Jamaal Bowman didn’t lose his closely watched Democratic primary because he was one of the first members of the US House of Representatives to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Later, video emerged of Bowman telling supporters that allegations that Hamas had committed sexual violence on Oct. 7 were “fraud,” but he didn’t lose because of that, either. It didn’t help, and neither did the weird, conspiratorial poetry he wrote about 9/11 that some opposition researcher dug up. But there was still time at that point to correct the course on all that.

He didn’t, above all because Jamaal Bowman is terrible at politics, which we have come to treat as an avocation available to anyone with enough free time and money: Kanye West, Dr. Oz, Antonio Sabato Jr. It turns out that politics is an easy job to get but a hard one to master. Bowman’s predicament is far from unique in Washington. To the contrary, it is one of Washington’s prevailing problems that this political town is full of inept politicians. 

As it became clear that his primary challenger George Latimer, the chief executive of Westchester County, was the favorite of mainstream Democrats, and as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee poured in millions to defeat Bowman, the embattled congressman’s criticisms of Israel grew more intense and less focused, leading to accusations of anti-Semitism. Even so, up until early voting began this month, Bowman had plenty of opportunities to save the careening ship that was his re-election campaign. 

Instead, he chose to sink it.

“It was a terrible campaign,” the veteran political strategist Hank Sheinkopf told me. “The people around him should really have their licenses lifted as political consultants.” That isn’t going to happen, of course: They will go on to make bank off the next guy. Still, an autopsy of the Bowman campaign should tell us something interesting about the state of American politics today.

Bowman arrived in Washington by defeating an incumbent in a Democratic primary, in much the same manner as he will leave. That incumbent was Rep. Eliot Engel. A reliable pro-Israel voice in Washington, Engel was blind to his district’s growing ethnic diversity. Bowman, a former middle-school principal, excited progressives who saw him as a harbinger of a deepening leftward shift in the Democratic power center. 

“Jamaal Bowman Reminds Progressives They Can Win,” blared a headline in Jewish Currents, a progressive publication, at the time of his primary victory. Four years later, his defeat is an ominous sign for a movement that seems to be more popular in cyberspace than meatspace. “The Democratic Party writ large should understand that message come November, or it will be to our own detriment,” Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, told me.

In the simplest terms, Bowman lost because he failed to grasp what politics is about during his time in Washington. He thought it was about “moral clarity,” a term that, as it was redefined in the summer of 2020, came to mean the primacy of (your partial) “truth” over objectivity, and being on the right side of history, which is where moral clarity supposedly brings you. For all I know, he is on the right side of history when it comes to the Gaza ceasefire. But I also know that, come January, he will be on the wrong side of the Cannon House Office Building (because his district is so heavily blue, losing the Democratic primary is tantamount to losing the general election, though Bowman has left open the quixotic possibility of running in November on the Working Families Party line).

“Bowman lost because he failed to grasp what politics is about.”

Bowman’s loss is being framed as a warning to anti-Israel progressives like Missouri Rep. Cori Bush, who is facing a tough primary of her own against the young black prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County. If I were on the Bush campaign, I would indeed be concerned—but the warning voters sent by choosing Latimer had little to do with Israel or Gaza. 

In the wake of Bowman’s defeat, Andy Hirschfeld, a reporter for a local Westchester newspaper, noted on the app formerly known as Twitter: “The voters that I spoke to across the political spectrum say they voted against Bowman for reasons that had nothing to do with AIPAC or its interests.” Rather, they were furious that he voted against President Biden’s infrastructure bill. Black unemployment in Westchester County was 7.9 percent on average between 2018 and 2022, and Hispanic unemployment averaged 6.7 percent in the same period. Bowman purports to care about black and brown constituents, but how could he countermand efforts to help the most needy among them out of poverty?

Bowman and other progressives voted against the bill because it didn’t go far enough, instead endorsing a more ambitious plan that had little chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate. At a time when many Democrats saw the steadfast MAGA faction of the GOP as their primary opponents in Washington, progressive members of the House—referred to as The Squad since 2018’s blue wave—acted as a fifth column among Democrats, constantly undermining their efforts to show that they were the party of steady governance and sound ideas.

“Jamal Bowman is a guy who divides people and gets nothing done,” said Mark Mellman of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a group that like AIPAC helped defeat Bowman and is now turning its attention to Bush. These groups were never going to agree with Bowman on the Middle East. But he would have been much more difficult to topple if he hadn’t left himself so exposed in well-to-do Eastchester and Bronxville. (Bowman’s campaign, and his House office, both declined requests for comment.)

During last year’s government-shutdown negotiations, Bowman pulled a fire alarm in the Cannon Building in a transparent attempt to stall a vote on the measure. He then lied about it, feigning ignorance and innocence. But surveillance video showed that he acted with clear intent. Conservatives’ attempts to equate the act with the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol were silly, but so were attempts on the left to play down the disruption and the sheer bizarreness of Bowman’s conduct. Bowman’s district includes wealthy suburbs like Scarsdale and Tuckahoe, home to well-informed, sophisticated voters. They pay high taxes and, in turn, want to know what those taxes are paying for (regardless of who levies them; that distinction tends to get lost). This might bespeak an entitled attitude, but they expect more of their representatives in Washington. We all should. 

‘This has everything to do with being disconnected from the people that you serve,” DeRosa said. “When Trump was elected, the Democratic Party took a chance” on The Squad. The #Resistance needed a face, and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota seemed perfectly suited to the role. Said DeRosa, “You had young people who had never been engaged, you had people who were a little bit older who had been passive Democrats who became super-Democrats, who took a chance on the movement. And here we are, eight years later, and that movement is on life support.”

Most of The Squad either have already survived their respective primary challengers or will go on to do so. AOC, for her part, easily defeated financier Marty Dolan, whom the party wisely counseled out of running against the much more vulnerable Bowman. Tlaib and Omar will be back in Washington, too. But the House is full of backbenchers who do nothing but survive election after election. The Squad promised to change the rules of the game, only to find itself sitting on the sidelines.  

It isn’t that they can’t legislate. In 2021, Bush spent a night outside the US Capitol in a successful protest against the resumption of evictions that had been halted during the pandemic. And at several points during the last few years, Ocasio-Cortez emerged as the kind of Washington insider some of her early supporters never thought she would become. These, however, were the exceptions. For the most part, The Squad has vowed support for either obstruction or revolution. 

“Bowman should have known that keeping schools closed … was a disastrous policy.”

A former educator himself, Bowman should have known that keeping schools closed during the pandemic was a disastrous policy that could harm an entire generation of American children. But in keeping with the far left’s views on education and public health, he rejected pleas to reopen schools from his own constituents. 

Ilana Horowitz, a New York City mother, recently wrote in Newsweek of trying to convince Bowman (who represents a slice of the North Bronx, a redistricting gift) to push for school reopenings. “He was the opposite of receptive. When he did respond to our queries, it was with a flippant tone, like many other progressives. He would sometimes reply to us on Twitter, and I remember him saying that it was better for kids to be suffering from being out of school than for them to be dead, or for their teachers to get sick.”

Astonishingly, Bowman was still making that argument in 2023, by which time there was no question that school closings had been disastrous and pointless. “If we would have kept schools open, more people would have died of Covid,” he said at a congressional hearing. This is about as far from the truth as you can get, but somehow the avid fact-checkers of the Trump era let that one slide. 

Right around that time, Bowman also gained attention—and notoriety—by getting into a shouting match with Rep. Thomas Massie, the Kentucky libertarian, about gun rights. Massie is one of the most disliked members of Congress, right up there with his fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul, and I don’t blame Bowman for showing his irritation. But he appears to have learned the wrong lessons from the encounter, interpreting predictable progressive praise on Twitter as a sign to get loud and stay loud. In the end, that may have been his downfall: He listened to the people who fed his hubris, and they were the wrong people to listen to.

A few weeks later, Bowman confronted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Again, he was cast in some corners as a progressive speaking—well, hollering—necessary truth to errant power. However, it might have served him well to remember Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous warning: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” 

The last time I saw Bowman, in the spring of 2023, he was shilling for TikTok as one of the few members of Congress willing to defend the Chinese-owned app as a potential national ban loomed. By that point, there was little question that the platform was a threat to young people’s health and US national security. But as with school closures, complex intersectional jujitsu mandated that if you were a progressive, you had to be for TikTok. 

So Bowman stood there, as clouds gathered over the US Capitol, claiming he needed to see “hard evidence” that TikTok was being used for “espionage.” He added, gratuitously, that “Republicans ain’t got no swag. That’s why they want to ban TikTok.” Watching him at the news conference, I observed that he now almost always shouted, as if his fame had robbed his voice of any other register. Increasingly, he seemed certain of his opinions and certain that those opinions needed to be broadcast as widely as possible. And yet for all that, he was only a second-term congressman with virtually no accomplishments to his name other than a Twitter fanbase.

Latimer started planning for a run that summer, in the weeks before Oct. 7. An old-school local politician, he had represented Westchester in one way or another since the late 1980s. He wasn’t especially glamorous or imaginative, but he understood his constituents well enough to know what they expected. Later, Bowman would express frustration when a number of local officials, many of them black, endorsed Latimer. To Bowman, it was evidence that politics is transactional. It certainly is: The transaction is called democracy. Woe to him who forgets that. 

“The transaction is called democracy. Woe to him who forgets that.”

The attacks by Hamas and the war in Gaza were a kind of political trap, guaranteeing a stage for endless performativity for anyone with an opinion on the conflict. At the same time, they provided an easy path to alienating constituents who disagreed. This problem was especially acute for Bowman, who represents one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States. As the same booming voice that thundered at Massie and stood up for TikTok called for a Gaza ceasefire, he never seemed to make the case to his own Jewish constituents. The fact that a few progressive Jews supported his views to him was evidence enough that he was right.

“Mr. Bowman did not visit a synagogue in the weeks after the Oct. 7 attack,” The New York Times noted last month. He seemed to bask in the adulation of the online left, which increasingly embraced him as its hero. At the same time, he activated a dormant Jewish vote. “No more bridges left to burn in Jewish Westchester,” Jewish Insider said of Bowman.

AIPAC was, at most, an accelerant to a political dumpster fire that was already inevitable before the pro-Israel group threw its weight into the race. AIPAC was “NOT the reason Jaamal Bowman will lose tonight,” Democratic Party delegate Candidly Tiff, a Brooklyn native now living in Maryland, wrote in a social-media post. “It’s his lack of legislating, lack of common sense, and performative politics, which does not play well to pragmatic voters.”

Bowman’s desultory campaign ended last weekend with a rally in The Bronx with AOC and Sen. Bernie Sanders. The rally took place in St. Mary’s Park, in the Mott Haven section of the borough. On stage, the congressman raged before a thin audience seemingly made up of pro-Palestinian activists. Because the rally was held well outside Bowman's district, it isn’t clear how many of those present could even vote for him.

“We are gonna show them who the fuck we are,” he shouted. He picked up a stool. He waved his arms, jumping in place. Finally, he enjoined the small crowd to chant his name: “Bowman, Bowman.” They complied, chanting under the hot Bronx sun. But “Bowman, Bowman,” isn’t a political program or policy position. The rally was a sad end to a short career. It needn’t have been that way, but that was what Bowman apparently wanted.

Alexander Nazaryan writes about politics and culture.


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