One of the benefits of having progressive candidates oust moderates in Democratic primaries is that they can shame the party from the inside. Cori Bush, the U.S. representative from Missouri’s First Congressional District, came to politics through protest, having worked as a triage nurse and organizer during the Ferguson uprising in 2014. She primaried 20-year incumbent Lacy Clay in 2020 with a message that took aim at his complacency: his longevity and cushy position in the Democratic pecking order left him ill equipped to meet the urgent needs of the moment, she suggested.
When the CDC’s eviction moratorium expired on Saturday — an effect of the Supreme Court ruling against it in June, Congress declining to offset that ruling with any urgency, and the White House failing to buy lawmakers more time via executive action — Bush, who has been homeless herself, camped out on the Capitol steps in protest. She stayed there for four days, drawing national attention to the dire straits faced by people struggling to make rent in the pandemic economy. On Tuesday, Joe Biden caved and extended the moratorium until October, inviting almost certain legal backlash but also, in spite of himself, helping a lot of people.
This was embarrassing for the White House and the Democrats, and, to the president’s credit, he had enough shame to be susceptible to it. But Bush’s protest hinted at how much this kind of embarrassment may be needed to keep the party’s worst tendencies at bay.
A lot has happened since the party rode a wave of disaffection to its first united government since 2010. Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill aimed at ameliorating the economic convulsion caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They sent millions of checks to people who are raising children, causing a substantial, if only temporary so far, drop in child-poverty rates nationwide. At least part of their achievement can be attributed to the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last May. Those demonstrations — involving as many as 26 million people — were likely aimed not just at law enforcement, but also poor economic prospects and a botched pandemic response, laying crucial messaging groundwork for a party that’s still figuring out its identity post-2016.
By claiming to share a cause with the demonstrators and offering up federal legislation to appease them, Democrats in 2020 were able to reinforce one of their core pitches to voters: that while the Republicans under Donald Trump are a party of racist extremists and authoritarians, the Democrats are custodians of multiracial democracy, committed to racial justice and attuned to the needs of ordinary and marginalized people alike.
In recent months, however, the holes in that pitch have grown larger, threatening to swallow key parts of the whole endeavor. Partisan disagreement has left the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — the bill that would establish a federal database of police misconduct claims and restrict qualified immunity, which shields cops from civil litigation — in limbo, with little clarity about whether it’ll ever become law. The party’s professed sympathy for the demonstrators has likewise curdled into something more familiar: a series of messaging tacks and legislative actions designed to broadcast their enthusiasm for cops.
The Democrats’ most tangible follow-through on the subject of criminal-justice reform has been a commitment to providing more money for police — part of a renewed and almost certainly doomed push to wrest the “law and order” issue away from the GOP.
The Intercept reported last week that the Democrats are testing out a new message: It’s actually the Republicans who are trying to defund the police. The GOP has been smearing Democrats with this accusation for more than a year. Dems hope their version will work because it’s closer to the truth: The American Rescue Plan they sponsored has made millions of federal dollars available to localities, many of which are using the money to hire more police officers, an effort that Biden and other Democratic leaders have encouraged.
Not a single Republican voted for the bill. “[Why] did they vote against this critical funding for our police?” reads a June post from on the Democratic Party website. “My colleagues on the other side of the aisle in @HouseJudiciary this morning were yet again talking about ‘supporting the police,’ ‘funding the police,’” tweeted Representative Val Demings in July. “But they voted against the opportunity to fund the police in the American Rescue Plan.”
The GOP’s dismissive response to the Capitol riots inquiry has given this attack even more fuel. Emotional testimony from cops who responded to the scene, including a Black officer who described a “torrent” of racist abuse directed at him and others, has emboldened Democrats and liberal pundits to recast the party as more police-friendly than its rivals. “When it came down to it, the question of whether Republican lawmakers in the House would side with Donald Trump or the police who risked their lives defending them, it wasn’t even a close call for the law-and-order party,” wrote Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
Either no thought or no care was given to the fact that by taking this approach, Democrats would inevitably compound their own failures. Declining to extend the eviction moratorium, for example, would’ve meant a lot more evictions, possibly millions. And evictions are enforced by sheriffs — the very officials favored by Biden to receive money from the American Rescue Plan.
The Democrats’ decision to stake their political brand on being a bulwark against a gleefully racist, anti-democratic, and authoritarian force like the GOP came with a humanitarian obligation. Failing to do everything they can to help people not be poor, hungry, sick, or homeless has predictable consequences in a society that uses police to address all of those problems. Were it not for Bush’s protest, Democrats this week would have been in the distinctly anti-humanitarian position of being the party both throwing renters on the street and celebrating the people enforcing that removal.
This wouldn’t have been a problem for the party in most years. The Democrats’ disdain for poor and vulnerable people has matched the GOP’s more often than it hasn’t. But this year is different, partly because a lot of the pressure they face to fulfill their professed obligations is coming from the kind of people that party leaders work so diligently to shut out. Badmouthing the Democratic establishment from the inside, even to make it better, is a good way to get a lot of money spent thwarting your electoral hopes. Just ask Nina Turner, whose Congressional campaign in Ohio was crushed on Tuesday under the weight of big PAC dollars and the perception that she wouldn’t be a team player if she won. “We don’t need anybody fighting with Biden there,” one prospective voter told the New York Times last month.
But that’s exactly what they need. Cori Bush won election by beating Clay, a quintessential team player, and faced staunch opposition from his allies in the Congressional Black Caucus. She then refused to let her party off the hook, berating and embarrassing her colleagues until she wound up extending a crucial lifeline to millions of Americans. Her kind of protest isn’t a fix for the structural incentives that bias many Democrats in favor of moneyed and property-owning interests. But it’s a useful check, and it adds to the growing body of evidence that demonstrations aimed at humiliating the Democratic Party are often more effective in getting it to live up to its stated principles than the Democratic Party itself.