The Realigners: An Interview with Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats

The Realigners: An Interview with Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats

Social movements are winning in the arena of public opinion. Now they need champions in places of power who can fight for their demands.

Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar in July 2019 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It wasn’t long after the 2018 midterm elections that talk of a “blue wave” was replaced by rumblings about a war within the Democratic Party. Among the new class of Democratic House members were the four women of color who have come to be known as “the Squad”—Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They gave voice to a bold progressive politics, including support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. They also brought a new willingness to fight, not just against Trump but with their fellow Democrats—even, or perhaps especially, the party’s leaders. Ocasio-Cortez had defeated the ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley, then the fourth-ranking House Democrat and a rumored successor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in the primary that June. In a move that in many ways set the tone for the relationship between the Democratic Party’s insurgent wing and its centrist leadership, Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in protest, organized by the Sunrise Movement to push for a Green New Deal, in Pelosi’s office before she had even been sworn in.

The members of the Squad are backed by an emerging infrastructure of progressive organizations that are working to translate the energy of movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Fight for $15 into electoral gains. One of those groups is Justice Democrats, which recruited and backed Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Pressley in 2018. As of now, the group’s 2020 candidates include Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney who is challenging conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar for his House seat in south Texas, and Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal from the Bronx who is challenging Eliot Engel, a hawkish sixteen-term incumbent who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Justice Democrats is also backing the incumbent members of the Squad, as well as Raúl Grijalva, Ro Khanna, and Pramila Jayapal. The party establishment is not happy about any of this. In April 2019, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threatened to blacklist any firm or political strategist that supports primary challengers to incumbent House Democrats.

In October, I spoke with Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid about the relationship between social movements and electoral work, the idea of realignment, and his vision for transforming U.S. politics. Shahid is a pragmatic thinker who sees the limits of the U.S. electoral system while maintaining that progressive political transformation requires working within it. The social movements of the past decade have put forward demands that are broadly popular; what they need now, he argues, are champions in places of power that can fight for and eventually implement them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joshua Leifer: Let’s begin with your path to politics.

Waleed Shahid: I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area to immigrant Muslim parents. After September 11, my parents told me never to talk about politics because it would get me in trouble. And so I did the opposite—how most teenagers respond to their parents telling them not to do things. I became very interested in politics. I would debate my teacher and fellow classmates about how it didn’t seem like Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and so the whole basis for going to war was off—to which my teacher and other students would respond, “But Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.” So I’d go home and research and tell them they didn’t have their facts straight.

My freshman year of high school, I went to my first protest, which was the 2006 immigrant rights marches in response to the Sensenbrenner Bill [legislation that further criminalized undocumented migration to the United States]. All these kids, mostly Latinos and kids from other immigrant families, participated in these walkouts. I was one of the organizers of the walkout at my school. It was amazing to participate in something where students self-organized. It felt very empowering to walk into the street and block traffic. None of us knew what we were doing. There were no organizations involved. But the bill died, and those kids felt like they were the ones who were responsible for protecting their families from a pretty egregious anti-immigrant bill.

I also witnessed my parents register to vote for the first time. They’d been citizens for a while, but the first person they ever voted for was Barack Obama. I was too young to vote, but I think my parents saw themselves reflected in Obama’s story and campaign—both the multiracial America part of the story and the populist part of the story: “I’m an outsider. I’m not Hillary Clinton. I am fighting for people. I am an organizer.” I thought, “Oh, my parents never participated in these marches, but they are participating in this other political thing, to elect Obama.” I remember my dad telling me, “They’ll never let him win.” My dad ended up voting for Obama, and it was interesting to watch him go through this process of fighting his own conceptions of what was possible and deciding to make a choice to do something new.

After college, I worked for a nonprofit that provided social and legal services to immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Part of my job was to interview undocumented immigrants seeking a legal pathway to receiving status. Ninety percent of the people I interviewed had no legal remedy to their situation. These were mostly people from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, many of whom worked in restaurants or as custodians or on farms in the Philadelphia area. To these people, I was trained to say, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you, but watch CNN because President Obama might pass something this year.” It was really disempowering to tell them that their lives were in the hands of the president and there was nothing that I could do about it. So I started getting involved in local activist work as a volunteer on issues like mass incarceration and mass deportation. There were fights to stop the expansion of new prisons in Pennsylvania and to stop the local government from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

I started Googling community organizing and came across Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and the Momentum trainings led by Paul Engler and Carlos Saavedra [Momentum is a social movement incubator]. Over that year I met a whole array of activists and organizers around the country who were involved in the DREAMers movement and Occupy. Black Lives Matter happened that same year. I met people from the Keystone XL pipeline fight. Everyone was trying to sharpen their skills around movement building and organizing. That same year I also became a union organizer, so I was learning the union tradition.

Then David Brat beat Eric Cantor as a Tea Party primary challenger. I was learning about the Tea Party because Brat’s election affected me personally, because of the work I did serving immigrants: the headline the day after Cantor lost was, “Immigration Reform Dead.” All these people’s lives were affected by just a single primary challenge in Virginia. Brat ran saying that true conservatives would never allow amnesty and that Cantor was doing immigration because of his Wall Street donors.

I was also following what was happening in Spain with the transition of the anti-austerity movement, 15-M, into formal politics through the formation of Podemos. I started really thinking about how all these social movements in the United States were winning the battle of public opinion in lots of ways—on Keystone XL, criminal justice reform, immigration, the Fight for $15—but these wins weren’t being translated into legislation and political power. I saw between these three worlds—Obama-era millennial social movements, the Tea Party, and party politics in Europe—something that could emerge in the United States.

Then the Bernie Sanders campaign happened. I worked at the Working Families Party in Pennsylvania, and when the Sanders campaign took off, I joined the field team, then became a Sanders delegate at the convention. 

As an organizer for Bernie, when volunteers would come to our office, I would ask them, “Why are you here?” Many people, especially young people, would say, “I’m here because Bernie opposes the Keystone XL Pipeline and Hillary Clinton doesn’t. I’m here because Bernie supports a $15 minimum wage and Hillary doesn’t. I’m here because Bernie is standing with Black Lives Matter and Hillary—she and her husband are associated with the 1994 crime bill. I’m here because Bernie is standing with the DREAMers and the Obama administration’s record on DREAMers is not great.” None of these people were involved in any formal movement infrastructure. But they were part of that shift in public opinion that movements had shaped, especially for millennials. They were participating in an electoral campaign. And at the time, lots of people were thinking about how to translate this into something akin to a Podemos or a Tea Party of the left that could last longer than just one presidential campaign—because there are all these voters and volunteers who are interested in a social democratic challenge to neoliberal control of the Democratic Party. What I’ve been trying to figure out since is how to align the Democratic Party’s elected leaders with the generational, demographic, and ideological shift that Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez have helped reveal.

Leifer: The “Tea Party of the left” idea receives two major criticisms, one from the right of the Democratic Party and the other from further left.

Those on the right and center say: the attempt to challenge conservative Democrats could weaken the party as it’s trying to fight Trump, and the risk of political dysfunction and unintended consequences is very high.

From the left the criticism is: it may be possible to build a social democratic majority that can take over the Democratic Party, but that fight could take too long to address pressing challenges like climate change. This is an epochal change in realignment, and the timeframe for not just reformist but radical change is small.

How do you think about those criticisms?

Shahid: There’s always a tension between an ideological faction in the party and the parts of the party without much of an ideological core, whose primary concern is holding a majority. The tension has existed historically in the United States because we have a two-party system where the parties tend to be fairly non-ideological. The critique that creating an ideological faction in the party harms the party’s chances of winning is one that was leveled at the abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century, the labor movement in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, even against the Goldwater conservatives by liberal Republicans.

But ideological factions typically emerge at a time when the party is not doing that well and needs a new vision. Today, people like Ocasio-Cortez and others are offering that sort of vision for the party.

There’s always going to be a push and pull. The leaders of the party don’t have to participate in sit-ins in Nancy Pelosi’s office, but they do have to figure out what to do about the ground moving beneath their feet.

A continued approach of, “We’re just focused on winning,” is not going to be enough to face off a right wing that wants to suppress multiracial democracy at every turn, and it’s not enough to address the climate crisis, stagnating wages, skyrocketing inequality, and the global rule of finance. If you ask Pelosi or Chuck Schumer what they want to do about any of those things, I don’t think they have very strong ideas. But that’s been true at most times in our history. What the progressive left can accomplish at this stage often looks like twisting the arm of leadership to respond to our policies and pursue a more aggressive approach toward Republicans. The Democratic establishment has very few ideas that meet the demands of the moment, so many progressive policies jump ahead of the think-tank and media infrastructure of the Democratic Party.

For the left, if you look at the past year, one primary victory—just one—has made climate change a much bigger priority within the Democratic Party, and within U.S. politics more broadly, than it’s ever been before. If the critique is that building a faction within the Democratic Party is too slow—well, relative to where the conversation was two years ago, we’re moving pretty fast. Taking over the party is not language that I use. The idea is that if you can build a faction of Democrats who can use their leverage in negotiation on legislation to block a bill, that is a very powerful force in American politics. But right now, we just don’t have the number of seats to do that.

The funny thing is that the actual Tea Party of the left is the Blue Dog Coalition. They constantly threaten to pull out from legislation. They just do it behind the scenes and nobody notices. But when Pelosi gives concessions or waters down bills, she’s often doing it to keep Blue Dog Democrats from voting with Republicans.

Leifer: How do you think about preventing the co-optation of the left-wing challenge? We’ve seen this in the primary—of other candidates taking the language of the Sanders campaign and the social democratic left, then emptying it of content.

Shahid: Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. If you look at U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln and FDR were no ideologues. LBJ wasn’t an ideologue, but he co-opted things happening in social movements and advanced the country in lots of ways. People on the left should see these things as successes rather than failures. I know this is controversial to say, but it is a success that Joe Biden, if elected, would be one of the most progressive nominees in recent American history. He is running on a policy platform that is substantially to the left of Hillary Clinton’s and Obama’s. Some people on the left might say that he’s lying. But politics is full of contradictions. It’s important to elect people who are ideologically committed to progressivism or social democracy or democratic socialism, and at the same time you have to make room for other people, like Ed Markey, for example. Markey sees the winds changing on his number-one issue, climate change, within the Democratic Party. He says the reason Waxman-Markey [the Democrats’ signature climate legislation in 2009–2010] failed is because there was little energy to the left of the bill. There was no social movement organizing. And there was no constituency that the party could point to that would help them beat Republicans if they do this. Now Markey thinks all of those things are aligning, which is why he’s putting his weight with the Sunrise Movement and with Ocasio-Cortez.

If you look at U.S. history, it isn’t just ideologically driven figures like Thaddeus Stevens or Robert Wagner that drive politics, but also the Ed Markeys, the people who come from the old guard of the party but see history changing beneath them. That is a really good sign for the broader trend of realignment. At least in my reading of history, that’s how change has happened: not only does the party co-opt you, but you also co-opt the party.

Leifer: This term, realignment, is all over left writing. What does it look like to be realigned? How do you gauge the realignment process?

Shahid: It’s really hard. The realignment moments of American politics are the 1850s to 1860s, the 1930s, the 1960s, and then the 1980s. I don’t know if any of the realigners in those moments would have said, “We have successfully realigned our party.” Thaddeus Stevens and Frederick Douglass had problems with Lincoln, but they were successful in lots of ways (and unsuccessful in other ways). The CIO was not necessarily the biggest fan of FDR, but in some very significant ways they were successful and in some ways they weren’t. Same with Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights activists’ relationship with JFK and LBJ.

One of the signs of realignment happening today is the generational shift. Millennials self-describe as very ideologically left compared to other generations. If you look at polling, millennials overwhelmingly support Sanders and Elizabeth Warren relative to younger candidates. Millennials are not flocking to Pete Buttigieg or Julián Castro or Kamala Harris. They are picking the older, white candidates primarily for ideological reasons.

I’m not someone who thinks demographics are destiny. You still have to do politics. But it’s a positive sign that the centrist position on healthcare in the Democratic Party right now is the public option. In 2016, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t even commit to stopping the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure. Now, most of the Democrats are putting forward trillion-dollar plans for green investment. On the questions of race and immigration, there’s been a lot of writing about the party moving in a progressive direction. The debate happening within the party increasingly feels like a debate between a soft, social democratic left and a hard, democratic socialist left. That’s a sign of realignment.

Leifer: Do you think that leftward movement has translated in Congress and on the state and local levels? If you look at the ideological positions of people in the House of Representatives and of candidates around the country, it seems like a bit of a different picture.

Shahid: Justice Democrats has only existed for two years. There’s a lot of work to do. In a multiparty parliamentary system, power is often expressed by the number of seats you hold in the legislature. That is one metric for progressives and the left. Not everyone in the Congressional Progressive Caucus is as progressive as Ocasio-Cortez or Tlaib, but the Squad has made a pretty significant dent in moving the party as a whole. That said, we’re very far away from legislating anything because of how gridlocked our democracy is. I’m very interested in conversations about structural reform because the barriers to actually passing any progressive legislation are very high in this country and I don’t think people on the left talk about it as much as they should.

Leifer: What sort of structural changes might be needed? And what happens if those structural changes are unpopular? A lot of the constitutional adjustments that might be needed seem to poll poorly.

Shahid: Trump is so norm-breaking that, because of negative partisanship, people feel like Democrats breaking norms is bad. But if leaders in the party actively make the case for some of these reforms and tie them to improvements in the lives of ordinary people, then the polling could shift in the same ways it’s shifted on impeachment. I just don’t see that many Democrats actively making the case or making structural changes a priority. Pete Buttigieg has actually talked about this most, from a technocratic perspective.

Leifer: In some parts of the left, there’s a sense that defeating Trump might mean moving away from certain policies that poll poorly. How do you think about navigating the tensions around policies that are right and just but might hamper passing other right and just policies because they might prevent the left from getting into power?

Shahid: It’s similar to what I was saying earlier. There’s always a tension between the different factions in the party. They fight it out, and they come to different positions. The centrist position in the Democratic Party today would not be the public option if it wasn’t for people fighting for single-payer and Medicare for All. Biden is in favor of abolishing tuition at community colleges; that would not be on the table if there wasn’t a demand for free college. And so, to paraphrase Sean McElwee [cofounder of Data for Progress], there is moving the Overton window and then there’s entering the Overton door. The left is approaching a stage in its development where those questions are going to be on the table—especially if there’s a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate and Democrats take the White House.

In most countries where the left has power in the form of a political party in parliament, you have to make decisions that are based on your values and how much you’re willing to compromise in coalition with other parties. That is what politics is in most countries. It’s actually a sign of growth that we’re debating this. Five years ago, no one would be asking this question. The Squad themselves have to face these questions every day, like when they voted against Pelosi’s border package.

There will be a debate over the path to victory, there will be a debate about the ideological vision of the party, and there will be a debate about what conservative Democrats are willing to compromise on and what the left is willing to compromise on. But a good way of thinking about the situation in American politics today is that the left wing of the party—whatever label you want to use for it—is a junior partner to a senior partner in a coalition government. The senior partner is the party of Pelosi and Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries and Dianne Feinstein. They have more power. But we are in a coalition together to get over 50 percent and keep the Republicans out of power.

Leifer: What happens if Trump wins reelection?

Shahid: It’s highly possible that he could win. People underestimate his ability to depress the vote, not only through voter suppression, but through convincing working people that government doesn’t work for them. People underestimate how effective that strategy has been through the past fifty years.

If Trump wins, there’ll be a referendum on whoever the nominee was, an autopsy. Probably more than there was for Hillary Clinton. There’ll be a real war over interpretation. Did Biden lose because he was a member of the establishment, he was too conservative, he was white, he was old? Did Warren or Sanders lose because they’re too far left? These questions will decide the direction of the party. They would become the thing people talk about for a generation, like McGovern’s loss in 1972.

If Trump loses the popular vote and wins the Electoral College, there’ll be a severe crisis of legitimacy, because Republicans continue to win power without winning a majority of votes. That raises profound questions about American democracy in the face of demographic change and party polarization.

If someone like Warren or Sanders wins the presidency and Democrats don’t win the Senate, that will force the left to critique the institutions of American democracy, whether the Supreme Court or the way the House and Senate are set up, any of these things that prevent legislation from happening. It’s not just the presence of neoliberals in the party; the structure of American democracy forces a bipartisan consensus, and there is no consensus to be found. The structures of U.S. government give enormous power to grand bargains.

You can’t just hate the player; you have to also hate the game. Daniel Lazare wrote in Jacobin that when democracy is forced into knots, corporate forces have the field to themselves. That’s a really good analysis of the state of American democracy today. There’s a lot of interesting literature about the direction American democracy is heading in, with two polarized parties, negative partisanship being the main way to explain voter sentiment, an executive branch that gets elected with different results from the legislature. In countries with parliamentary systems, when the government can’t legislate, they call a no-confidence vote. We can’t do that in the United States. There are a lot of ways our system doesn’t make sense.

Over the next four or eight years the conversation about whether the legislature can legislate will become even more important. When the legislature can’t legislate, people become more open to radical ideas.

Joshua Leifer is an associate editor at Dissent.

Waleed Shahid is the communications director of Justice Democrats.