Democrats’ Progessive Wing Less Powerful Than Thought?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other firebrands aren't steering the ship. Yet.
FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. seeks to explain, “Why Democrats’ Most Liberal Wing Is Struggling To Gain Power.” He begins by explaining his seemingly controversial premise:
I argued in a piece published earlier this week that the “Super Progressive” bloc of the Democratic Party was largely losing its fights with the party’s Progressive Old Guard wing. Big ideas pushed by more liberal Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — such as the Green New Deal, the impeachment of President Trump and single-payer health care — just aren’t getting much traction right now in the House, which Democrats control.
In particular, it seems like the most progressive wing of Democrats is not as influential under Democratic control of the House as the Freedom Caucus— the bloc of the most conservative House Republicans — was when the GOP controlled the chamber.
So this is a narrow framing. Bacon is talking about the agenda of the House of Representatives, not the party as a whole or even the Presidential field. And he’s comparing it to the domination that its GOP analog has managed in recent years. Fair enough.
Still, his explanation suggests that the party as a whole isn’t moving as far toward the progressive agenda as many of us think:
The Democrats’ base is more moderate than the GOP’s
The number of Democratic voters who identify as liberal has been increasing for some time, but the party is still about equally split between people who call themselves “liberal” and people who call themselves “moderate” or “conservative.” In the GOP, by contrast, people who say they’re “conservative” outnumber liberals and moderates. And you can see this difference in how elected officials behave. Polls suggest that more aggressively liberal positions (like impeachment) garner a fair amount of opposition1 among Democratic voters. This makes it easier for House Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sideline those ideas.
“Progressive media and activists would not reward the most aggressive tactics,” said Gregory Koger, who is a political science professor at the University of Miami and studies Congress. “In 2013, there were conservative groups and media arguing sincerely that they could repeal the ACA by shutting down the government. If a super-progressive House member tried to argue on MSNBC or on Daily Kos that the House Democrats could force the Republicans to overturn the 2017 tax cut if Nancy Pelosi had the ‘courage’ to hold the debt limit hostage, he or she would be heckled.”
Now, I’m not sure I’m buying this explanation.
While Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez have done an admirable job moving the Overton window, the fact of the matter is that the Republican Party spent decades making “liberal” a bad word and “conservative” a badge of honor. Further, Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News talking heads have been denouncing “moderates” as indecisive wimps for a quarter century. So, the fact that Republicans proudly label themselves “conservative” while Democrats are hesitant to call themselves “liberal” isn’t much of a measure of ideological preference.
And, while I agree that the Democratic base is more interested in wonky details than their GOP counterparts, it’s not at all clear to me that they would “heckle” attempts by their party leadership to get things done by playing hardball. Certainly, they applauded Pelosi and company’s holding firm through the longest government shutdown in US history to avoid giving President Trump his wall. And, while the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose impeaching Trump, 62 percent of Democratic respondents in the same poll favor it.
The Democratic moderate wing is powerful too
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is bigger than ever; it boasts 96 of the 235 Democrats in the House as members. But the New Democrat Coalition, a bloc of more moderate members, is bigger than ever too, and it now includes 101 members. Many of those members are not particularly excited about single-payer health care, the Green New Deal or other lefty stances. And while most of these members don’t have the same national profile as rising liberal stars such as Ocasio-Cortez, they have the same one vote that she does. Perhaps more importantly, many of these members are in swing districts — and Pelosi is focused on making sure these members can get re-elected in 2020.
“Pelosi is clearly keeping her eye on the prize of a Democratic Congress and White House,” said Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University who specializes in congressional politics. “Her strategy is very similar to the one she followed as speaker in 2007 and 2008 — bring up bills popular with the base that also force moderate Republicans to break with their party, while staying clear of polarizing issues that could galvanize the opposition or alienate moderate voters.”
Green predicted that, if Democrats have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency after 2020, Pelosi might be willing to push more liberal goals, as she did in 2009 in embracing Obamacare and a cap-and-trade environmental bill.
To me, these are separate issues.
It’s clearly true that there are plenty of Democratic districts where the progressive agenda takes a back seat to more pressing matters. But the more important takeaway here is that Pelosi—who surely sympathizes ideologically with the progressives more than the moderates—is a shrewd, disciplined leader.
And, indeed, Bacon gives that a whole section:
Pelosi is a powerful speaker
The Freedom Caucus — perhaps because they are more closely aligned with GOP voters than the Congressional Progressive Caucus is with Democratic voters, and because Fox News and Trump are able to galvanize the party’s activists — was often able to run roughshod over the speaker, overpowering John Boehner or forcing Paul Ryan to bend to its will.
Pelosi, in contrast, seems fairly willing to ignore her party’s left wing — and as the speaker, she ultimately has the power to determine what bills come up for votes in the House. But Green argued that Pelosi’s power does not come just from her role as speaker.
“I don’t think Pelosi’s formal power alone explains why she is more immune to her party’s extreme wing than Boehner or Ryan, who also had substantial formal power. Her informal power is probably more important. She commands the support of committee chairs, whom she had substantial say in appointing,” said Green.
But, while this is indeed a testament to Pelosi’s skills, it’s also a function of the contrasts between the two caucuses. It seems like things have changed since Will Rogers’ day.
The Super Progressive bloc may be too big
You would think having more members would make a congressional bloc more powerful, but its broad membership might be having the opposite effect. “The Congressional Progressive Caucus is far larger than the Freedom Caucus, making it harder for them to reach agreement on strategy,” Green said. (The Freedom Caucus does not publicize its membership, but estimates in 2017-18 put its number at around 30.)
The progressive bloc includes some members of Congress who are more closely allied with Pelosi than with Ocasio-Cortez, for example. Indeed, she has floated the idea of creating a smaller, closer-knit group outside of the formal Progressive Caucus. I think that might be a more effective way for the most liberal members to pursue their goals.
The Super Progressives won’t blow things up
Cohesiveness aside, though, the Freedom Caucus members were influential in part because they were willing to engage in very aggressive tactics (opposing must-pass bills to fund the government and to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, for example). That approach gave them a lot of leverage. There is no indication at this point that the Democrats’ liberal wing will take similar steps — they are part of the pro-government party after all.
“The ties that bind the Freedom Caucus together seem to be more ideologically-oriented or value-oriented than to be about specific policies,” said Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University. “The fact that the Progressive Caucus is more policy-oriented suggests they may be more willing to negotiate within their party than the Freedom Caucus was.”
Now, Bacon thinks this may all change.
I’d emphasize so far, however. Remember that in 2009 it was considered a fairly left wing position to propose including a public option — a Medicare-style plan Americans could opt into — as part of the health insurance choices offered through the Affordable Care Act. Now, the public option is considered a more centrist position, and many Democrats are going a step further and backing single-payer health care (in which Americans would get their coverage through a government-run system). So the progressives may, over time, push the party left. But the first months of 2019 suggest that progressives won’t be successful immediately — and maybe no one should have expected them to be.
The different behaviors of the Progressive Caucus and Freedom Caucus reminds me of an argument from the early days of blogging.
When I launched OTB in January of 2003, Republican-leaning, Iraq War-supporting blogs dominated the scene. Within a couple of years, though, Daily Kos and blogs from the other side of the aisle started to dominate and that continued throughout the heyday of the genre. (It’s been years since anyone bothered to track such things.)
The rationale given for this turn of events was that, while conservative bloggers tended to be individualistic, looking out for their own interests and willing to engage in internecine fights over purity, liberal bloggers were more naturally communal, working together for a common purpose. Most of us on the right were commentators, perhaps hoping to go pro as columnists or talk show hosts, while most on the left were activists, perhaps hoping to go pro as party apparatchiks. While that was overstated—and elided external factors, including the failure of the Iraq War and the loss of the original uniting factor within the right-blogosphere—there was some truth to it.
Bacon seems to be implying that something similar is happening in the House. While the Tea Party and later Freedom Caucus were willing to burn the place down, the Progressive Caucus seems more willing to fall in line. How much of that reflects their culture and how much the skills of the leadership is hard to say, although it’s certainly some of both.