Jamaal Bowman believes the Democratic Party needs a makeover. That’s why he’s been so outspoken over former President Barack Obama’s anti-defund the police remarks. Of course, he’s not dissing the first negro-in-chief. Bowman just believes Obama isn’t a relevant voice who can speak to the millions of people who rose up this summer after the killing of George Floyd by police. Bowman, who is set to be sworn into Congress on Jan. 3, has been very vocal about Obama’s “defund the police” comments and believes his center-left to moderate approach won’t energize the party’s growth.
“I don’t think Obama is the standard we should be striving towards,” Bowman told The Root. “I think the Squad is more of a standard we should be striving towards because I think the Squad is more responsive to what’s happening today in our streets. I think Obama represents a certain demographic of the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party is a big and diverse tent. I think the Squad and myself represent more of what’s happening right now in the party, on the ground, in the streets—particularly with parts of the community that we haven’t always engaged very well.”
But his critiques don’t end there.
The party is full of moderates who treat comparisons to socialism like a Breitbart report accusing them of wearing blackface in college. The country is bracing for a long recovery from COVID-19 with more than 318,000 dead (and counting), and survivors are out of work and are enduring lifelong health complications from coronavirus. Policies like providing rent relief, Medicare for all, defunding the police and ending America’s carceral state aren’t just slogans; they are policy needs for America’s most oppressed people. But Democrats can’t champion those views until they disentangle themselves from neoliberalism and fears of socialism. Indeed, the party has a messaging problem, but, more to the point, Democrats need more timely and relevant messengers, as Bowman sees it.
“The Democratic Party, historically, has done a good job of engaging moderate, middle-of-the-road, consistent voters. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t certain parts of the community voting consistently, and what can we do better to engage them?’ That’s what we did in our race,” Bowman said of his upset run against Rep. Eliot Engel, whom he’ll be replacing in the next Congress. “We engaged the historically disengaged. We listened to them. We learned from them and we created policy in alignment with their needs. That’s where something like ‘defund the police’ comes from.”
He is outspoken because the party, he thinks, needs a massive makeover and the best way to do it is to simply acknowledge it. Out loud. But the course of the party must go beyond lawmaking and interrogate its philosophical outlook—starting with capitalism. He believes much of the knee-jerk reactions from his colleagues over the lackluster House results come from allowing Republicans to misconstrue their words and weaponize them. They have a media campaign around the weaponization of particular words or phrases, and they put Democrats on the defensive.
“Republicans have been masters of that,” Bowman said. “For me, we have to ask ourselves ‘Is this current system of capitalism working for the majority of American people?’”
He doesn’t believe it is.
And if Democrats can admit that it is not working, they have to ask themselves why isn’t it working.
“I believe our current system of capitalism is slavery by another name,” he said. “We’ve moved from physical chattel enslavement and physical racial segregation to a plantation economic system. One that keeps the majority of Americans unemployed, or underemployed and struggling just to survive, while the power elite continues to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, and allow large corporations to pretty much run the world as multinational corporations. The pandemic has revealed it. With almost 300,000 dead from the pandemic, disproportionately Black and brown, and Jeff Bezos is the first $200 billionaire. In the next six years, he might become the first trillionaire. That’s slavery by another name. It’s a system that’s not working, so we need a new system.”
As Democrats enter into the new year with Joe Biden in the White House but fewer members in the House and a Georgia runoff that may or may not end in Democrats’ favor, Bowman believes there is a lot of room for growth between left-leaning lawmakers and his moderate colleagues. He’s very eager to work with the new incoming Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. Bowman said Maloney has centered racial and economic justice in his approach to reaching new voters and is very clear that dramatic response to the consistent killing of Black people by police is needed.
“That’s a breath of fresh air,” he said of Maloney.
Bowman, 44, has never held elected office and is still learning the ropes of how to be a lawmaker. Things that he’s getting comfortable with include protocols and rules in terms of how the House floor runs. Then there’s the who’s who and of what. Learning the difference between the speaker and the chairman, and the vice-chairman, the assistant speaker. It’s just a lot of titles to get used to and navigate. What’s the process of getting from an idea to a bill? Engaging colleagues to co-sponsor and support that bill.
As for working with his more moderate colleagues, Bowman doesn’t foresee any real clashes over issues such as defund the police and Medicare for all because there are plenty of alignments between them to pass legislation they all, in principle, agree on. For example, he says he’d like to see a greater decrease of federal funding that goes to local police departments, jails and prisons. There needs to be further reversals of the 1994 crime bill in regards to mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, ending life sentences and the federal death penalty.
“This is not just about policing. This is about the criminal justice system overall that needs to be completely transformed and completely upended,” he said. “We need to look at more alternatives to incarceration, especially when we talk about people who are incarcerated right now because of drug offenses like marijuana and others. So, a whole lot of work to do.”
A former school principal, Bowman sees himself more as a public servant than a politician, per se—one who is inspired by a grassroots approach that is centered on the belief that progress is pushed from the margins. Ideologically, his mother inspires his thinking about politics and how the world should function. Growing up, Bowman saw himself as “Malcolm X-ite,” as he calls it. His mother instilled in him an appreciation of Black liberation and how the system of white supremacy oppresses and kills Black people. Angela Davis and James Baldwin also helped frame his political outlook. Besides the civil rights movement, Occupy Wall Street was critical to shaping his thinking; Bernie Sanders’ runs showed him that there is an energy for a new type of politics, and the BLM movement reinforced the thinking he had heard and read about throughout his childhood.
None of these outlooks need to be viewed as incompatible with his colleagues, no matter how much banter there is between the different ideological groups among Democrats. One thing they all agree on is that Americans need to get $1,200 instead of $600 and that the incoming Biden administration will do a better job of managing this pandemic. And for all of the differences about how to deal with policing, housing, economic inequality Democrats may express, none of them are beyond a compromise that can achieve what he thinks should be progressive outcomes.
But that starts with being honest about the state of the party, what got them in their current situation, and how they will become the powerhouse people of color, the working poor and other displaced Americans will feel compelled to join. Creating a public discourse over how to get there is part of that process.
“This ideological divide is healthy for the party because we have to have honest conversations about what’s happening in our individual districts, but also what’s happening across the country,” Bowman said. “That’s the only way to strengthen our party and to make it formidable going into 2021, 2022 and beyond.”