The House Progressive Caucus has drawn scorn for its hardball tactic of holding up the bipartisan infrastructure bill in order to pressure moderate Democrats to support President Biden’s larger climate and social policy initiatives. “The liberals’ tactics,” observed the New York Times last month, “were reminiscent of those employed by the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members routinely threatened to withhold their bloc of votes unless Republican leaders met their demands.”
The Freedom Caucus has cultivated a toxic reputation in Washington for its destructive predilections, issuing impossible and constantly changing demands with no clear goal except derailing legislation of almost any kind. The progressives’ critics turned the comparisons to the Freedom Caucus into a shorthand for their belief the liberal faction was acting irrationally. The complaints were especially loud from Never Trump Republicans who, having fled the GOP, saw in the far left the same kind of destructive purism that had wrecked their former party.
But the Progressive Caucus was not derailing anything, nor was it acting irrationally. Its position shrewdly exploited the fact that Democratic moderates, who had not committed to supporting any version of Biden’s plan, had an unusually strong attachment to the bipartisan infrastructure bill, primarily by dint of the fact that it was bipartisan. On Monday, Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal announced that, having received assurances from Biden and the Senate about his plan’s prospects, all 94 members of her caucus would vote for the infrastructure bill.
It’s impossible to know for certain if the progressive negotiating tactic worked. That would require knowing what Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin would have done had the infrastructure bill been signed right away. The progressives drew out Manchin and Sinema and seem to have coaxed them into committing to a defined amount of tax revenue they’re willing to pry from the wealthy, which can fund some version of Joe Biden’s social program. Having gotten the crucial agreement on the revenue side, they can let negotiations on allocating the spending take more time. Their maneuver was a negotiating tactic to coax marginal improvements, not a tantrum, and it didn’t destroy anything.
The assumption that the Democratic Party’s left wing would act like the mirror image of the Republican Party’s right wing may have seemed natural. But they turn out to have different strategic approaches to governing because the ideological environments that produce them are not parallel at all. The Democratic Party’s left wing remains deeply invested in the success of government, while the Republican Party’s right wing is becoming unmoored from any policy objective at all.
The House Freedom Caucus used to stage unpredictable revolts against legislation because its members were trying to distinguish themselves from the rest of their party as the “true conservatives.” If conservatives activists started raising a fuss about any bill, however low profile or indisputably conservative, the Freedom Caucus would engage in a panicky stampede against it. While the pretext for Freedom Caucus revolts often touched on a policy theme — like labeling a bill to keep the government open a “big spending” plan — their goals rarely involved any legislative outcome. It was to win a game of musical chairs where some other Republican was sitting in the seat labeled sellout when the music stopped.
In the Trump era, the Caucus’s only distinct ideological profile is a predilection for authoritarianism, violent rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and a willingness to cozy up to open white supremacists. Its leading members include the likes of Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorne, and Louie Gohmert.
Richard Hanania, a conservative political scientist, has a long, fascinating essay trying to explain conservatism’s disinterest in policy achievements. Hanania’s main argument is built around the observation that Republicans watch “and trust” television news far more than Democrats, who rely more heavily on print media. Hanania uses the right’s television addiction as a kind of synecdoche for its inability to sustain focus:
In his 2005 inaugural address, George W. Bush talked about democratizing other countries as a national calling, completely ignoring any domestic issue. A few years later, the Tea Party arose in opposition to bailouts, and conservative politicians started getting primaried for not being extreme enough in their support for small government and lower levels of spending. This was an era in which Republicans nominated for the Senate a guy who opposed the federal minimum wage, and another who opposed anti-discrimination laws. By the end of Obama’s presidency, nobody cared about small government anymore, and they nominated Trump, whose signature issue was immigration, and who thought all the human rights stuff in foreign policy was stupid. Today, somehow, Republicans are fundraising off of opposition to vaccine mandates, something that hasn’t ever been associated with the right.
This tendency expresses itself in what Hanania calls “nondirectional lying.” Rather than the ordinary puffery and salesmanship politicians use to sell their idea, Republicans frequently sell their views as the exact opposite of the real thing. He cites Josh Hawley, who ran ads claiming he would protect voters from discrimination based on preexisting conditions after having sued to eliminate Obamacare, which created those protections.
Hanania’s television-based theory seems inadequate to explain the conservative movement’s comfort with nondirectional lying. He cites, for instance, the ludicrous claim by Republicans like Ted Cruz that the conservative movement is the actual heir to the civil-rights movement, when in fact the conservative movement fought civil rights bitterly. But this absurd historical revisionism is not just a Fox News talking-head trope but an argument conservative intellectuals have made in complete seriousness in highbrow organs like National Review.
One could go just a few years farther back and recall how conservatives whipped themselves into a moralistic frenzy over the absolute civilizational necessity of having a president who abstained from extramarital affairs and did not ever lie, even about embarrassing personal matters. This, too, was seen as a big idea by the highbrow minds of the right. William Bennett, the former Reagan-era Education secretary, then seen as one of the movement’s most serious intellectuals, penned a series of tomes with portentous titles like The Moral Compass and The Death of Outrage, grounding the right’s entire worldview in personal morality. Bennett’s emergence as an enthusiastic defender of Donald Trump is barely even a surprise. In retrospect, the decade of moralistic preaching that defined conservative thought amounted to just another Fox News talking point.
Hanania blames the movement’s reliance on nondirectional lying for its long-term inability to drive a policy agenda. In his analysis, the left’s willingness to stake its ground in relatively consistent (if, in Hanania’s view, lamentable) arguments for economic redistribution, favorable treatment of minorities, and so on has forfeited the cheap, easy wins conservatives get with their spinning wheel of daily outrages for the benefit of winning permanent social change.
The House Freedom Caucus is a perfect embodiment of the right’s mentally peripatetic style. Today they are enraged about X, tomorrow it will be Y, the next day the opposite of X.
Jayapal’s faction, by contrast, is composed of serious legislators who are trying to help their party pass effective bills. Parallels between right and left have many uses, but attempting to understand the Progressive Caucus by way of the Freedom Caucus is a terrible error.