What Will It Take for the Congressional Progressive Caucus to Win?
All of a sudden, it’s popular to be progressive.
The unexpectedly competitive Democratic primary of 2016, pitting Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, quickly became a battle of “progressives” versus “progressives who get things done.” And in the Democrats’ search for identity following Clinton’s soul-crushing general election loss to Donald Trump, Democratic candidates at all levels throughout the 2018 election cycle wore the progressive badge, even if their definition of “progressive” was sometimes rather ambiguous.
Now, there’s a Democratic majority in Congress, and along with it a diverse class of new lawmakers proposing an agenda which is resolutely radical by the standards of the last 50 years of American politics, on issues ranging from climate change to healthcare to America’s interventions in other countries.
For nearly 30 years, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has been the primary legislative home for the Democratic left. Formed in 1991 by a small group of House lawmakers, including longtime Rep. Maxine Waters and Sanders, and currently chaired by Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan, the CPC now boasts over 90 members. With such large numbers—and with both progressive ideas and left-wing politicians as influential as they have been in generations—the CPC is, in theory, ideally placed to wage significant influence in Washington.
But historically, that’s not how the CPC has operated. While Republican groupings like the House Freedom Caucus operate as a unified army, the CPC tends to let its members go their own way. And despite its name, it doesn’t even have an ideologically unified makeup; in fact, over a dozen members of the CPC also have membership in the New Democratic Coalition, which has historically represented the more pro-business wing of the party.
What, exactly, is the CPC for these days?
Rep. Ro Khanna, a top liberal in the House who serves as the vice chair of the CPC, doesn’t see a problem with this. “My view is, have people of different viewpoints, have a healthy debate, and ultimately they’ll be persuaded to see the merits of things like single-payer, of a trillion dollar infrastructure plan, of a $15 minimum wage,” Khanna told Splinter. “We shouldn’t get hung up on whether someone’s part of two caucuses or three caucuses. What we should focus on is making the substantive argument.”
A central problem facing progressives, however, is that Congress is notoriouslyresistant to enacting the kind of sweeping social and economic change that the left proposes. And some of the boldest progressive proposals, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, have run into stiff opposition from the Democratic leadership, let alone from the GOP or big business.
All of this leads to a simple, central question: What, exactly, is the CPC for these days? It remains to be seen whether the caucus and its allies can make a progressive agenda a reality. For now, perhaps the more pressing question is how they go about doing that—and how much trouble they are willing to cause in the process.
The CPC was launched during the final year of the Soviet Union and a year before Bill Clinton won the presidency. The Democratic Party’s priorities of the time reflected that rightward drift.
At the time, Tom Foley of Washington was the Speaker of the House. “The CPC and the Congressional Black Caucus were a pushback against the influence of [conservative Democrats] at the time,” Bill Grover, a presidential historian and political science professor at Montana State University who served as a legislative aide for Sanders during his first term in the House, told Splinter. “The conservatives really had their hands on the policy lever through the Speaker.”
Even in the early 1990s, the CPC’s priorities weren’t far off from what they are today. In 1996, the caucus held hearings on what they called the “silent depression,” those left behind by a then-booming economy.
But the CPC’s brand of politics was far from popular. The ‘90s were a decade which saw both draconian cuts to social programs and massive Wall Street deregulation. The CPC essentially stood alone against the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which helped usher in the merger of commercial banks, investment banks, and insurance companies. Though CPC members would be proven right that this was a horrible idea, just 57 House lawmakers voted against the bill at the time.
“The reformers in Congress were fighting a two-front war against Republicans and Wall Street, and against Obama administration policymakers”
Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a former co-chair of the group and a leading progressive voice in Congress over the past two decades, told Splinter that, by the time she arrived in the House in 1998, the caucus had grown in size; one member at the time was Nancy Pelosi. The group’s activity, however, was still driven by just “five or six members who were really active,” who would have what she called “small dinner meetings.”
Lee said that she began to push more coordination with outside organizers and progressive groups. “I come from the Bay Area,” she said. “We have to have people power.”
During the Bush years, the group steadily began to make more noise, even after Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 with an explicit strategy to elect conservative Democrats in swing seats. In 2007, an offshoot of the CPC called the Out of Iraq War caucus—founded by Lee, who was then a CPC co-chair—forced a vote on withdrawing troops from Iraq in May 2007. The bill failed, but the next year, Barack Obama won the presidency while promising to withdraw troops from Iraq. (Of course, Obama would eventually put thousands of troops back into the country.)
Often, Obama’s presidency—which came with 257 seats in the House and (briefly) a 60-seat filibuster-proof Senate majority—frustrated many on the left. “The reformers in Congress were fighting a two-front war against Republicans and Wall Street, and against Obama administration policymakers,” former Rep. Brad Miller, a leading progressive on financial reform and consumer protections who left Congress in 2013, told Splinter. “Folks at Treasury under [Timothy] Geithner, folks at the National Economic Council—they really did not want more aggressive reform than what they got.”
But if Obama’s tenure marginalized progressive priorities, that is in part because of choices that the left made.
For instance, the CPC and the CBC helped lead the fight for a public option to be included in the Affordable Care Act, and both went as far as to pledge to then-Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius that they wouldn’t vote for a healthcare reform bill that didn’t include one.
The problem was that the Democrats were always more interested in cutting a deal with the right of the caucus or even the GOP than they were the left. The House at first passed the bill with a public option, but after protest from the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and other moderates—Sen. Joe Lieberman threatened to filibuster any reform bill that included it—the provision was dropped from the final bill. And after succeeding in convincing top House Democrats to water down the final bill, the Blue Dogs largely voted against it as a bloc.
The CPC, on the other hand, eventually capitulated on its demand, and it’s easy to see why. The alternative was no reform—no Medicaid expansion, no ban on pre-existing conditions, and likely no shot at anything approaching universal healthcare for the rest of Obama’s presidency. As it was, the Affordable Care Act passed with the slimmest of House majorities, 219–212.
It was a decision rooted in the belief that something would be better than nothing. As has often been the case throughout history, those moving the bill through Congress calculated that the progressives would eventually come around, and that they were better off negotiating to their right. In the end, the Democratic rebellion against Obamacare came from the right of the caucus; most of the Democrats who voted against the bill were Blue Dogs, including two of the coalition’s three co-chairs at the time.
Voting to pass Obamacare, as deeply flawed a bill as it was, is a defensible decision. But it was still an unmistakable signal about CPC members’ willingness, when it came down to it, to be dutiful foot soldiers for the party—and the problem with that is that sometimes, you have to be willing to defy your generals to make transformative change.
The healthcare debate of 2009–2010 still stings for many progressives, and to this day remains an animating influence on the American left. In an interview with Splinter, Justice Democrats Communications Director Waleed Shahid described his organization’s role as building a “mission-driven caucus that, if a Democrat is elected president, will hold that Democrat’s feet to the fire on these issues.”
The CPC spent 2016 mostly being loyal to Hillary Clinton and preparing for her seemingly inevitable administration. Then, Donald Trump happened.
The Democratic Party of 2019, of course, is not the Democratic Party of 2009. As FiveThirtyEight pointed out in November, there were about 1.5 CPC members in the House during the Democrats’ last majority for every one Blue Dog; this time, there’s closer to a four to one advantage.
“It did some good work. It was certainly not as cohesive as some of the other caucuses,” Miller recalled of the CPC while he was in office. “[The Blue Dogs] really identified themselves as members of that caucus, and a great deal of their time they spent on caucus activities, and that was an important part of how the House was organized....the progressives were a whole lot less cohesive.”
When the Democrats lost the House, the consequences were felt most by the Blue Dogs; in 2010, it lost over half of its members in the House, and by 2015, just three of the 34 Democrats who voted against the ACA were still in Congress. And partially as a result of that, the CPC’s influence began to grow.
Once John Boehner took the speaker’s gavel, CPC members led the effort against cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, even as Obama supported the chained CPI in negotiations with Republicans, which would have tied Social Security to inflation rates. The CPC fought against that, and along with the CBC began to develop “alternative budgets” to the austerity proposals of the time.
The CPC began to challenge Obama a bit more, especially on issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Keystone XL pipeline. It also turned its attention to issues of labor, lending early support to the Fight for $15 movement, and other problems central to the still-struggling working class. But the CPC and progressives in Congress were still playing a supporting role rather than a leading one when it came to policy.
The CPC spent 2016 mostly being loyal to Hillary Clinton—although several members endorsed Sanders in the primary, its campaign arm endorsed her as soon as the primary ended—and preparing for her seemingly inevitable administration. Then, Donald Trump happened.
On the heels of both the success of the Sanders campaign and the extremism of the Trump administration, the 2018 cycle was the first chance for progressives to prove both that the left’s resurgence was here to stay and that cautious incrementalism belonged in the past. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, led by now-Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, had other ideas, and tended to support and boost more moderate candidates in its Red-to-Blue program, similar to what former DCCC chief Rahm Emanuel had done back in 2006.
Still, it was clear that the real seismic changes within the party were coming from the party’s left: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley defeated senior incumbent Democrats in primaries, while other left-wing freshmen such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Deb Haaland won competitive primaries in deep-blue districts.
(Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Pressley declined to be interviewed for this story, while the offices of Tlaib and Haaland didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. While reporting this piece, Splinter requested interviews with over 50 current members of the CPC, including co-chairs Jayapal and Pocan; only five agreed to an interview with us.)
Even before the general election, questions about how progressives would wield power began popping up. In an interview with Daniel Denvir of The Dig podcast shortly after her primary upset, Ocasio-Cortez raised the idea of forming a smaller, more ideologically rigid “sub-caucus of the progressive caucus” that could wield power in a way similar to what the House Freedom Caucus did during the GOP’s years of power. Most notably, the Freedom Caucus helped force the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker in 2015. “If you can even carve out a caucus of 10, 30 people, it does not take a lot, if you operate as a bloc vote, to really make strong demands on things,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“Being a member of both caucuses will help ensure my constituents are represented in as many decision-making tables as possible”
Instead of gaining steam, however, the idea for a smaller subset of the CPC appears to have gone cold. Even Khanna, one of the most liberal members of the caucus on issues like war and the safety net, is resistant to the idea of a sub-caucus. “My fundamental critique of the Freedom Caucus is dogmatism, that they have such a certainty in their viewpoint,” he said. “I don’t have that certainty in my own viewpoint. No individual or caucus has a monopoly on the truth...I would reject any caucus that was ideologically rigid with no openness to exchange.
“That said, I think the progressive caucus will be very effective in getting results on our key priorities,” Khanna added. The House Democrats’ thin majority of fewer than 20 seats also helps, as the CPC would theoretically be able to leverage its power effectively on the most important issues of the day even if just half of the caucus supports or opposes something.
Another reason that sub-caucus idea never gained steam is that the CPC itself could be adopting a similar approach very soon. In February, the Washington Postreported that Jayapal and Pocan were “putting the finishing touches” on a plan to require that members support a “certain number of liberal policy prescriptions in order to join the CPC,” and that the CPC had created a task force to come up with a “voting bloc proposal” mandating that all members stick together on certain votes.
Jayapal told the Post that this wasn’t a “purity test,” but rather an attempt to set out “some guidelines about what we stand for.” While details of the proposal have yet to be released, Jayapal told the Post that would “probably” mandate that all members ”support three out of four liberal policy prescriptions or legislation in 12 to 14 categories.”
This is encouraging news for anyone who wishes the CPC would be somewhat more ideologically coherent. But any demands for more legislative unity could cause trouble with some of the caucus’ members—especially those who are also members of other, more conservative blocs in the House.
Rep. Adam Smith is a perfect embodiment of the ideological variance in the CPC.
Smith was elected to the House in 1996 at the age of 31. He quickly rose through the ranks of the New Democratic Coalition, serving as a co-chair for the group in the mid-2000s. He credited his initial political leaning to having “a lot more confidence that I knew the right answers to everything then.”
“My general take, having grown up where I grew up, is that we had been insufficiently responsive to concerns about people who had liberal politics,” Smith told Splinter. “I grew up in a union family and grew up a working class kid, but I believe in national security and I’m not anti-business, and the New Dems seemed to be the group of people that fit those ideas.” Smith was one of the more moderate members in Congress, and enthusiastically supported the Iraq War.
But around 2001 or 2002, according to Smith, he began to undergo what he calls a “big transition.” Eventually, Smith joined the CPC while maintaining his membership in the NDC. (Smith said he joined within the “last four or five years”; he began appearing on the CPC’s public roster sometime between September and November 2017, according to the Wayback Machine.)
Last year, Smith faced a challenger from his left, the Justice Democrats-endorsed Sarah Smith (no relation), who attacked the incumbent for his Iraq War vote and implicit support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, exemplified by a 2016 vote Smith took against banning the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Sarah Smith placed second in Washington’s top-two primary and reached the general election, but the incumbent won in a landslide.
Whether due to an honest change of heart or an effort to ward off future challenges (or a combination of the two), Smith—the chair of the Armed Services Committee who maintains he’s still focused on “fiscal responsibility and national security”—has become a reliable supporter of the CPC’s agenda so far in the current Congress. Along with Khanna and Pocan, Smith helped introduce the very rarely-used War Powers Resolution to pull the U.S. out of Yemen in the last Congress, and despite downplaying its tangible effect after winning re-election, helped get it through the House in February.
In addition, Smith is co-sponsoring the Green New Deal resolution in the House—“while recognizing we have a lot more work to do,” he added—as well as Jayapal’s Medicare for All bill, while noting he’d also support “incremental” improvements to the ACA until Medicare for All has the votes.
“I don’t want to re-litigate that election, but if you read the Intercept, the news articles, you’ll see exactly what happened”
Smith isn’t alone in holding membership in both caucuses. Several of those holding dual membership in the NDC and CPC are freshmen members. (According to the NDC’s roster, the group now has a total of 101 members. The Blue Dogs, which had been decimated since 2010, now have 27 members, including 10 freshmen who also joined the NDC.)
“Being part of both the New Dem Coalition and the Congressional Progressive Caucus allows me to put constituents over labels and advocate for all of the issues that affect them,” first-year Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a self-described “progressive pragmatist” who joined both caucuses, told Splinter in a statement. “Being a member of both caucuses will help ensure my constituents are represented in as many decision-making tables as possible.”
Even the more staunchly progressive members of the CPC said they had no issue with members joining both caucuses. “I think that we want to get as many people as involved with the caucus as we can as long as they really want to advance the progressive agenda,” Rep. Andy Levin, a freshman member from Michigan, told Splinter last week. “I don’t see it as a big problem.”
In an interview with Splinter, Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat who’s part of both the New Democrats and the CPC, pointed out that he was “unrestrained” in his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which put him at odds with most other members of the progressive caucus. But while more conservative than the average member on economics, Beyer said he was drawn to join the CPC as well because of its work on the environment and “lifting people out of poverty.” Until recently, he told Splinter last month, he never felt that there was tension between the moderates and the progressives.
“I felt it more the past couple of weeks than the first four years,” Beyer said.
Even before the new Congress was sworn in, the increasing ideological tensions within the CPC itself—let alone the larger Democratic caucus—were exposed.
After incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley lost his primary to Ocasio-Cortez, Lee—a rare beloved politician on the left, not least of all for her lone vote against the original authorization of use of military force in Afghanistan back in 2001—announced she would run to replace Crowley as the chair of the Democratic caucus, which is now the fifth-highest-ranking position in the House. She was challenged for the spot by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who, while a fellow CPC member, was distrusted by some on the left for the support he’s received from charter school advocates and his criticisms of Sanders during the 2016 primary. (Jeffries’ office didn’t respond to multiple emailed requests for an interview.)
Jeffries narrowly defeated Lee; the Intercept reported that he did so with help from former Crowley. “I don’t want to re-litigate that election, but if you read the Intercept, the news articles, you’ll see exactly what happened,” Lee told Splinter with a laugh. (Crowley’s office disputed the Intercept’s account at the time, telling Splinter in November that he “played no role in the race for caucus chair” and that allegations he whipped votes for Jeffries were “false and inaccurate.”)
But, Lee added, there are progressives in the leadership—including herself, as she was appointed a co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which makes committee assignments. Although the top four members of the leadership aren’t members of any caucus, nine of the 14 elected members of the leadership are CPC members.
“The progressive caucus is a major influencer in every policy decision,” Lee said. “When you look at committee chairs, you’ll find many progressive caucus members.”
“I’ve got colleagues saying, ‘Don’t make me take a vote on Medicare for All,’” Levin said. “And I’m saying, ‘Dude, I ran on Medicare for All. I have to push for a vote.’”
A reflection of how rapidly the caucus is changing as younger, more left-wing members get elected to Congress can be found in the recent dust-ups over Omar’s comments about AIPAC and the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on American politics. The comments were denounced as anti-Semitic by senior Democratic lawmakers, including some in the CPC, while newer members such as Pressley and Tlaib—and later, presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—came to Omar’s defense. It was, to date, the most prominent example of the new members of Congress challenging long-standing Washington consensus.
But with those exceptions, what Democratic infighting has taken place has mostly been between the broad left of the caucus, its center, and especially its right, a natural reflection of the tensions within a two-party system.
So far in this Congress, conservative and moderate Democrats have joined the Republicans to support several procedural votes, including one that slipped a provision into a gun control bill that would alert ICE when an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun and another in the Yemen resolution that included a rebuke of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli government. (Although that one passed unanimously, Pelosi’s office had reportedly urged members to vote against it before Rep. Eliot Engel argued that his party should vote for it.)
Twenty-eight House Democrats also voted for a GOP amendment to alert ICE when an undocumented immigrant attempts to buy a gun, which reportedly caused a spat where both left-wing members and the leadership slammed the caucus’s right for being willing to hand both the GOP a win and ICE another surveillance tool against undocumented people.
For the most part, though, the Democratic caucus has remained united behind the big-ticket items on its agenda so far, easily passing bills on voting rights and gun control.
And despite grumblings from the caucus’s right wing, the Democrats didn’t blink during the month-plus long government shutdown. “More conservative and middle of the road Democrats were expressing a lot more anxiety,” Levin told Splinter. “There was some compromise, but we did pretty well.”
But the leadership’s big-ticket items are there for a reason: they’re the things Democrats coalesce around with little controversy. The Democratic left’s big asks do not enjoy such immediate support. When it comes to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, there’s still a lot of resistance within the caucus, even as both gain public popularity. “I’ve got colleagues saying, ‘Don’t make me take a vote on Medicare for All,’” Levin said. “And I’m saying, ‘Dude, I ran on Medicare for All. I have to push for a vote.’”
After Medicare for All was the signature policy item of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, its popularity has grown exponentially, despite (or perhaps exacerbated by) the GOP’s repeated efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Whereas public opinion was mostly split on the idea of single-payer in 2008 and 2009, support for a single-payer plan has hovered between 50 and 60 percent since early 2018.
Sanders, who is running for president again, is no longer the only candidate in the primary who’s backing single-payer. Fellow 2020 candidates (and senators) Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have all signaled their support for Medicare for All, and all four signed on as co-sponsors to Sanders’ Medicare for All bill last year.
In the House, Jayapal introduced this year what’s assuredly the most comprehensive Medicare for All bill thus far. And it came with firepower—106 co-sponsors right off the bat. All were Democrats, but not all of them were CPC members; Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a moderate Democrat who recently began her third stint in the House in the past 10 years, told the Hill last month that she decided to back Jayapal’s bill after a conversation with her physician daughter.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced (non-binding) resolutions in Congress this year affirming the body’s support for a Green New Deal—which, aside from launching a nationwide mobilization to neutralize the country’s carbon footprint by 2030, aims to greatly expand the safety net with guaranteed healthcare, housing, and union jobs. Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution currently has 90 co-sponsors, while Markey’s has 11, including all six Senate Democrats who’ve announced that they’re running for president. Additionally, early pollingfor the Green New Deal has proved promising.
Is the Democratic Party ever going to be ready?
But in order to enact progressives’ biggest priorities, the CPC and its allies have gigantic political and institutional obstacles to overcome. Apart from the most obvious one—a GOP-led Senate and White House until 2021 at the earliest—there’s the 60-vote Senate filibuster, which 2020 candidates (including Sanders) have expressed a reluctance to get rid of. And don’t forget about all of your favorite vanguards of American capitalism: Wall Street, the oil and gas industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and so on and so forth.
On top of that, Pelosi has been less than enthusiastic about both. On the day the Green New Deal resolution was introduced in February, Pelosi referred to it as the “green dream” and said that “nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” She also said that any action on the climate will have to be “Congresswide”—a futile effort with such a far-right Republican caucus.
And later that month in an interview with Rolling Stone, Pelosi gave a description of Medicare for All that bore very little resemblance to what Jayapal’s plan aims to do, and said it was “not as good a benefit as the Affordable Care Act.” The Intercept also reported in February that a top Pelosi aide had reassured Blue Cross Blue Shield executives, in a closed-door meeting in December, that the leadership was firmly against single-payer.
Other progressive priorities, such as the dismantling of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, appear to be even further in the wilderness. Ocasio-Cortez was the only Democrat to vote against re-opening the government in January because, as she said at the time, “one of the spending bills included ICE funding, and our community felt strongly about not funding that.” The following month, 18 other Democrats joined Ocasio-Cortez in voting against another budget deal with increased DHS funding, including Omar, Pressley, Tlaib, Jayapal, and Pocan. (The main objection for some, including six Texas Democrats of various political leanings, was the wall funding.)
Pelosi, as part of a deal cut with rebels on the right of the caucus last year, has agreed to step down as Democratic leader by 2022 at the latest. But her reluctance to support any of these items raises an even larger question for congressional progressives and their ideas: Is the Democratic Party ever going to be ready?
For progressives on both the inside and outside of Congress, this is where “people power,” which Lee referred to as the CPC’s “operating principle,” comes in.
“The public is demanding that we come up with policies that are progressive and not tinker around the edges with incremental changes,” Lee told Splinter. “That’s what the progressive caucus has always stood for.”
“If a President Warren or Harris or Sanders or whoever feels like they have to negotiate with Henry Cuellar and Joe Manchin before they have to negotiate with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Pramila Jayapal, that’s bad for the progressive movement”
Advocacy groups in support of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, such as the labor union National Nurses United and the climate action group Sunrise Movement, have been as successful as any member at helping to keep these priorities in the spotlight and encouraging reluctant members to sign on. Beyer, for example, credits his decision to sign onto last year’s iteration of the Medicare for All bill to his constituents. “The original sign-on came after a town hall meeting that I had where 18 of the first 20 speakers were about Medicare for All,” Beyer said, although he admits that he’s “not sure the Bernie Sanders approach is the best way to do it.”
“The CPC recognizes that they have a vital role to play on the inside of Congress, and that the mass movement at the grassroots has a vital role to play,” Ken Zinn, NNU’s political director, told Splinter. “It can’t simply be all on the Hill. There’s got to be a growing movement putting pressure on these elected leaders to push for the change. That’s how all progressive change in this country has ever come about.”
Whether it’s persuasion by CPC members and leaders or simply the winds of public opinion blowing to the left, it’s clear that something is changing in the Democratic Party when the expansion of government has become a litmus test for presidential candidates.
Given the failures of 2009 and 2010, however, there remains the issue of moderate Democrats who’ve stood against the party’s leftward shift. That’s the basic premise behind Justice Democrats, which played a crucial role in Ocasio-Cortez’s victory; already, the group has announced a primary fund for a challenge to Cuellar, a Blue Dog from a safe Democratic seat in Texas which Clinton won by 20 points in 2016. More names are almost certainly to come.
“If a President Warren or Harris or Sanders or whoever feels like they have to negotiate with Henry Cuellar and Joe Manchin before they have to negotiate with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Pramila Jayapal,” Shahid said, “That’s bad for the progressive movement.”
The CPC’s ultimate strategy for getting what it wants is rather simple: 218 votes in the House and 60 (or 51) in the Senate. Given polarization and gerrymandering, it’s hard to envision (without another seismic political event on the level of the Civil War or the Great Depression) one party in Congress having the sorts of majorities that Democrats enjoyed during the New Deal era. And so the numbers game is stacked heavily against the CPC, especially when the Democrats’ conventional wisdom for winning the swing seats necessary for a majority—one which isn’t likely to change with Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Medicare for All skeptic from Illinois, at the DCCC helm—has been to back moderates and conservative candidates.
As difficult as that may seem, the effects of Democrats engaging the right and taking the left for granted are well-documented in the record; 10 years later, we’re still arguing about the public option, although things have shifted enough that it’s now the de facto option for Democrats who can’t stomach the two-year transition to Medicare for All that Jayapal’s bill calls for. And more often than not, these attempts to appease moderate Democrats and even Republicans during the only two periods of unified Democratic government in the CPC’s existence came with very few votes to show for it.
“Try to make sure people who say they’re for you really are.”
If you view American politics through this lens, negotiating to the center and the right has only served to water down progressive policy rather than strengthen it, and replacing more conservative members of the Democratic caucus with allies—or members who can be whipped into voting for the agenda via direct action and primary threats—is the only way to avoid those mistakes of the past.
Although Jayapal and Pocan both ultimately declined to be interviewed for this story, they offered a comment when asked how they plan to enact some of their biggest priorities, given the current obstacles they face.
“We are in a progressive moment. Families across the nation–in rural, urban and suburban areas—want to see bold ideas to fix our rigged economy and restore power to the people,” Jayapal and Pocan said in the statement. “The Democratic majority today is far for more progressive than the majority in 2006. Put simply, we have a mandate from the American people for our bold, forward-looking agenda.
“Passing Democratic priorities—on lowering prescription drugs costs, ensuring college affordability, raising wages, and more—will require the buy-in of the Progressive Caucus,” the pair added. “We are ready to use our ideas and numbers to deliver the bold change that the American people voted for.”
Despite the challenges they face, it’s clear that progressivism, or at least the core ideals of American progressives, are gaining steam in the U.S. What’s more unclear is what, exactly, it will take to overcome the wall of opposition that’s sure to face them.
Miller, the North Carolina congressman, who witnessed so many of those progressive hopes go down the drain the last time the Democrats had a unified government and an ambitious plan to take on a multitude of problems either created or exacerbated by a Republican president, has a simple piece of advice for this generation of progressives looking to enact sweeping social and economic change in America: “Try to make sure people who say they’re for you really are.”