist Democratic caucus, a valuable tool in Pelosi’s quest to diminish the relevance of Justice Democrats in the party, hence this tweet.

Chakrabarti is now Cortez’s chief of staff, while still guiding the vision of Justice Democrats. Movement from advocacy organizations into the halls of Congress is nothing new but having a major leader of an organization determined to primary every centrist Democrat in congress on congressional payroll has irked many in Democratic leadership. (RELATED: Trump’s Tweets Against The ‘Squad’ Unify Democrats After Pelosi, Progressives Feud)

Pressley recently said “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice.” That is the battle facing the Democratic party, a political establishment tightly holding onto power as it anticipates the White House in 2020, versus an insurgency that wants that return to power to mean something, to be a stepping stone in their project to remake America. Waleed Shahid, the communications director of Justice Democrats has this tweet pinned to his Twitter timeline.