The US left has made historic advances on the electoral front in recent years. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid breathed life into a progressive wing of the Democratic Party which will likely become a permanent feature of the US political landscape. Apart from Sanders himself, the most visible expression of this new left has been the Justice Democrats-backed ‘Squad’ of six legislators – mostly working-class women of colour – in the House of Representatives. The Squad played a major role in shaping the Democratic domestic policy agenda in 2020. Its members have inspired countless activists, and it has undoubtedly helped to shift the party’s centre of gravity. What are the prospects for this insurgent force under Biden, and beyond?
Democratic Socialists of America, the largest socialist organization in the United States, boasts blocs in the New York State Legislature and City Council, as well as Chicago’s Board of Aldermen and the Pennsylvania state legislature, in addition to individual members sitting on city councils in San Francisco, Washington DC, Los Angeles and elsewhere. These achievements push well beyond the wildest dreams I had for DSA before the organization’s explosive membership growth began in 2016. Other progressive outfits like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution can tell similar stories. So it’s important not to lose sight of what the left has achieved, nor to discount the possibility of unexpected developments that could open up new horizons in the coming years.
Yet, as Caitlín Doherty points out in the pages of New Left Review, ‘there is scarcely an elected assembly in Latin America or Europe that hasn’t had a much larger and more experienced cohort of socialist or social-democratic deputies for decades.’ The US left, for all its remarkable gains, still finds itself decades behind our comrades abroad. In the House, its presence is at most the ten Justice Democrats-endorsed members, or at least the six explicit members of the Squad. For all their creative organizing tactics and savvy media skills, the Squad have not been able to ensure the passage of any of their signature proposals, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal. The cause of this failure is not difficult to comprehend and has little to do with strategic decisions made by the members themselves. The reality is that regardless of their political discipline or coalitional-building, no six members of a 435-member legislative body can pull a rabbit out of a hat.
In the current Congress, leftist insurgents have three conceivable sources of leverage to forge majorities around ambitious redistributive reforms: obstructive negotiation; persuasive negotiation and external protest/mobilization; and taking advantage of shifting political or economic conditions generated by the Covid pandemic. So far, none of these strategies has proved effective. To understand why, it is worth considering each of them in turn.
First, insurgents could try to obstruct significant but modest redistributive measures backed by their centrist Democratic colleagues, with the aim of forcing Democrats to pass more ambitious reforms. This was the approach pursued by progressives in the House during negotiations over last year’s Infrastructure Bill. While the bill allocated $550 billion in new spending to revitalize America’s transportation, energy and water sectors, it did not touch the vast array of big ticket items on the left’s wish list. These were offered up in a separate, more expansive bill known as ‘Build Back Better’: originally proposed as a $3.5 Trillion package to dramatically expand government spending. Aware that passing the Infrastructure Bill before the more contentious Build Back Better Bill was tantamount to ceding progressive leverage over the latter, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) initially insisted that the two bills be voted on together. Yet, in the face of opposition from Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who stalled passage of Build Back Better to the point that it looked like both bills might fail, the CPC finally relented and passed the Infrastructure Bill. Predictably, Build Back Better was never passed.
Members of the Squad bravely voted against the Infrastructure Bill, but their six votes were not enough. However, I suspect that if they had been, the Squad would have followed other members of the CPC and fallen into line, just as they rejected activists’ call to ‘Force the Vote’ in early 2021 (that is, to block Nancy Pelosi’s election as Speaker of the House unless she agreed to hold a symbolic – read, doomed – floor vote on Medicare for All). Why would the left-wing legislators capitulate thus? Because the political stakes were simply too high. Biden’s once respectable poll numbers were inching lower and lower by mid-2021, portending almost certain setbacks for Democrats in the midterms. With the prospects of handing Congressional control back to an increasingly radicalized Republican Party in 2022, and of not regaining a governing trifecta for many years to come, progressive Democrats were unwilling to scuttle the chance to deliver at least a partial legislative victory they could tout on the campaign trail.
So the left had little chance of building a king-maker bloc of progressives that might force Democrats to pass Build Back Better. Still, could they have convinced Democrats like Manchin and Sinema that voting for progressive bills was in their political self-interest? After all, polling in late 2021 in both Arizona and West Virginia found that a majority of likely voters supported Build Back Better. This strategy rests on the assumption that members of Congress necessarily have an incentive to take votes that reflect majority public opinion in their districts or states. But if this were true, we would already enjoy most of the more ambitious items on the progressive economic agenda, from universal healthcare to a federal jobs guarantee.
In fact, Manchin and Sinema had several possible reasons for opposing Build Back Better: ideological aversion to higher spending, a desire to be perceived in their states as bipartisan, and possibly an interest in pleasing key donors opposed to the measures. As seemingly endless negotiations between the White House and Senate holdouts demonstrated, no one – let alone progressives – could convince Manchin and Sinema to vote aye. The same holds for changing the senators’ political incentives through the application of outside pressure. There is no doubt that protest can help the left in many ways, from increasing fundraising and revving up voter turnout to pressuring lawmakers to support specific legislation. Yet it can only accomplish so much, particularly against political foes like Manchin and Sinema who may even be rewarded politically for standing up to pressure from the left.
Finally, it is conceivable that the pandemic might have pushed wavering senators over the line on Build Back Better. That is exactly what happened in the case of the American Rescue Plan and Infrastructure Bills, which received support from centrist Democrats during a period of historic uncertainty and social hardship. But rapid economic recovery, rising inflation, fallout from the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and recurring Covid waves made further centrist support of expanded public spending a dead letter by late 2021. Even if we are hit by another recession in the coming years – as is increasingly likely – it is doubtful that this will precipitate a leftward turn on social spending. After all, centrist Democrats place the blame for our current bout of high inflation and the Democrats’ impending electoral woes squarely on the shoulders of government overspending during the pandemic.
In short, at its current strength the left in Congress cannot significantly increase its leverage over policymaking. That said, there are good reasons to believe that the relative influence of the left within the Democratic Congressional caucus will continue to grow. The size of the conservative ‘Blue Dog’ caucus is shrinking, and progressives’ prospects for picking off centrist Democratic incumbents and filling open seats in heavily Democratic Districts look reasonably hopeful. This precedent was set by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush in 2020. More recently, Jamie Mcleod-Skinner unseated the centrist Kurt Schrader in Oregon’s 5th District, and Jessica Cisneros narrowly lost her bid to replace Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th. There are now 111 incumbent Democrats who are not members of the CPC, the vast majority of whom represent strongly Democratic districts and could not realistically charge insurgent challengers with undermining Democrats’ electability against Republicans. This means that the left has significant opportunities to improve its position in Congress. As its electoral organizing skills continue to mature with experience and its independent fundraising operations continue to expand, there is no reason to think the Squad couldn’t grow its ranks by at least a couple seats each cycle.
At the same time, it is not entirely clear how increasing the left’s Congressional representation – from, say, six to twelve members – would enable it to advance a bold redistributive agenda. In principle, such an increase could have critical strategic implications, as it might allow a larger Squad to hold Democrats’ accountable by blocking the passage of key legislation until they secure meaningful concessions. Yet as I discussed above, it is difficult to imagine leftists risking a game of chicken with Joe Manchin over important social legislation. Doing so could mean failing to deliver limited but critical assistance to working Americans while strengthening Republicans’ electoral hand.
Socialist legislators would only break with the Democrat coalition if they believed that aiding Republicans was less costly than empowering the Democratic establishment. And this would only be the case were Republicans to moderate their political agenda – a highly unlikely prospect. While it is theoretically possible that intra-Democratic tensions could lead to a split, yielding a more combative socialist party, other countries’ experiences with the collapse of two-party systems suggests that a credible left-wing challenger could only arise if both major parties suffered a catastrophic decline in popular support. If, as is likely, Republicans continue to enjoy the consistent support of 40-45% of the electorate, relatively few Democratic-leaning voters will be willing to risk supporting a third-party for fear of handing power to Republicans.
The other path to expanding the left’s influence in Congress is perhaps equally implausible but has the benefit of never having been tried on a large scale. What if socialists could compete effectively in places where conventional wisdom would suggest that only centrist – if any – Democrats have a chance? What if, in addition to moving the Democratic caucus ideologically to the left by primarying centrists in strong Democratic districts, progressives could also undermine opposition to their legislative agenda by replacing centrists like Sinema, or even – let me dare to dream – Manchin?
Can this be done? We really don’t know yet. Defeating Manchin – who represents a state where former President Trump won nearly 70% of the vote in 2020, and where white voters without a college degree comprise 86% of the electorate – may indeed be impossible. But there is reason to be hopeful in less extreme cases. Look no further than Jamie Mcleod-Skinner, who prevailed in an overwhelmingly white, non-college-educated Oregon district, labeled a toss-up by the Cook Political Report. She took out an important centrist Democrats in the House, whom progressives hold responsible for helping to derail the Build Back Better Bill. Of course, it’s still not clear if Mcleod-Skinner can pull off a victory in this highly competitive district during an election cycle where the winds are strongly at Republicans’ backs. But regardless, she will be one of the few Congressional candidates supported by the progressive left who have even come close to holding her own in such a competitive context.
How did Mcleod-Skinner beat the odds against a wealthy and powerful establishment opponent? She ran a populist campaign hitting Schrader hard on his corporate ties and opposition to bills that would have benefited working-class Oregonians; she focused on bread-and-butter issues, from affordable housing and healthcare to living-wage jobs and expanded access to trade-schools; and she built trust with rural and working-class voters – both by stressing her own background, and by speaking in relatable terms rather than leading with strong progressive messaging that may have been unfamiliar or alienating.
Mcleod-Skinner’s playbook is reminiscent of similar success stories in challenging districts, like senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio and congressman Matthew Cartwright in Pennsylvania. Likewise, Jess King’s insurgent 2018 Congressional campaign employed was able to reach moderate and even conservative voters in Pennsylvania’s heavily Republican 11th District. Though King ultimately lost in the face of overwhelming odds, a volunteer from her campaign, Allison Troy, went on to win a seat on the city council of a deeply conservative town the following year. Like Mcleod-Skinner, Troy was able to reach people outside the traditional Democratic base by focusing on political corruption and local issues, allowing her to make connections with voters who might otherwise have slammed the door in her face.
Another impressive effort to reach non-traditional Democratic voters is that of Working America, a 3.5-million-member worker-advocacy group affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Working America conducts door-to-door canvasses and digital organizing campaigns in key battleground states across the country, with a narrow focus on helping working people to resolve the concrete problems they face. After first connecting with voters on immediate economic issues, Working America tries to translate this relationship into votes for progressives. As the group’s director, Matt Morrison, explained to me:
We’re super effective at convincing people who we just helped pay their rent, navigate a byzantine marketplace in the healthcare arena, etc. Those people listen to us when we say, ‘Oh, by the way, this candidate is on your side, and this candidate is not…’ We win votes by serving the economic interest of workers or helping them build agency.
Despite such possibilities, obstacles to the left’s success remain daunting. On the one hand, even if the left increases its influence within the Congressional Democratic Caucus over the coming years, Democrats are unlikely to regain unified control of the national government for some time, effectively stopping any ambitious legislative goals in their tracks. Even if Democrats are somehow able to hold onto both houses of Congress in 2022, the left would remain strategically limited by the presence of a unified Republican Party, which will decrease progressive lawmakers’ incentives to risk undermining the Democratic leadership’s agenda.
Meanwhile, Democrats of all stripes – not just progressives – have struggled to increase their support among working-class voters of all races, who represent the left’s only hope of making serious inroads in many swing districts, particularly those with a high number of rural and small-town voters. It has proven hard enough for socialists to defeat incumbents in safe Democratic districts, and to date there are vanishingly few examples of their capacity to best Republicans. The examples I highlighted above, together with promising survey data, suggest it is worth investing in this approach to test its viability. Indeed, this will be essential if the left is to have a fighting chance of converting its recent victories into a durable strategy for building working-class power. Nevertheless, the intensity of US political polarization, combined with Republicans’ frightening capacity to connect with downwardly mobile white voters around racial resentment and xenophobia, suggest that, at best, we face an uphill battle, and, at worst, we’re merely tilting at working-class windmills.
Read on: Caitlín Doherty, ‘Two Atlantic Lefts’, NLR 133/134.