But these very different candidates have one very important thing in common: Both represent the new wave of women candidates — they are the people seeking to transform the Democratic Party.
The argument advanced by most pundits is that the number and range of women running in 2018 is a result of Donald Trump’s election and subsequent policies that are hostile to women. We argue, however, that these candidates were motivated less by Trump’s policies and more by their disenchantment with the Democratic Party establishment, which Clinton so embodied.
During the 2016 election, the Democratic Party was divided by Clinton supporters, who believed it was finally her turn to lead the ticket, and Bernie Sanders supporters, who tended to advocate for a more radical agenda. It has become clear since then that the party establishment ensured Clinton would win the nomination, which greatly angered the Sanders supporters and others who found Clinton too centrist, too hawkish, or too embroiled in the Beltway culture that Trump also disdained. Though we know now that Russia interfered in the general election, many contend that the election would not have been so close had Clinton been a more appealing candidate.
Enter Abrams, Ocasio-Cortez, and other women such as Kara Eastman, another newcomer who beat an establishment candidate for the Democratic nomination in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. They are proud liberals who tend to advocate for policies much farther left than those of Clinton and other long-serving Democrats. This seems counterintuitive: Knowing they lost in 2016 — and seeing how the Republican Party has moved farther right — why would Democrats shift even farther away from the center?
There are two forces at work here. The first is polarization — the American public itself has been moving away from the center for a while now, and many Americans identify with one party mostly because they just really hate the other party. Therefore, the logic goes, if there are no longer Americans in the middle, the Democratic Party should shift away from the middle as well. Second, left-leaning women in particular are more motivated to run now that it is clear Democratic establishment politics are not working. Research by Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon demonstrates that women are more averse to traditional electoral politics, but the game-changing election of 2016 seems to have altered their perspectives. After all, Donald Trump as Republican Party nominee wasn’t traditional either. If women perceive that the risks involved with running for office have shifted, they might be more willing to throw their hats into the ring. As Ocasio-Cortez said on MSNBC regarding why she decided to run, particularly in such a tough race, “2016 was an awakening … and I felt like at this point, we have nothing to lose.”
Though it is always great to see more women, particularly women of color, on the ballot, Democrats would do well to remember the cautionary tale of the GOP. After all, the reason that party has moved so far to the right is because of a series of very polarized candidates challenging establishment Republicans and winning. Disaffected Republicans have either retired from Congress or feel as if they have no party. If the Democratic Party continues to move in a similar direction, we will have two even more polarized parties in Congress. Not only will the current gridlock get worse, but we could end up with an increasing number of people who feel they have no political party at all.