By the time House freshmen arrived for orientation on Thursday, they were already in the middle of a political brawl. Democrats eager to blame someone, anyone for last week’s lackluster down-ballot performance selected their scapegoats: their left-wing colleagues. The feud has been public, nasty, and revelatory, as centrist Democrats aim fire at a high-profile progressive minority that they barely tolerate in public. “Do we want to win, do we want to govern, or do we want to be internet celebrities?” asked Representative Hakeem Jeffries on a recent call with Democratic leaders, an obvious shot at fellow New York Democrat and digital superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Representative Abigail Spanberger, a moderate who narrowly won reelection in Virginia, told colleagues that “socialism” almost knocked her out of Congress.
Ideological intraparty friction isn’t new, but this latest round of finger-pointing underscores the challenges faced by congressional progressives. To accomplish many of their policy priorities, they’ll have to navigate potential hostility in their own party — and work with the incoming Biden administration, which is significantly to their right. In conversations with Intelligencer, incoming left-wing House members said they were eager to work with Biden and the more moderate members of their caucus — but that they aren’t going to apologize for their positions, either.
“The bottom line is it’s my job to meet the needs of my constituents, and my constituents voted me in with a mandate to fight for racial and economic justice,” said Jamaal Bowman, who will represent New York’s 16th Congressional District in January. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman defeated a powerful Democratic incumbent during the June primary on a platform that included a Green New Deal and Medicare for All — two policies opposed by Biden and by other Democrats to Bowman’s right. Bowman has also said he wants to defund the police, an activist demand that worries some senior Democrats. The idea is so toxic, House Majority Whip James Clyburn recently suggested that it could cost Democrats two precious Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January.
In Georgia, of course, the party’s candidates aren’t running on Medicare for All and defunding the police. Bowman did, in New York. So did Cori Bush, in a Missouri district that includes Ferguson, and where voters elevated her over their long-term Democratic incumbent, Representative Lacy Clay. (Clay co-sponsored House legislation on Medicare for All, but is more moderate than Bush on other policy issues.) Mondaire Jones, who will replace the retiring Nita Lowey in New York’s 17th Congressional District, supports Medicare for All, and during his campaign, expressed his support for “defunding police and reinvesting this money in health, education, and alternatives to incarceration.” In the Chicago suburbs, Marie Newman defeated anti-abortion Democrat Dan Lipinski with a platform that also included Medicare for All. Newman, Bush, and Bowman received endorsements from Justice Democrats, the same PAC that backed the original four members of the so-called “Squad:” Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley.
What works in New York won’t necessarily work in Georgia. But centrists ask much of their left-wing colleagues. In urging House progressives to keep silent on key positions, centrists may also muzzle voters, many of them in majority Black, Latino, and immigrant areas. They would do so in the middle of a pandemic and major recession with disproportionate consequences for people of color; months after a nationwide protest movement over police brutality took to American streets; and a week after Biden underperformed with some minority groups that Democrats thought they’d handily win. From the outside, the tenor of centrist attacks on the left sounds like a bid to claim ownership over the party, and to secure power at the expense of a left flank with some serious star power. At stake are the very priorities many voters expect their representatives to put in front of President-elect Biden.
Progressives say they’re simply in touch with what their constituents want. “I made a very conscious decision when I started running,” Newman said. “I did 200 meet-and-greets during my first run and I’ve done 400 meet-and-greets in the 2020 run.” The result, she added, is a platform that more accurately reflects the needs and hopes of her new constituents. That means Medicare for All, universal child care, and what Newman called “a green stimulus package.” She’s previously said she supports the Green New Deal, and received an endorsement from the Chicago area chapter of the Sunrise Movement.
Victorious candidates will naturally congratulate themselves on their policy platforms, and centrists can counter with progressive failures in swing districts. In Nebraska, for example, Justice Democrats candidate Kara Eastman lost her second consecutive race against Republican Don Bacon. From Donald Trump on down, Republican messaging held up socialism as a pressing and unique danger to the American way of life, with Democrats in its eager service. But red-baiting isn’t a new tactic for the GOP. Republicans have been calling Democrats socialists since olden times, well before Bernie Sanders even entered Congress.
“Democrats have been attacked as socialists since 1932,” pointed out Waleed Shahid, the spokesperson for Justice Democrats. Many of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee’s ads this cycle “are pretty standard fare” for the party, he added. “They accuse Democrats of being socialist, say that Democrats are soft on crime and that Democrats want to raise taxes and that they’re a party controlled by Nancy Pelosi. And there’s nothing that fundamentally different about these ads other than perhaps the intensity of the ads,” he argued.
Socialism does enjoy a degree of mainstream attention that it has previously lacked, thanks to the rise of Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Tlaib, and two popular presidential campaigns by Sanders. But even now, it’s rare to find a Democrat who also identifies openly as a democratic socialist. Most members of the Squad, current and incoming, identify themselves as progressives if they use a label at all. And when Republicans call everyone from Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi a socialist, at some point the label starts to look like an ineffective attack. The idea that a handful of openly socialist Democrats can harm candidates in moderate districts also requires evidence, and right now, that evidence is somewhat thin. There are Democrats in swing districts who have endorsed Medicare for All and won reelection, Jared Golden in Maine and Mike Levin in California among them. Spanberger blamed socialism for her tight race, but as journalist Alex Yabon noted on Twitter, her margin of victory only changed by half a point from 2018 to 2020. There are other explanations for the party to consider. Is socialism the culprit? Is it the innate difficulty of winning a conservative district, or is it something else, like poor campaigning?
“I have no response. I just disagree. I think they’re wrong,” Bowman said of members like Spanberger and Conor Lamb, who also criticized progressives in an interview with the New York Times. “I think you run your campaign effectively in your district. And if someone is able to project a policy that you don’t agree with onto you, that means you didn’t run an effective campaign,” he added.
Progressives like Bowman aren’t the only Democrats who have identified organizing failures, not left-wing ideology, as an important explanation for the party’s disappointing House and Senate races. “The fact that the border, from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso, has been ignored for years by the national Democratic party, and even many statewide candidates, hurt us badly,” Beto O’Rourke wrote in a postelection memo to supporters. O’Rourke, who diverges from the left on Medicare for All and other key issues, identified a failure to canvass voters in person as a major contributing factor to the party’s disappointing Texas results. He shares that view with some unions, including UNITE HERE, and progressives like Tlaib and Omar, who have all credited their in-person canvassing operations for increasing voter turnout in Biden’s favor. Another notable nonsocialist, outgoing Alabama senator Doug Jones, has also criticized the party’s organizing work. The party’s Senate and House campaign arms “don’t do the work at the grassroots level,” he told GQ magazine. Building power, he added, “takes a lot of work over time,” and it isn’t necessary to pivot right on issues like abortion in order to win. “You’ve got to let folks know where you stand. And explain that you’re not an extremist, and you’re there for them,” he said.
The sniping, meanwhile, is mostly favorable to party centrists, who might otherwise have to reckon with a looming institutional crisis: Biden defeated Trump, but his party is beginning to look a bit toothless. It hasn’t even been very good at keeping out the left, and it’s tried. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blacklisted vendors for working with primary challengers like Newman, Bush and Clay, and campaigned for two anti-abortion incumbents, including Lipinski, over pro-choice challengers. But Election Day results fell so short of expectations that the DCCC chair, Representative Cheri Bustos, announced her intention to not seek a second term as DCCC chair after barely holding onto her own seat in Congress. Something is wrong with the way the party is running campaigns, and while there’s no magic formula to fix it, infighting looks like a costly distraction and not the path to a solution.
For now, progressives say they’re eager to get to work, and they believe there’s plenty on which center and left can agree. On Wednesday, November 18, Wendell Potter of the Center for Health and Democracy will host representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Porter, and Pramila Jayapal for a strategy session on how the Democratic Party can begin fixing health care under Biden, according to a spokesperson for Potter’s organization. There’s also a stimulus package to pass, a labor movement to restore, voting rights to protect. Bowman pointed out that while Biden is more moderate on issues like health-care reform, the president-elect “does have racial equity as part of his agenda. He does have environmental justice as part of his agenda. He does have universal child care as part of his agenda. These are good signs.” Mondaire Jones said he was “excited” about working with the Biden administration “to get our shared priorities passed in Congress, signed by the president.” In the process, they could help rebuild the party’s fading reputation as a fighter for working people. “We have to make sure that we are championing the big structural changes that are going to meet the moment,” Jones added, “and speak to the lived experiences of everyday Americans who understand better than anyone that this economy has never worked. Not even before Donald Trump got elected.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Bustos was resigning as DCCC chair. We regret the error.