In an effort to calm recurring speculation on the internal fight among congressional Democrats, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez emerged from a meeting last week with the optics of renewed unity and purpose after weeks of public sparring.
For weeks now, the tensions within the Democratic Party caucus have been building over political differences in how to respond to the Trump-led Republican agenda. Those tensions boiled over when Pelosi pushed through a multi-billion-dollar bill that provided funding for the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) with none of the amendments negotiated by progressives for added migrant protections. For Pelosi, the showdown over the bill was intended to assure centrist Democrats that she was still in charge of the party caucus despite growing media attention for more left-wing Democrats.
But the popularity of progressives in Congress is not a media creation. It reflects the growing popularity of democratic socialist ideas across the country, and a growing desire for deep and substantive change in politics.
The latest voting dispute over border funding brought to the surface deeper discord over the party’s political direction. These tensions have been heightened because the Democratic Party believes it can win the White House in 2020 and Congress if it calculates correctly. For most of the party, and certainly its leadership, this strategy rests on Trump being too racist and reckless for moderates and even some traditional Republican voters to stomach.
For the Democratic Party leadership, this translates into demonstrating their legislating mettle while pursuing modest, if imperceptible, reform at an incremental pace. Following this, Pelosi has counseled her more radical counterparts in insisting that, “By and large, whatever orientation they came to Congress with, they know we have to hold the center . . . We have to go down the mainstream.”
After the conflict over DHS funding boiled over, Pelosi tried to diffuse the matter by comparing the disagreement to a family spat. She told the press, “in a family you have your differences but you’re still a family . . . I don’t think we have that many differences.” But this sunny spin on the conflict misses what lies at its root.
A significantly smaller group of Democrats is led by “the Squad” (Ocasio-Cortez [D-NY], Ayanna Pressley [D-MA], Ilhan Omar [D-MN], and Rashida Tlaib [D-MI]), who won their congressional races by contrasting themselves to the plodding centrism of the Party’s leadership. These are mostly younger and new elected officials who reject the forty-year strategy of the Democratic Party to prioritize business development and growth through tax cuts and demonizing poor and working-class people. Instead, a small number of these new politicians believe the future of the party is retooling the use of government through the pursuit of a big spending agenda organized around the social provision of health care, education, housing, and green jobs.
It’s the base of the Democratic Party that is feeling the Republican Party’s attacks most acutely, from its tax giveaways to the rich, to the malfeasance at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to Betsy Devos’s criminal incompetence as secretary of education. Of course, these attacks predate the Trump administration. In fact, the Obama administration’s failure to address the stagnation in the work, school, and home life of working-class Americans helped pave the way for Trump. The enormity of Trump’s attack on the already fragile public sector, in combination with his draconian border policies, demands a correspondingly large and dramatic response from the Democratic Party.
The Squad has risen to this challenge, despite House speaker Pelosi’s efforts to belittle them. In the midst of the latest conflict, Pelosi claimed, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world . . . But they didn’t have any following . . . They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” It was an overwhelming response against “four people” who Pelosi claims do not represent much. But as Pelosi and other leaders within the Democratic Party understand, the four represent so much more.
Their willingness to confront Trump while offering concrete policy proposals that embrace generous social spending has fueled their popularity. Their support flows from the boldness of political demands like abolishing ICE and taxing the rich to pay for universal programs such as Medicare for All and free college. In the sterile world of the Democratic Party, these positions have provoked an existential crisis. But the popularity of the squad — and Bernie Sanders — has forced party moderates to engage with their political agenda even as it bewilders and frustrates them.
The Center Has No Answers
As Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership, cling to moderation, they are misjudging the political moment and drawing all of the wrong conclusions about the failure of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run.
In 2016, the DNC concluded that they lost the election because of the manipulation of Russian agents, Bernie Sanders’s popularity, and James Comey’s investigation of Clinton’s emails. In doing so, they conveniently avoided an honest assessment of their own strategy, which assumed Trump’s boorish behavior would be his undoing. It was a bad miscalculation.
In many ways, the election was a referendum on Barack Obama’s underwhelming tenure. Hillary Clinton assumed that Obama’s popularity would pave the way for her own victory. Meanwhile, she campaigned on the message of “America is already great” — ignoring the struggles that ordinary people sustained even under Obama, the most dramatic example being the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement during his second term. And yet, amid all of the endless speculation on what motivated Trump voters, there was less attention paid to why one hundred million eligible voters stayed home from the election described as the most important of our lifetime.
Mainstream Democratic strategists continue to cling to a belief that a section of Republicans will wake up to Trump’s racism and migrate to the Democrats in horror. But there is another strategy: activate the people who have become cynical about electoral politics and think both parties are lost causes. The Squad and Bernie Sanders believe that a social-democratic agenda that attacks major problems like wealth inequality, the climate crisis, and student debt can attract a significant portion of the one hundred million eligible nonvoters and crush the Republicans.
The Democratic Party leadership would love to keep appealing to so-called moderate Republicans. But the political center they invoke no longer exists. The hard-right politics of Trump have closed the political center and forced all in politics to pick sides. For the Republicans, it has pushed them to openly embrace Trump’s racism and violence instead of making vague gestures in that direction. And for Democrats, it has pushed the most outspoken and politically radical elected officials to the forefront of the party, while the centrists have struggled to catch up. That’s why much of the Democratic presidential field are aping the same platform Bernie Sanders was mocked for in 2016.
But the moderates are still fighting to bring the party back to the center, even if they give lip service to the Left. Pelosi’s recent public admonishments of the Squad were an effort to exercise some discipline over the party’s dissidents. Because AOC, Omar, and Tlaib ran in solidly Democratic districts, Pelosi claimed, anyone could have won their elections. AOC responded that Pelosi was singling out “women of color,” which provoked party moderates to rally in Pelosi’s defense. The conflict that subsequently ballooned exposed the lengths to which operatives within the Democratic Party are willing to go to maintain their seats and political power. It also revealed a depth of political stagnation and rot.
It’s not just that moderates don’t see politics as their left-wing colleagues do. It’s that the structure of American politics, and the way money greases all its wheels, have habituated many of these politicians to the norms of dirty deals and compromise. Meanwhile, as their base continues to suffer and they are challenged from the left to do more, they cannot engage in a meaningful debate about the agenda or direction of the party. Instead, they fall back on clichés, banal sound bites, or worse, they initiate reckless attacks.
Consider the pathetic confrontation members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) tried to instigate with AOC, Bernie Sanders, and the rest of the Squad. Some CBC members defended Pelosi not just on her record, but by challenging the Squad’s right to speak on behalf of “women of color.”
The CBC is clearly also feeling the pressure of rising expectations and demands from their left. When the CBC first formed, it was in much closer alignment with the Black Power insurgency and generalized black radicalization that fueled black electoral participation. In the early 1970s, the CBC included socialist Ron Dellums from Oakland and radical Shirley Chisholm, representing Brooklyn. They led a cohort of black elected officials who felt some connection and responsibility to the movements of the period.
But as the movements went into decline, so too did its influence on black elected officials. For the roughly fifty years of their existence, the CBC has been used to occupying the furthest left plank of the Democratic Party. But in the last several decades, as the party has moved to the right, that designation has meant next to nothing.
Now, even as a small but real left wing within the Democratic Party has emerged, the CBC’s hollowed-out liberalism has been exposed. This doesn’t make the CBC unique; it makes the body and many of its members creatures of the political status quo, insiders to the corrupt arena of congressional politics.
The underlying context is that some CBC members have been angry about the increasing pressure on the Democratic Party establishment to do more. Some of that pressure has come from the Justice Democrats, the organization that ran AOC in 2018 and that has become famous for targeting the seats of sitting Democrats with lackluster political records.
But those seats aren’t vulnerable because CBC members are the victims of a racist campaign by the Justice Democrats. Instead, they are vulnerable for the same reasons that all stagnant political centrists are vulnerable: life is getting worse at the bottom, and people expect their political representatives to act on their behalf.
For example, CBC member Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY), an eleven-term Congressman and the leader of the Democratic Party in Queens, used the AOC-Pelosi confrontation to threaten AOC with a primary challenger in the next election cycle. Meeks put it this way: “It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process.”
But Meeks is proof positive of how the CBC has deteriorated from a group that considered itself the “conscience of the Congress” when it formed out of the fires of the 1960 and ’70s, to an impotent gatekeeping operation concerned primarily with retaining its positions of power.
The desire to hold power at all costs means that Meeks, and others like him, sacrifice the interest of black voters for the donations and political favors that ingratiate them within the political establishment. While African Americans in New York City are being ravaged by mass displacement fueled by real-estate speculation, Meeks has raked in donations from the real estate and banking industries, including Goldman Sachs and Quicken Loans.
Worse, in the recent hotly contested race for Queens district attorney, Meeks backed establishment candidate Melinda Katz over the left-wing reformer Tiffany Cabán. Cabán’s campaign promised a host of criminal justice reforms that would have the biggest impact on working-class African Americans in Queens. That didn’t stop Meeks from disingenuously blasting senators Warren and Sanders for endorsing Cabán, claiming that “Warren and Sanders saw fit to endorse without even considering what African Americans thought.”
If Meeks were actually representing the interests of ordinary African Americans, he would clearly be an ally of AOC and the rest of the Squad instead of seeing them as a threat to the comfort of his political seat. No one stands to gain more from a democratic socialist agenda than African Americans, who remain overrepresented in the ranks of the poor, underemployed, uninsured, indebted, and dispossessed. Yet Meeks engages in shameless race-baiting to fiercely protect the political establishment. In the Queens district attorney race, he did so at the expense of working-class African Americans who have the most to lose if another another law-and-order district attorney is elected.
Sometimes the interests of ordinary African Americans intersect with the CBC, like when it defends voting rights. But when the CBC Foundation — its nonprofit wing — solicits donations from Walmart and other corporations that make their money through the exploitation of black misery, its interests are placed at odds with the larger black population.
In the end, the Democratic establishment’s attacks on its left wing were upstaged by Trump. Pelosi and the Democratic old guard were caught off guard when Trump picked up the Democrats’ dog whistle and used it to launch an openly racist attack on the Squad. Trump told the four elected congresswomen, all citizens of the United States, that they should “go back to and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
The Democrats had no choice but to vociferously back AOC and the other congresswomen. The CBC had to immediately stop its baseless attack and speak out against Trump’s unhinged racism. Trump continued to bait the Democrats by convening an early campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, where his racist tweets culminated into a chant against Ilhan Omar: “Send her back!” It was a stunning moment: a sitting president inciting a crowd of rabid racists to attack a Black Muslim congresswoman. The Republican Party has given up on colorblindness and is, instead, throwing its support behind the unbridled racism of Trump.
A week later, Trump was at it again when he attacked African American representative Elijah Cummings as a “brutal bully” who represents a “rat and rodent infested” Baltimore—which Trump went on to describe as a place “no human being” would want to live. Trump has doubled down on racism, which has forced the Democratic Party establishment to temper their public critiques of its outspoken left flank.
In the meantime, the majority of the population remains stuck between a racist GOP and a Democratic Party determined to lower the expectations of its base. Without a mass movement outside of these parties, we stand little chance of winning the desperately needed reforms that are being demanded from below. Those deep desires for the government to use its public money for something other than war and repression is what has created the space for the Squad and Sanders to exist in the first place. The enormous platform wielded by those elected officials helps amplify desires for reform, increasing the visibility of fights for universal health care and against migrant detention camps.
This creates a powerful dynamic between the congressional rebels and the broader public from whom they derive their support. The challenge is in transforming that support into mobilizations and social movements that have the power to bring about the sweeping change working people desperately need.