The Rise of the Left (With Mondaire Jones)

The New York congressional candidate discusses his primary victory and what it means for the American left.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Redux

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This week’s Democratic primaries in Kentucky, New York, and Virginia saw a number of progressive challengers defeating moderate or establishment rivals. Of particular note were the victories of two insurgent candidates in New York: Jamaal Bowman, who defeated 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel, and Mondaire Jones, who triumphed over a crowded field in the 17th District to become one of the first openly gay black men ever elected to Congress. Jones joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss his victory. Then, Intercept D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim joins Mehdi to place this week’s elections in historical context.

Mondaire Jones: I think the energy in this party is on the left. And I hope that people who are in power in this party realize that and bring us into the fold.

[Musical interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan.

The Squad looks like it’s set to grow on Capitol Hill. This week saw big historic wins for progressives in Democratic congressional primaries:

MJ: More people who have the lived experiences that would inform our policy discussions should be at the table of power—fighting tooth and nail for the things we say we care about as the Democratic Party.

MH: That’s Mondaire Jones, the Black, gay, Medicare-for-All-supporting son of a single mother, who won a primary in one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the country on Tuesday.

He’s my guest today.

So, how historic a moment are we in? Is the left ascendant in the Democratic Party right now?

Newscaster: In just a few hours, voters will head to the polls in New York, Virginia, and Kentucky, in a major test for the progressive movement.

Newscaster: Several powerful Democratic incumbents are facing challenges from the left.

Newscaster: Eliot Engel, 32-year incumbent, he’s been there since 1988, he’s getting trounced by Jamaal Bowman.

Newscaster: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez overwhelmingly won her first primary challenge with more than 70 percent of the vote.

MH: It was a huge night for the New York left on Tuesday.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, perhaps with the exception of Bernie Sanders, the most famous leftist in this country, and who also happens to drive right-wingers up the wall more than any other woman in America, didn’t just win her Democratic primary, she blew away her Wall Street-funded challenger, winning more than three times as many votes as her.

So what next for AOC?

Well, hopefully causing more trouble in the House and more aneurysms on Fox News over the next couple of years. But, come 2022, could we see her primary Senate Minority Leader, and Democratic Party compromiser-in-chief, Chuck Schumer in New York? Could she do to Schumer in a Senate primary what she did to Joe Crowley in that now-famous House primary in 2018?

And come 2024, could we even see an AOC presidential bid? She’ll turn 35, the minimum age for the presidency, a month before the November 2024 election. Which is almost like a sign. I’m just saying.

Now, you might say: Mehdi, you’re getting carried away. But see: I do believe the left has real energy in this country right now. Yes, Bernie Sanders lost the race for the Democratic presidential nomination to Mr. Establishment himself, Joe Biden — but not before he’d dispatched more than two dozen other Democratic candidates, and not before he’d won millions of votes and a fair few races, including California, the biggest primary in the country.

Yeah, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist and Independent from Vermont came second in the Democratic presidential race, twice — in 2016 and again in 2020. Plus, his signature policy, Medicare for All, was backed by a majority or plurality of Democratic primary voters in almost every state.

As Noam Chomsky pointed out to me in a recent Intercept live interview:

Noam Chomsky: I don’t agree that the senator’s efforts in 2016 and 2020 were a failure. I think they were an enormous success. We should recognize the success—

MH: Yes.

NC: — and build on it.

MH: Agreed.

NC: And the way to build on it is exactly the way he said in his last words. “The movement continues.” If it does, candidates will emerge and say, “I’m your leader.”

MH: Perhaps one of those future leaders is among those progressive Democrats who ran amazing insurgent races on Tuesday.

In Kentucky, where Amy McGrath, the handpicked candidate of the Democratic establishment, who was supposed to be a shoo-in for the Democratic senate nomination there — well, she faced progressive state lawmaker Charles Booker who became a bit of a star in recent weeks after joining the protests against police brutality and racism, while McGrath stayed at home.

Booker was endorsed by both Bernie and AOC, and as of right now, at the time of recording this show, he was down less than 10 points against McGrath but that’s not including results from the state’s two largest, most Democratic counties, Jefferson and Fayette — home to Louisville, which includes Booker’s own State House District. It’s not looking great for McGrath.

In New York’s 16th Congressional District, progressive teacher and activist Jamaal Bowman, endorsed by everyone from AOC to Bernie to Elizabeth Warren, and backed by Justice Democrats, the group that helped give us AOC to begin with, defeated — or should I say, wiped the floor with — 16-term incumbent Democrat Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Iraq War-supporter, hardcore centrist Democrat. Engel was endorsed by Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton — hell, even by the Congressional Black Caucus. No one personifies the Democratic establishment more than Eliot Engel, and he lost to Bowman, who made clear his own progressive politics in a pretty inspiring election night address:

Jamaal Bowman: Poverty is not a result of children and families who don’t work hard. Our children and families work as hard as anyone else. Poverty is by political design, and it’s rooted in a system that has been fractured and corrupt and rotten from its core from the inception of America, especially over the last several decades. So poverty, and the impact of poverty on our children, and dealing with issues of institutional racism, and sexism, and classism, and xenophobia, and everything that keeps the majority of us oppressed is what we designed this campaign to fight against.

MH: I happened to interview Jamaal Bowman earlier this month, again, for an Intercept live interview, and he was very impressive — and didn’t shy away from the big bad s-word either:

MH: Are you a socialist, people want to know? You know, you’ve been endorsed by AOC and Bernie Sanders, two of the most famous socialists in the country.

JB: Yes. I’m an educator. It just so happens my policy aligns with socialism. I guess I’m a socialist. [Laughs.] I’m a progressive, left-leaning, someone that fights for human rights. I was never big on the labels at the beginning of this race. I identify as an educator, and as a Black man in America. But my policies align with those of a socialist, so I guess that makes me a socialist. All good.

MH: Then there’s New York’s 17th Congressional District, home to Bill and Hillary Clinton, where another 16-term centrist incumbent and Iraq War-supporter Nita Lowey announced her retirement last October, after she was challenged from the left by 33-year-old, son of a single mother, Black, gay, progressive, ex-Obama Department of Justice lawyer Mondaire Jones.

Jones was then thrown into an open primary race against, among others, a former federal prosecutor who spent more than $4 million of his own money on his candidacy; a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under Obama and a cable news favorite; and a prominent New York state senator.

Jones, though, had the support of nearly every major progressive politician: Bernie, AOC, Elizabeth Warren, Ayanna Pressley, the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And on Tuesday night, while the official result couldn’t be declared because all of the mail-in ballots that still need to be counted, it became very clear from his lead that he had defeated all of his rivals and is now heading to Congress next January as one of the first two Black gay men ever to serve on Capitol Hill, the importance of which he made clear in his unofficial victory speech on Tuesday night:

MJ: And so this is for Barbara Jordan, that powerful voice in the United States House of Representatives who could not live an authentic life. This is for Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington, who could not publicly be associated with Martin Luther King because of the scandal of who he loved. This is for Harvey Milk, who literally died as a pioneer for people like me. I am so grateful to the folks on whose shoulders I stand.

MH: And I’m delighted to say that man of the moment, Mondaire Jones, joins me now from New York.

Mondaire, thanks for coming on Deconstructed.

MJ: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MH: Congratulations on your big win — though it’s, of course, not officially confirmed yet. Tell me, Mondaire: you’re 33 years old, you’ve never held elected office before. Why did you decide to run for Congress?

MJ: Yeah, you know, I decided to run for congress because for me, policy is personal. I grew up in Section 8 housing and on food stamps. And my young, single mom still had to work multiple jobs just to put food on the table for us.

So when we have these policy discussions at the federal level, about the $15 minimum wage being absolutely necessary, that’s a need I know to be true based on my personal experience. And I think we need more people in Congress for whom policy is personal. I think we get better policy outcomes that way; it’s the reason why in a crowded Democratic primary, I was still the only person talking about criminal justice reform, and policing reform, well before the events of the last few weeks with the murder of George Floyd. And it shouldn’t be like that; more people who have the lived experiences that would inform our policy discussions should be at the table of power, fighting tooth and nail for the things that we say we care about as the Democratic Party.

MH: Very well put there. What’s fascinating is that you’re, as you say, you’re from this non-white working class background, son of a single mother, but you went to Harvard Law, and you now have managed to win a primary in one of the wealthiest districts in the country, New York 17. What do you think was the secret to your electoral success there?

MJ: I think it was speaking with — with genuineness and with a message that was compelling. Right? One of my opponents obsessed over Russia another of my opponents ran on prosecuting Donald Trump, which strangely presumes that Trump gets reelected in the fall, whereas I have had a consistent economic message throughout, made even more resonant by COVID-19, in the midst of the economic devastation that we’re experiencing right now.

And I do think that people found my life story to be quintessentially the American dream. And I think, as I’ve said to other people, that people want to be inspired. This is the United States Congress, people want to be inspired by their member of Congress. And I’ve said, I’m not running just to be one of 435 people. I’m running to provide transformational leadership in American politics.

MH: And how much do you think your win, and Jamaal Bowman’s win in the 16th District in New York, was a result also of the moment we’re in, COVID-19, disproportionately hitting Black and brown communities, Black Lives Matter protesters on the streets — as you mentioned? Was this just your moment?

MJ: You know, the thing is we were on our way to victory even before the death of George Floyd and the protests nationally.

MH: Interesting.

MJ: But it is certainly the case that a number of people who perhaps had never given serious consideration to the idea became of the opinion that more people like myself should be allowed to speak with moral clarity on the need for racial justice. Right? That it shouldn’t just be Hakeem Jeffries on the House side, and Tim Scott and Kamala Harris and Cory Booker on the Senate side; that we need —

MH: Yes.

MJ: — more people who are going to be forceful on that issue.

MH: And you and, I believe, Ritchie Torres are on course to become the first-ever gay Black men elected to Congress. How big a deal is that for you and the LGBTQ community, especially because parts of the Black community, especially the church-going Black community in the South, like my own Muslim community, is often seen as being rife with homophobia?

MJ: You know, in the 244-year history of the United States there has never been an openly gay, Black member of congress. Man or woman. And, you know, growing up poor, Black, and gay in Section 8 housing, if I had been able to see someone quite like myself in Congress, it would have been direct evidence of the fact that things really do get better when you get older. For me, that was not true.

But for so many people today, because of my candidacy and the candidacy of my friend, Ritchie Torres, you know, I know from the messages that people were sending me on social media platforms well before the events of yesterday, that it is making a difference, that they’re telling me — young and old — that it gives them inspiration to see an openly gay Black candidate running for Congress to live their own authentic lives. And I’m happy to provide that representation.

MH: You’re a big supporter in terms of policy terms of a Green New Deal. But even if Joe Biden wins the presidency, and even if he comes around to backing a Green New Deal — both big ifs — you’re still not gonna be able to get the Green New Deal bill through Congress, certainly not through the Senate. So a lot of people say, ‘There’s no point going for the radical option, no matter how justified it is, no matter how necessary it is, if you can’t get it into law.’ People say, you’re going to have to compromise. What do you say to them?

MJ: I think that we should not be defeating ourselves before we get to the negotiating table. I think that a Green New Deal, in the form of legislation, because, of course, right now it’s a resolution, could pass the Senate if we flip the Senate into Democratic control. But, of course, I’d rather get something done than nothing at all. So let’s get to that point when we get there.

In the meantime, I’m fighting for the most ambitious thing that we can do, which happens, from my perspective, to be the necessary thing for us to do. We’ve got 10 years left, according to this UN IPCC report, before irreparable damage to the planet. We have to mobilize the federal government to decarbonize our economy. And I hope that we can work in concert with other countries to do the same thing globally.

MH: Do you apply that same kind of thinking to Medicare for All as well, which is something you support but again, many in your party see it as a kind of utopian pipe dream?

MJ: Medicare for All is now a mainstream policy view, a majority of the American people support it. And so does my member of Congress. In fact, I was the only person, unfortunately, in my Democratic primary who supported it. And I think voters saw that it was a huge part of my message.

And I met a number of people who said, ‘You know, what, you’re the only person supporting healthcare as a human right. Because the other stuff — the other stuff that people are proposing would leave over 10 million people uninsured in this country. So I’m supporting you.’

And so I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Democrats who don’t support Medicare for All to explain why it is that they don’t, because, of course, we know that Medicare for All would result in cost savings, even as it would insure literally everybody and expand coverage in terms of the things that are insured.

MH: You’re right, it is a no-brainer.

You’re 33 years old; you’re going to be one of the youngest members of Congress. How much is the divide in the Democratic Party today, more generational, even, than it is ideological? I mean, there’s you and AOC and Ilhan Omar in your 30s, there’s Pelosi, Hoyer, Clyburn in their 70s.

MJ: I think it’s mostly ideological. I look at someone like Ed Markey, right?

MH: Yeah.

MJ: One of the senior members of Congress in the Senate, the author of the Green New Deal, or at least the lead sponsor, I should say, in the Senate. And so, and, of course, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are, you know, are seasoned — are seasoned in our politics. And so I, I think that this is more about an ideological difference than it is about age.

Now, don’t get me wrong, disproportionately young people tend to be progressive. And we tend not to be as patient as other people are, as — as — as we face these existential intractable problems. You know, and other people who’ve been around for longer offer modest proposals. So, so I think that — I think that there is a link there, that maybe it’s inextricable, but, but really, it is about a belief system, and I’m happy to be a champion for that belief system. As I said last night, it is the idea that government has never worked for everyone; it’s only ever worked for a subset of the American people.

MH: A lot of people on Capitol Hill in Congress aren’t fans of big change; they like small change or no change. Given Nancy Pelosi hasn’t had the greatest of relationships with the Squad with AOC and co., she’s done a lot of what’s called “hippie punching,” a lot of, kind of, snarky sarcastic criticisms of the left, of them. There’s been some tensions between the two sides over the last couple of years. What do you think your relationship with Speaker Pelosi will be in the next Congress, assuming she’s still House Speaker next year?

MJ: I’m gonna have a fantastic relationship with Speaker Pelosi, and I’m going to have a fantastic relationship with my colleagues in the Caucus. You know, I’m running to get things done. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to disagree with people in my own party sometimes. But those are going to be disagreements that are respectful, and they’re going to be genuine, and in earnest. And there’s nothing wrong with having policy debates, even amongst friends, and we can do that in a way where we can all come together at the end. But I’m not going to go to Congress and just be a yes person. That would be a great disservice to people in my district and to the American people.

MH: Do you think looking at Jamaal Bowman’s result, looking at your result, maybe Charles Booker’s in Kentucky, we’re still waiting on it. Given the fact that your race was an open race between several candidates after Nita Lowey retired, but you’d already challenged Nita Lowey, you were going to primary her had she not retired. Given that result, given the kind of the trend, should incumbent Democrats, establishment Democrats, centrist democrats, whatever you want to call them, should they be worried now that they’re going to be primaried from the left, that they’re going to lose their seats to the left?

MJ: I don’t think anyone should be worried about losing their job if they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

MH: [Laughs.] Good answer.

MJ: I’m not worried about being primaried in the future because I know that I’m going to be the best darn representative that this district has ever seen. And, and more than that, that I’m going to provide the best representation that it could ever have. And so if someone wants to step up and challenge me, then go at it. I’m not afraid of that. And I think that people who are doing their job should not be afraid of it.

I just defeated the son of a billionaire, a senior Defense Department official, a popular New York State Assembly member, a well-known New York State Senator, and the list goes on. And so, you know, and I’m a guy who’s never held elected office.

And so I’m just really grateful for the fact that I have a message and a character that inspires people, and that inspires trust, in particular, people. And that’s, that’s what I’m going to be when I’m in Congress, and I hope other people will join me in that.

MH: So you talk about other people joining you. For some people, this insurgent primary wave from the left, which kicked off of course with AOC in 2018 or so in New York, it looks to some people like the Democrats’ own version of the Tea Party, but from the left. Is that a fair description in your view?

MJ: No, it’s not. I think it’s a disgusting comparison. And you know, the Tea Party and the fringe wing of the Republican Party in general, which is increasingly taking over the Party, including the Oval Office, is a — is a tragedy in American politics.

MH: Yes.

MJ: It is a stain on the fabric of this country. It is a force that actively undermines our moral character as a society. Progressives want to make sure that everyone can live in dignity in the richest nation in the history of the world. I don’t think we ought to be comparing people who want to ensure healthcare as a human right to people who openly embrace white supremacists.

MH: [Laughs.] I completely agree with you. I think people who make the comparison probably are not talking about the substance, they’re talking about the — the way in which people who were not dominant within the party came along and started knocking down incumbents, Eric Cantor famously back in, I think, 2014-2015 when he was defeated by a Tea Party challenger.

And I think when, you know, when you look at Jamaal Bowman has just knocked out the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has been in Congress for over 30 years, people say, “Wow, this is unprecedented.”

MJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. And increasingly, I think, laypersons are of the view that we need more people like myself and Mr. Bowman in Congress, and I’m really grateful that average people are not taking their cues from Democratic committee members, but rather from — from the candidates themselves as they evaluate the differences among what’s being offered to them.

MH: Did you have a candidate in the presidential race? Did you endorse anyone?

MJ: I did not endorse anyone, but I’ve been endorsed by three. [Laughs.] Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, and Bernie Sanders have all endorsed my campaign.

MH: A very good trio to be endorsed by, I’ll say, I mean, Bernie Sanders obviously lost, in the end to Joe Biden, but he did defeat a fair few big names along the way. There’s a debate now about where the energy is now in the Democratic Party. Is it on the left? Is it with the moderates? Where do you think the energy in your party is right now?

MJ: I think the energy in this party is on the left, and I hope that people who are in power in this Party realize that and bring us into the fold, and integrate — integrate us. You know, I mean, Joe Biden has a real opportunity here. I have tremendous respect for him; I worked in his administration. He has a real opportunity to unite the left, so that they can feel inspired to go out to vote for him, right?

I mean, it’s one thing — look, obviously, I’m supporting Joe Biden. But there are a lot of people —

MH: Yeah.

MJ: — who I can’t control how they feel.

MH: Yes.

MJ: And they’re looking to him to show leadership in any number of areas where the American people certainly feel like he should be more left than he is.

MH: If Joe Biden rang you up, Mondaire, and said, “Give me one suggestion based on your own campaign of what I can do to get left-wing people, young people inspired by my candidacy, what would you say to him?”

MJ: I would say: Start coming out in support of progressive policies.

MH: Yeah. Do you think he’s gonna do it?

MJ: I think he will. I think these advisory councils or commissions that he’s been creating —

MH: Yes.

MJ: — on which a number of people I have great respect for, including Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal serve, are a testament to his willingness to do that. And, and I’m excited to be supporting Vice President Biden in this race, and I really do hope he wins, because we can — Donald Trump is existential.

MH: Indeed, 100 percent agree with you, Mondaire. One last question, I know you have to run. Very busy week for you. You’ve seen what AOC and Ilhan Omar have had to endure. You’re a left-wing, Black, gay Democrat. Are you ready for the kind of deranged attacks that are gonna come your way from the GOP, from Fox News from the conservative movement?

MJ: And from members of my own party, perhaps, though I hope not.

I’ve been fighting my entire life. First, it was against the odds in my upbringing, and, more recently, it is against powerful special interest. And if there’s one thing about me, it’s that I’m a winner. So I’m going to bring that winning mentality, and that track record of getting results [laughs] and overcoming any of the odds thrown against me over the course of my lifetime.

And, at the end of the day, we are going to see a change in this country. In fact, we’re already seeing it. In my case, it’s for the first time in 32 years, and I’m really excited to be part of a movement of people who are not waiting their turn, but instead are stepping out, giving voters a choice and leading on this, on these critical issues of our times.

MH: Mondaire Jones, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed. Congratulations on your big win.

MJ: Thank you so much. I look forward to joining you again.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: That was Mondaire Jones, who should be heading to Congress in January as the unlikely new representative for New York’s 17th Congressional District — what a story, what a result.

Just before we wrap up, I want to take a brief step back and check in with my colleague Ryan Grim, The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief, and author of the book “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”

Ryan, welcome back to Deconstructed.

Ryan Grim: Always great to be here.

MH: You are an expert, I think it’s fair to say, on Democratic Party history and especially the progressive wing of the party. How big a deal, in your view, are these primary results in New York, and of course, Kentucky, that we’re still waiting on? Put this in some modern historical context for us.

RG: I mean, they’re, you know, they’re new in history. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 when she knocked off Joe Crowley was really the biggest upset of — of an incumbent in a generation. You know, you pretty much have to go back to the 1970s; you had, you had Donna Edwards, in Maryland, who knocked off Al Wynn in a congressional primary about 10 years ago. But other than that, you had very little.

And part of that is circumstances. You know, from 1994 up until 2006, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. So you didn’t have a whole lot of contested Democratic primaries where people were going after incumbents because the incumbents had fine voting records. You know, they just voted against whatever the Republicans were up to.

And so it wasn’t really until 2006 that Democrats even had a chance to govern in the House of Representatives. And so now you’re seeing the response to what a lot of people see as — as a failure to govern in a way that Democratic primary voters would like to see.

MH: Do you see similarities, Ryan, between the Tea Party and their GOP primary challenges five or six years ago, and this insurgent left inside the Democratic Party today? Obviously, not in substantive terms — the Tea Party are a bunch of racists — but in terms of actually taking on the establishment and winning?

RG: Yes, in the sense that — that they’re winning kind of a similar number of races, but no in the sense that they don’t have the same infrastructure behind them.

So the Tea Party, once Fox News and the rest of the kind of conservative media organs flipped to become kind of Tea Party vehicles —

MH: Yes.

RG: — then you saw all of these other rank-and-file Republicans say, “I don’t want to be the next one driven out of Congress by a Tea Party challenger, so I’m joining the Tea Party.” I’m now a Tea Party-er.

MH: Yeah. [Laughs.]

RG: The left doesn’t have that.

MH: No.

RG: Now, the left does have fear, you know that — so AOC put fear into the House Democratic Caucus that lasted for several months before then they said, Well, you know what, this was a fluke: Joe Crowley wasn’t prepared, he was out of step with his district, it’s not going to happen to me.

Well, now then — then Lipinski goes down in Illinois and they say: well, he was really out of step with his district. And it took Murray Newman two cycles to beat him.

Now Eliot Engel’s gone down. Now Mondaire Jones has beaten a well-funded field of establishment candidates in — in this open primary in a — in a — in a wealthy district. Maloney you know, very clear close to going down. And so the gymnastics that people are going to have to go through to try to convince themselves that they’re safe while all of these other people were vulnerable get a lot more complicated, but they still — there’s — you still need another push. You know, that’s why Fox News was so critical to what happened on the right.

MH: But, if you’re an establishment Democrat, kind of moderate, centrist, whatever word you want to use, sitting in a, you know, what you thought was a safe seat, and you’re up for reelection and up for a primary at some point soon, are you going to be worried? Should you be worried?

RG: Right. You want to — you want to stay out of the crosshairs at this point. And so then the calculation for a rational politician becomes: OK, you know, how do I make sure that I don’t get a robust well-funded primary challenge against me.

I mean, the obvious things you do are: you endorse the Green New Deal, you co-sponsor Medicare for All, you know, you put out some plan that goes some distance toward defunding the police, you know, you — you meet with the groups that are organized on the left —

MH: Yeah.

RG: — you ask what they want and you give them as much as you feel — feel like you can. So you do that, and you also, you know, you lay low in the fights that you pick with the left.

Now Eliot Engel had some high profile fights that he picked with Ilhan Omar on the — on the Foreign Affairs Committee. So, you know, people are gonna say: Well, maybe we don’t want to pick fights like that, like let’s — let’s just keep some anonymity because the left doesn’t have the scale to take on dozens of members of Congress at a time —

MH: Yep. They’re gonna — they’re gonna — they’re gonna pick the really bad ones.

RG: — they can take on a handful.

MH: They’re gonna take the really bad, obvious ones.

RG: Right.

MH: Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report tweeted on Wednesday, “Before we get carried away on how KY/NY/VA Dem primaries show where Dem party is headed remember that: 1) the majority makers” — the Democrats who sit in swing seats “sit in suburban, moderate congressional districts; 2) those incumbents did not lose or get significant challenges from their left.”

That’s a fair point, isn’t it, that we should all maybe calm down a bit?

RG: People should never calm down. What’s the point of calming down?

MH: [Laughs.]

RG: [Laughs.] I mean, look, the New York 17 —

MH: Hey, I’m doing a whole show on this subject!

RG: [Laughs.] Right. That’s right. New York 17 where, where Mondaire Jones won, yes it’s a blue district, but it is a, it’s a wealthy suburban district.

MH: I think it’s the 19th wealthiest congressional district in the country.

RG: Right. It’s Chappaqua. You know there — he now represents Bill and Hillary Clinton in Congress.

MH: [Laughs.]

RG: And so, you know, if those types of voters can be won over by progressive messaging, and if those districts continue becoming bluer and bluer, then in upcoming primaries, you could have progressives start winning in the seats that — that Amy Walters is — is — is talking about.

The difference between now and 2006, is that when — in 2006 when Democrats took the house back, they did it by winning a ton of rural seats with — with very conservative Democrats. And those seats were kind of trending against them, but it was a wave year, the war, etc.

This time, in 2018, they won seats in suburban districts that are trending toward them. In other words, they’re getting more progressive every couple cycles. And so while it’s difficult for a left-wing, primary challenger to win in a — in a rural district that — that leans Republican, it’s going to become much easier for them to win in these in the suburban districts, or the incumbents in those suburban districts are going to have to get more progressive to fend them off. So I think Amy is off a little bit there.

MH: And that’s just talking House races. I mean, the Senate is a whole different ball game. If Charles Booker wins in Kentucky —

RG: Right.

MH: — that will be a fascinating data point for all of this.

RG: How do you think speaker Nancy Pelosi, who hasn’t had the best of relationships with the left, with the Squad, with the progressive wing of her party. How do you think she’s gonna react to Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones sitting in the House as part of her caucus? She endorsed Engel of course, who was defeated by Bowman. How do you think she’s gonna react? How should she react?

RG: Well, I think the two will be brought in differently.

I think Mondaire Jones will be welcomed with — with open arms. They’ll say look, Congressional Progressive Caucus got behind him, Bernie Sanders, AOC Elizabeth Warren, John Negroponte got behind one of his opponents — a lot of kind of deep state —

MH: Former Bush official.

RG: Yes! A lot of deep state money poured in behind the other opponents. Mondaire Jones won an open primary fair and square. You know, welcome to the, welcome to the Democratic club. You know, he didn’t knock off an incumbent.

Now, he did actually run against an incumbent, Nita Lowey.

MH: Yes!

RG: She was the only one in and she announced her retirement and then everybody else flooded in. So there might — may be some hard feelings for him even daring to have filed to run against her. But the fact that she resigned means that, you know, he’ll be welcomed as a member in good standing, you know, obviously on probation for good behavior.

MH: [Laughs.]

RG: Whereas Jamaal Bowman, you know, a. his connection to Justice Democrats, which is, you know, persona non grata around Capitol Hill for challenging incumbents, and b. for knocking off Eliot Engel, you know, somebody who had served, what, 16 terms and, you know, chairman of a major committee, somebody known well, one of the senior-most Democrats in the caucus. You know, he’s gonna — he’s gonna face a much rougher welcome when he gets in there.

You know, but he is now becoming an incumbent, so, Pelosi, you know, will be generous rhetorically, as long as, as long as Bowman is generous in return. You know, at the first side of conflict, you know, you’ve seen her willingness to come at freshmen members. She said, in 2019, when she was mocking the Squad, she said, “Well, there’s four of them.” Well, now she’ll have to say that there’s five of them.

MH: [Laughs.] Yes. Very good point. And I also find it fascinating that this left-wing squad in Congress continues to be not just left-wing, but non-white.

RG: Mhmm.

MH: So that adds a whole complicating factor to the discussion, especially in the current climate where the discussion over the future of the left is very much intertwined with the future of the politics of race.

Just before we end, back in the summer of 2019, Ryan, as you well know, a “senior Democratic source” told Fox News, “no one is afraid of those nerds,” referring to the Justice Democrats and the left more broadly, “they don’t have the ability to primary anyone.”

They underestimated the nerds didn’t they?

RG: Well, the fact that that person made that quote anonymously suggested that they didn’t believe what they were saying to begin with.

MH: [Laughs.] Even at the time.

RG: Even at the time, and it wasn’t true. Ocasio-Cortez, at that precise moment, in Congress, was getting a ton of flack from her colleagues, because of Justice Democrats. You know, they think that she runs Justice Democrats, when — when nothing could be further from the truth. But, you know, any primary that was launched against any member of Congress, the incumbents would blame on Justice Democrats and blame on AOC, when really they only recruited and ran a handful of candidates and — and AOC didn’t, didn’t back Jamaal Bowman, until, you know, just just a couple of weeks ago.

So the paranoia on display on Capitol Hill completely puts the lie to that quote.

MH: And I suspect there’s gonna be a lot more paranoia when the new Congress gets together in January 2021. Ryan, thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed.

RG: You got it.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: That was Ryan Grim, The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief.

And that’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much!

See you next week.

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