A New Path to Congress: Grassroots Upsets in Netflix's Knock Down the House
Updated: Aug 12
Now-congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants voters to know this: not all Democrats are the same.
In 2018, a record number of women, people of color, and political outsiders ran for election to U.S. Congress, many challenging long-established incumbents.
Knock Down the House, directed by Rachel Lears, follows four such candidates along the campaign trail of the 2018 democratic primaries, showing viewers what grassroots political campaigns actually look like. All of the featured candidates are women, and all of them come from jobs that are not traditionally thought of as stepping stones to political office. Backed by Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, organizations that recruit multiracial coalitions of ordinary citizens to run for Congress, these women aim to remove the corruptive interests of money in politics and provide a new path to congress for non-career politicians.
“If we elect working people, working people can have representation in Congress. We can change the way we see government, change the way we see politics in this country,” says Isra Allison, an organizer for Brand New Congress. As we watch Amy Vilela (NV-4) spray-painting campaign yard signs and Paula Jean Swearengin (WV) clearing out an overgrown Appalachian field to hold a rally, positions on the congressional ballot feel closer than ever before.
“Everybody in this room knows 5-10 people. And then those 5-10 people know another 5-10 people. Frankly, big money is very lonely, and we’ve got people on our side,” pronounced Ocasio-Cortez, the first in 14 years to challenge incumbent Joe Crowley in a primary contest. While Lears knew Ocasio-Cortez had promise, she could not predict the almost unheard-of visibility of the now-congresswoman’s run (1).
The only of the four featured candidates to successfully unseat her opposing incumbent, Ocasio-Cortez gets the most screen-time; however, the documentary also relies on the equally compelling stories of the other women.
Cori Bush runs to represent Missouri’s first district, taking on the incumbent of 20 years, congressman WIlliam Lacy Clay. “This is the district where Mike Brown was murdered,” Bush states matter-of-factly as the film introduces her. A registered nurse, pastor, and mother, Bush believes in the position of her district as one that can incite worldwide activism, as it did following Brown’s murder. Moreover, she believes in the peoples’ ability to address the injustices that they face: “People are now waking up to see that the problems that we have in our district are problems that we ourselves can fix.”
While aware of their underdog positions, Ocasio-Cortez, Bush, Swearengin, and Vilela are not ignorant to the significance of their grassroots campaigns, particularly when these campaigns are considered as a joint force. Bush is confident that this coalition of insurgent candidates will proliferate in the elections to come: “If we can get even just 15 more people across the country that will come in in 2019 and perform, how much greater will we be? And in two more years, 30. You know, that’s what I’m looking at.”
Bush may have been onto something. Though it’s only been about two years since these women ran their historic campaigns, we can already see waves of insurgent progressives exercising newfound confidence to challenge the old guard of Democrats.
In New York, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign proved that it is possible to tackle establishment Dems with grassroots campaigns. Often called “this year’s AOC,” former middle school teacher Jamaal Bowman defeated 16-term incumbent Eliot L. Engel in the Democratic primary for New York’s 16th district, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and Westchester. In NY-17, Mondaire Jones, who has refused donations from corporate PACs, holds the Democratic nomination. He is poised to become the first openly gay, black man elected to Congress.
Perhaps it was these so-called “upsets” that helped propel Cori Bush to victory in her rematch against Clay just a few days ago. With nearly 49 percent of the vote, she unapologetically let the country know that Justice Democrats are one representative closer to Knocking Down the House.