By Konrad Foote
North America analyst
April 29th marked Joe Biden’s 100th day in office. With this, many articles look to assess and articulate what the administration has, or has not, achieved so far. This article chooses to take this opportunity to observe the influence, or lack thereof, of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing within the early days of the administration.
With strong vocal support during two presidential election primaries, there was speculation that the presence of progressive politicians on the floor of Congress could lead to a Democratic civil war – infighting akin to the Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party at the turn of the 2010s. An antiestablishment faction has long been accused of forcing the Democratic leadership to take notice, and shift the legislative agenda to the left. In reality, however, we have seen a relative smooth sailing for the Democratic Congressional leadership and the Biden administration in this regard, who see their strongest policy opposition instead coming from the party’s conservative wing.
This is not to say that the Biden Administration’s agenda is a progressive platform. Although aspects of Biden’s actions align with the views of the party’s left (such as the removal of troops from Afghanistan and infrastructure reform), many of his core progressive policy aims (such as universal healthcare, student loan reform, legalising marijuana and federal minimum wage increases) are unlikely to see strong support from the Administration, nor robust movements towards becoming reality.
Parallels have been made before between the once insurgent Democratic progressives and the Tea Party. They are, after all, an ideological faction of the party, claiming to represent the interests of the grassroots and working class of the country, seeking to take control of a party establishment they see as ‘out-of-touch’. However, unlike the Tea party, progressives in Congress have been unable to tack into the political winds in the same way.
The Tea Party was formed in the wake of Obama’s 2008 Presidential Victory. It sought to fight the Republican party establishment just as much as it wished to fight a President historically unpopular within the party’s base. Similarly, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, there was a slight buzz in the air within the Democratic grassroots that filled the left wing’s emotional void after Trump’s victory. Democrats felt the political machine that fed the Clinton campaign exposed faults at the foundation of the Party, and that change was required. To them, 2016 showed that America needed their own brand of progressive politics, distinct from the ‘corporate’ Democratic Party establishment that lost to Trump. This led to the foundation of groups and political action committees such as the Justice Democrats (running on a progressive platform and refusing to take corporate PAC money), and insurgent campaigns such as that by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the 2018 mid-terms (who famously unseated senior establishment Democratic House member Joe Crowly).
The broad stroke parallels are evident. The tactics, however, are not. The progressive presence in Congress has so far turned out to be less of a political insurgency and more of a rather ineffective policy-based delegation. The progressive grassroots supporters, who touted the incoming Congressional Representatives as the Democratic Left’s answer to Tea Party, have been left disappointed. Rather than a tool through which they could tear down the party establishment, Congressional progressives have become somewhat of a lapdog of party leadership, resigned merely to teaching those in congress how to use Twitter, and embody digital youth outreach.
In comparison, Tea Party Republicans were able to be a thorn in the side of their party’s established leadership because they played ‘hard ball’ politics. Working as a united block, they achieved their aims, and wrestled the leadership over the political direction of their party, through tough tactics and political redlines. They didn’t care if their opponents were Democratic Blue or Republican Red. If a Republican did not agree with the Tea Party’s agenda, they were aggressively opposed. They were classed as RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), and were contested in the primaries. This aggressive activism could be a contributing factor to the political insurgency that propelled Republicans to pick up 60 new seats in the 2010 midterm election, the party’s greatest result since 1938. Tea Party tactics ensured that the Republican Party establishment had to pay attention. Their presence led to former Republican House Speaker John Boehner retiring, and successor Paul Ryan selected as a compromise to appease the Tea Party’s Freedom Caucus, a statement to establishment GOP members that they had to work with, rather than against them.
Although the Tea Party’s influence may not have resulted in a presidential candidate in 2012, their presence sowed the seeds of ‘grassroots antiestablishment’ rhetoric, and a working class Republican fervour (in part fueled by the economic circumstances as a result of the 2007 recession). Much of this sentiment was used by elements of the Trump campaign to successfully propel him into the White House.
You’d be forgiven to think the progressives in the Democratic Party are in a similar scenario. However, their different tactics have resulted in only minor political saliency wins, and none of their tentpole agenda’s (such as Universal Healthcare, Federal Minimum Wage Increase to $15, Student Loan forgiveness, new New Deal) coming to legislative fruition.
A key reason behind this is a difference in approach. Whereas the Tea Party embraced the hatred of their opposition, embraced the snide remarks of their party establishment, and every negative word said against them in the media, the progressive democrats appear allergic to using their political leverage in order to achieve their goals. They appear to reject tactics where banding together and threatening to vote ‘no’ will force Democratic leadership to appease their political redlines and offer provisions to win legislative support.
The progressives act in this manner because they feel there is a path to legislative victory that doesn’t proceed down the path of the Tea Party. They feel there is a way to exert influence by working with the party establishment in the hopes their cooperation will be rewarded through committee assignments and endorsements. Their strategy appears to rest on the influence of their very presence in the party, which they hope could shift the course of debate, and lead to a slow shift toward their agenda.
This approach hasn’t amounted to political success. An empirical study by the nonpartisan Center for Effective Lawmaking, looking at legislative progress, ranked senior progressive lawmakers among the least effective members of the last Congress. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a figurehead of the progressive movement in Washington DC) ranked 230th out of 240 Democrats, with the 21 bills she introduced receiving “no action in committees, no floor votes, and none ever [becoming] law, according to the centre, which takes its data from Congress.gov”. The picture did not bode well for other prominent progressives in Congress, where another, Rep. Ilhan Omar “sponsored 33 bliss that also went nowhere, earning her 214th place”.
During the 2020 election cycle, there was hope within the progressive movement that their ‘slow and steady’ approach would pay off, when Biden announced his joint task force with Bernie Sanders. The campaign seeking to incorporate the energy of the progressive wing into his presidential bid. This move was controversial within the grassroots, with founders of the political group Justice Democrats divided. On one side of the debate were media personalities such as Cenk Uygur (creator of The Young Turks), who argued that the task force was a great opportunity to drive legislative agenda change. On the other side were those such as Kyle Kulinski (host of Secular Talk), who felt it was irresponsible for congressional leaders to pledge support toward the Biden campaign without meaningful guarantees of legislation or executive orders. One hundred days after Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President, it seems that the latter approach may have been a wiser strategy.
Beyond the ineffectiveness of progressive politicians, there is no immediacy to their actions. In a time of growing economic inequality, with medical bills as the leading cause of American bankruptcy, there is fertile ground for them to use to achieve wins toward their political goals.
The reason the Tea Party was able to take on its own party’s established hierarchy was because it wasn’t a necessity for them to win seats, and it didn’t care about the negative mainstream media coverage it received. Progressives in Congress have similar traits that could allow them to take on their leadership. Their electoral victories come largely as a result of grassroots campaigning and small dollar donations funding their campaigns. With Congress not well liked by the American public (with Gallup providing it a 15% approval rating), fighting this very political machine in a vocal manner is something that could drive support for their agenda.
This failure to fight political leadership can be shown through the political fight that never was, namely Nancy Pelosi’s nomination process to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. With the Tea Party having once forced the party leadership to compromise when nominating a Speaker of the House, there was hope within the Democratic grassroots that progressive support in favour of Pelosi’s nomination could be leveraged. This led to a campaign called ‘Force the Vote’. It was intended to leverage the vote of progressive members to secure a vote on the floor of the House for Medicare-for-All (a Universal Healthcare bill).
The ‘Force the Vote’ campaign was seen as potential legislative win-win for the moment. Should the vote occur, a core political call for Universal Healthcare would have a focal rallying point, and one step closer to being achieved. Had the vote failed, it could still be seen as a political win. The progressive grassroots would have a list of Democrats to primary in the mid-terms, in a similar way to how the Tea Party organised and mobilised grassroots opposition. Understandably, this was not supported by the party establishment, however, disappointingly to grassroots progressives, this tactic was also opposed by progressive House members, with key congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stating “So you issue threats, hold your vote, and lose. Then what?”.
‘Force the Vote’ would not only have allowed the Progressive Democrats to take a meaningful stride toward a policy goal they claim to believe in but would also have allowed them to show their party’s establishment that they meant business. Their lack of action showed that although they may ‘talk-the-talk’, they do not have the metaphorical stomach, nor the will, to fulfil the actions necessary to wrestle political control away from the current party establishment and put it into their own hands.
Although the Progressive Democrats have been able to take minor wins from the Biden agenda, such as his current commitment to remove troops out of Afghanistan by September, and an infrastructure bill that may incorporate elements of their theorised ‘New Deal’, it is a far cry from the potential political capital the progressive wing could wield should they choose to make the political choices necessary, and take the path of the Tea Party in order to fulfil the political agenda they claim to support.
The issue with the progressive Democrats’ political strategy is that it puts no political pressure on leadership. They don’t leverage their support on policy. Biden won in 2020, and until the next election he doesn’t feel he needs to think about the progressive wing of the party. There are no teeth to the progressive wings’ bite, and so the administration is more than happy to yap back at their feeble bark. The administration is happy to ignore them because they know, by the next election, they will say what they have to say, and then fall in line, campaigning on behalf of those who don’t listen to them, all on the promise of staving off some larger Republican threat. This allows him to continue concentrating only on appealing to the conservative former Republican supporters to build his Presidential coalition.
The Tea Party was once able to succeed by embracing the negativity they received, standing their ground, and making the party establishment listen to their political aggression. If the progressive left wants to force change, they need to embody that same energy. If the progressives in the Democratic Party don’t fill this void, then it is very possible that it will be filled by the Republican Party in the mid-terms, in 2024, or both.
Unless the progressive wing becomes more politically aggressive and becomes the thorn in the side of Democratic leadership, not only will they fail to secure political wins, but they may also lose the enthusiasm of those who got them to where they are. Grassroots funding can only go so far if the people with little money, donating dollars they don’t have, can no longer afford financially or emotionally provide them with crucial support.
 Andrew Buncombe, ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Teaches Fellow Democrats How to Use Twitter’, The Independent, 17 January 2019, https://content.jwplatform.com/previews/8gvdYvNe-9ygSIn9G.
 Paul Harris and Ewen MacAskill, ‘US Midterm Election Results Herald New Political Era as Republicans Take House’, the Guardian, 3 November 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/03/us-midterm-election-results-tea-party.
 Jon Levine, ‘AOC Was One of Least Effective Members of Congress: Study’, New York Post, 3 April 2021, https://nypost.com/2021/04/03/aoc-was-one-of-least-effective-members-of-congress-study/.
 Maggie Astor et al., ‘6 Takeaways From the Biden-Sanders Joint Task Force Proposals’, The New York Times, 9 July 2020, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/us/politics/biden-sanders-task-force.html.
 Lorie Konish, ‘This Is the Real Reason Most Americans File for Bankruptcy’, CNBC, 11 February 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/11/this-is-the-real-reason-most-americans-file-for-bankruptcy.html.
 Keith E Whittington, ‘Hating on Congress: An American Tradition’, Gallup.com, 30 July 2019, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/262316/hating-congress-american-tradition.aspx.
 Eliza Relman, ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Rejects Left-Wing Calls to Force Pelosi to Hold a “Medicare for All” Vote in Exchange for Her Vote for the Speaker’, Business Insider, 16 December 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/aoc-rejects-left-wing-calls-to-force-pelosi-to-hold-medicare-for-all-vote-2020-12.