The emergence of a group of young progressive women of color in the U.S. Congress is clearly of great significance. For the first time, activists who came out of the social movements of the 2010s are sitting in important governmental positions and are fearlessly articulating a progressive agenda. The question is: how will these new members of Congress re-shape the Democratic Party?
The Congressional Progressive Caucus now has 98 members, including 29 newly elected Representatives. Forty-seven members of Congress are women of color. Among the new members are four –Ilhan Omar (one of the two first Muslim women ever elected to Congress) , Ayana Pressley (the first African American woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts), Rashida Tlaib (the other Muslim woman elected in 2018 from Michigan) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who famously unseated a powerful Democratic leader in New York City)—who refer to themselves and are widely known as the Squad.
The Squad has had, in their first six months in office, an outsized impact both in the Congress and on public opinion. They have called out Trump’s racism and demanded his impeachment. They have been outspoken advocates for social democratic policies, such as universal health insurance and the New Green Deal. All four are at the forefront of demanding the elimination of Trump’s migrant concentration camps, as well as ICE as a whole. In May, Ilhan Omar was targeted by Republicans and Zionist-supporting Democrats for her critical stance towards Israel, and in the ensuing fight, Democrats were forced to defend her and oppose racism in general.https://justice4all.law.blog/2019/03/10/ilhan-omar-and-the-future-of-the-democratic-party/ . In July, Trump’s tweets and campaign rallies demanding that the Squad members “go back to their own country” led to a House resolution condemning the President’s remarks as racist. To put it mildly, it is highly unusual for new members of Congress to become so influential in setting the agenda for the Democrats, let alone the House of Representatives.
But the Squad has bigger dreams than influencing this Congress: each woman is identified with an insurgency to unseat centrist Democrats and replace them with progressive activists. AOC’s chief of staff was the founder of Justice Democrats, an organization that recruited, trained and supported all four of the Squad’s campaigns, and is sponsoring five more candidates for 2020. https://www.justicedemocrats.com/The Squad is also closely aligned with Brand New Congress, an organization seeking to field progressive challenges to some forty ‘moderate’ members of Congress in Democratic primaries next year. https://brandnewcongress.org/ The Squad has notified the Democratic establishment that women, people of color and young people will not tolerate business as usual. AOC publicly criticized Nancy Pelosi in June for not fighting harder for stipulations for humane treatment of migrants in the DHS funding bill passed by Congress. Ilhan Omar called out Obama for his immigration policies. AOC has repeatedly stated that the insurgency will win because of the movement they are building. She points to her 4 million Twitter followers as evidence for this movement’s size.
Here’s the problem: The Squad is undertaking this historic insurgency at a very dangerous moment: Democrats must now determine their strategy for contending with Trump in 2020. Virtually everyone agrees that the most important question is how to prevent Trump from having another four years to continue his assault on democracy. Progressives argue that the only way for the Democrats to win is to appeal to voters who are often taken for granted, especially women of color, with broad and bold proposals. Centrist Democrats are accused of being overly focused on white suburban independents and displaced white workers in the Upper Midwest states and Pennsylvania, a strategy that cost them the 2016 elections. Centrists respond that a shift of the Democrats to the left will doom them in the 2020 elections.
Based on the Democrats’ first Presidential debates last month, it appears that most of the aspiring candidates are feeling the need to tilt towards progressive politics. (Indeed, Kamala Harris’ s decision to call out Joe Biden’s opposition to court-ordered plans to desegregate public schools in the 1980s and 1990s was a similar tactic to that used by the Squad, and it immediately galvanized widespread support for the only woman of color running for President in 2020.)
In the long run, the progressive push on the Democrats may very well produce their desired result. The Democratic Party (particularly the Clintonian centrists) is indeed complicit in many of the policies of the last thirty years that produced hyper-inequality, mass incarceration, violence against immigrant communities, and the downward spiral of the climate crisis. Progressives are certainly right that in the long run the Democrats can only be a viable party to the extent that they embrace policies that benefit the majority of the population, and not just the top 1 percent.
“Grassroots social movements in the United States today have limited capacity, and without the muscle of organized labor, women, and communities of color, progressive politicians also have limited capacity.”
But is the Squad and their progressive allies building a movement capable of delivering enough votes to defeat Trump a year and a few months from now? Unfortunately, I would argue that they are not. My reason: grassroots social movements in the United States today have limited capacity, and without the muscle of organized labor, women, and communities of color, progressive politicians also have limited capacity. This is not to say that grassroots social movements don’t exist: they do, and from time to time are able to win important victories. But these movements have not been able to galvanize large numbers of people into long-term activism, and to keep them organized and mobilized on multiple issues on a national level. As a result, there are sporadic upsurges of protests, but the energy soon dissipates because the participants are not organized and lack a unified vision to connect to other social movements.
Getting people to participate in electoral politics is a specific form of organizing work, one that is highly centralized and guided by top-down decision-making and media-focused messaging. Some people can participate in electoral campaigns as activists, but their activism is solely focused on securing their candidates’ election, and usually ends after the election. The large majority of people who support progressive candidates show up to vote (hopefully), and might attend a march, but do nothing else. Building support for a progressive politician is not the same thing as building a grassroots social movement. The current fad of progressives referring to electoral work as ‘movement building’ is in this sense quite misleading.
Progressive electoral campaigns that are backed up by grassroots social movements—like the civil rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, or the labor movement from the 1930s to the 1960s—have a different relationship to power. Once in office, elected officials who receive grassroots movement support can count on the social movement to continue to support their legislative agenda, and the social movement can also grow to the extent that elected officials raise issues that educate and activate people.
The big problem facing the Squad and other progressive politicians in 2019 is that grassroots social movements are not gaining momentum, size and power at this time. As a consequence, progressive elected officials have limited power. This is precisely Nancy Pelosi’s problem with the Squad: when AOC publicly called out Pelosi for her decision to abandon progressives’ language requiring humanitarian treatment of migrants in the emergency border budget bill, the Speaker tartly reminded AOC that the Squad was unable to get a single other Democrat to vote with them in opposition to the bill. “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.”
Even worse, recent polling suggests that Trump’s efforts to make the Squad the face of the Democrats seems to be working to his advantage: his racist and red-baiting attacks on the Squad have led to an increase in his favorable ratings.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is far stronger now than it was in 2012 or 2016, in part thanks to the Squad’s leadership. And, in the long run, the progressive agenda will certainly win widespread support, as the seriousness of the climate crisis hits home, as the stagnation of the majority of peoples’ standards of living becomes intolerable, as people become repulsed by Republican racism and misogyny, as organizing efforts break through the walls of Republican voter suppression grow. But will these changes happen in the next year? I don’t think so. Most Americans are not alarmed by the state of the U.S. economy; the efforts to impeach Trump are not galvanizing widespread support; the horrors of Trump’s border policies have not moved Americans to do anything (and that includes progressives!); women’s reproductive rights are under attack with little grassroots fightback, etc.
Progressives should take heart in the fact that the fight to shift the Democrats to become a left-led coalition is under way. The number of progressives winning elections is growing, and progressives’ influence in the Democratic Party is too. But, given the long slump in grassroots movements’ power in the United States, it would be naïve to think that progressives can set the agenda for the 2020 election, or expect the Democrats to nominate a progressive candidate for President. Now is a good time for progressives to take a deep breath, be realistic about our actual influence, and understand that participating in the Democratic Party’s center-led coalition in 2020 will increase, not decrease our influence in the future.