Progressive Activists Have Pushed Democrats to the Left on Climate Issues. Now What?


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DETROIT — In April, young activists with the Sunrise Movement, a liberal environmental group, held a rally here at Wayne State University to champion radical steps to curb climate change. Their aim: to get Democratic presidential candidates on record supporting the Green New Deal, which ties traditional goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with social ones, like ending income inequality and providing free health care.

Last week, those candidates were in Detroit for the second round of debates, and the Sunrise activists and other progressives were back, too, taking a victory lap. Since the spring rally, 16 of the 24 Democratic presidential hopefuls have signed onto Sunrise’s Green New Deal goals.

What once seemed like progressive moonshots on climate have now become a critical litmus test for moderates and liberal presidential candidates. The activists have helped shift the Democratic center of gravity further to the left on climate. And now they face the question that often comes to groups that rise swiftly in influence: What next?

“We don’t trust that a Democratic Party that has reneged on their responsibility, a complete dereliction of duty for the last 40 years, will actually rise to the challenge at this moment,” said Varshini Prakash, the 25-year-old executive director of the Sunrise Movement.


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Sunrise’s story, of a fledgling organization that has become a political power player in less than two years, is emblematic of the growing power of the grass-roots left. Several liberal groups, including Sunrise, Justice Democrats, Indivisible and MoveOn.Org, have seized on the crowded and diverse Democratic primary race to increase their own political power by pushing their preferred issue or policy — no matter how big, bold or expensive.

The June and July debates have demonstrated this influence: Left-wing positions dominated discussion of issues like health care, immigration, free public college and reparations for black Americans, leaving many liberals rejoicing and plenty of centrist Democrats fretting. The proof that liberal activism is succeeding, the grass-roots leaders said, was that most candidates dared not dismiss their concerns.

Even moderate Democrats took notice.

“If you take what the left side of that debate was and the more moderate side of the debate, both positions — the whole range of positions — are significantly more progressive than where we were just seven or eight years ago,” said Ronald Klain, an aide to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and a senior adviser to his presidential campaign, in a television interview last week.

With five weeks to go until the next debates, and six months until the Iowa caucuses kick off voting for the 2020 nominee, the Sunrise activists have strategy decisions to make about how to keep their influence going. In August, typically considered a sleepy month in the presidential cycle, Sunrise leaders said they planned to fill that vacuum with new ways of pressuring the presidential contenders, though the specific ways are yet to be decided.

The two candidates most popular with liberal activists and voters, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are in the top tier of the Democratic primary race, according to polling. But neither has overtaken Mr. Biden, who continues to benefit from a perception among many voters that he is best suited to beat President Trump. Among the questions that the activists are pondering: Should they concentrate their support on Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren? Or should they further push their policy ideas among the entire field, trying to ensure that any nominee, including Mr. Biden, enters the general election with the most liberal platform possible?

The answer is both, the group’s leaders said.

“Our job isn’t to be nice,” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, the progressive group that has roiled Washington by challenging more centrist congressional Democrats from the left.


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“Our job is to say that the planet is literally burning and is going to be uninhabitable within our lifetime and that it’s not just Republicans who are the easy boogeymen — it’s Democrats, too, that have set in this mentality that we can wait,” she said. “The battle for the soul of America is happening right now and at every point in history, it’s never been popular but we have to do it.”

Karine Jean-Pierre, the chief public affairs officer at MoveOn.Org, said the run-up to the Iowa caucuses would be a critical window for liberals, who must build further public support for their causes to hold candidates responsible.

“We now need to use these ideas to mobilize the base,” she said. “It’s really about how can we use these ideas to win in 2020, and we use the primaries to give people a vision of what a Democratic president would look like.”

The activists’ strategy, and its effectiveness, will help shape a critical next few months in the primary contest. More fringe candidates are expected to drop out as they are unable to meet the threshold for the third round of debates, and progressives are eager to bring them into the fold. They are also growing more wary of candidates like Mr. Biden and even Senator Kamala Harris of California, who have both increasingly distanced themselves from the party’s left wing.

Since the first debate, when Mr. Biden saw his poll numbers drop after a defensive performance, he has abandoned his above-the-fray strategy in the primary race and more directly defined himself as the field’s most prominent moderate. Ms. Harris, who began the race sounding more like Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, has since trailed back to the center, saying in a recent interview that she was not “trying to restructure society.”

Both Mr. Biden’s and Ms. Harris’s campaigns have, at times, praised the Green New Deal; Ms. Harris cited it on the trail and on the first debate stage in Miami. At the same time, they have not embraced some of the other, nonclimate provisions that are included within the resolution, including free college and a federal jobs guarantee.


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Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the policy director of New Consensus, the think tank that helped write the Green New Deal resolution, said she wanted politicians to back the full-throated resolution, including its social goals.

“I think something that people miss about the Green New Deal,” Ms. Gunn-Wright said, “it’s about the survival of us as a species and a planet, but it’s also about our survival as a country, which we know that inequality and structural inequity is literally tearing apart our society.”

“We think that if we have a society, even if it’s green, if we have a country that’s just as stratified as it was before, it’s a failure,” she said.

Ms. Rojas added: “This can’t just be an economic or a climate plan. It’s got to be a just one and we have to talk about indigenous communities. We have to talk about black and brown communities that were historically left out of the original New Deal.”

But there is another complication for progressive groups, also exemplified on the Detroit debate stage. More and more, young progressive activists are asking Democrats to reject the incrementalism of past administrations, including former President Barack Obama’s. However, their political realities make this difficult, as Mr. Obama remains one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party. Among some black voters, his barrier-breaking legacy is near unimpeachable.

“Democrats onstage seemed more determined to criticize President Obama’s record than President Trump’s,” Mr. Biden said in an email to his supporters on Saturday. “President Obama was a great president. We don’t say that enough.”

The activists respond with a careful nuance, in accordance with the savvy they have shown over the past year. While they want Democrats to embrace much bigger policy ideas than the incrementalism of the Obama era, they said they do not want that effort to include criticism of Mr. Obama himself.

Ms. Jean-Pierre said their reasoning was simple: They need those voters to win.

“In the end, the existential threat is Donald Trump,” she said. “We just got to get him out.”

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