Democrats shocked the nation and defied expectations during the midterm elections with better results than widely anticipated in the House and the Senate. But one feature of that surprising performance was widely overlooked: the election of a new set of unapologetically progressive lawmakers.
Five Democratic members-elect aligned with the liberal Working Families Party are hoping to drag President Joe Biden’s policy agenda to the left. Two of those Democrats — Rep.-elect Summer Lee of Pennsylvania and Rep.-elect Greg Casar of Texas — were backed by the Justice Democrats, the democratic socialist-leaning political action committee that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York topple a powerful Democratic incumbent in 2018. Politico is now reporting that as this group of freshmen prepares to join the new Congress next week, its members are rapidly forming close bonds and have specifically cited “the squad,” the leftie group of Democrats in the House that Ocasio-Cortez runs in, as a model for how they’d like to legislate.
So far, the Democrats’ most progressive members haven’t used their power as aggressively as they should.
As someone far to the left of the Democratic establishment, I find this to be a pleasing development. More socialist-adjacent Democrats in the House is a good thing. But I’m unsure how much the growing ranks of bold progressives matters if they don’t use their numbers to play hardball with the establishment they claim to buck. So far, the Democrats’ most progressive members haven’t used their power as aggressively as they should.
In terms of pushing Biden to the left, the squad so far has a mixed record. On one hand, members such as Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri have been tireless advocates of critical leftie policies such as "Medicare for All," a Green New Deal and reducing mass incarceration. And their advocacy has involved some activist maneuvering that has made a real splash in the national conversation, such as when Ocasio-Cortez joined climate justice protesters in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, or during the peak of the Covid pandemic when Bush spent a sleepless night on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. That protest helped spur Biden to unexpectedly extend an eviction moratorium.
Some of the members of the squad have also been lonely dissidents on Democratic-backed legislation they found objectionable. For example, squad members were almost the only Democrats to vote against Biden’s infrastructure bill, in part because they objected to separating its passage from the more sweeping Build Back Better Act it was originally meant to be paired with. (Their “no” votes, it should be noted, were offset by some Republican support on that bill.)
But on the other hand, the squad didn’t unite consistently on progressive goals or effectively use its numbers to try to extract major concessions from the Democratic establishment. Moderate Democrats, not the squad, prevailed on the issue of separating the infrastructure bill from a more ambitious social spending bill, a victory for that faction of Democrats who ultimately got to shrink the scope of Biden’s social spending. Though there was plenty for progressives to object to in Biden’s climate-focused bill, centrist and conservative Democrats, not the squad, were the main thorn in his side on climate policy. A couple of squad members, Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, surprisingly defected from the rest of the squad's votes against funding Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The squad has also not tried to seriously challenge, or add conditions to, military aid to Ukraine. Our funding of Ukraine’s war effort is generally moral and savvy, but it also requires strategic restraint in order to avoid nuclear escalation with Russia — a substantial concern of the antiwar left.
It’s too early to come to firm conclusions on how the burgeoning social democratic bloc of Democrats should conduct itself on the Hill or how it should decide between delivering usable policy and advocating for better ones. And with Democrats losing control of the House in January, the expanded roster of progressives will not matter nearly as much as when Democrats regain a majority in the future.
But as their numbers grow, it’s important for progressive members themselves to ask how they want to wield their growing power and what appetite they have for confrontation with party leadership. As lawmakers, their greatest power isn’t in their rhetoric and their viral tweets, but their capacity to obstruct bad polices and help pass better policies in Washington.