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A Challenge to the New Blue Congress: Govern as Progressives

Tuesday’s election results were driven by grassroots enthusiasm for progressive policies, not centrism.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joined by House Democrats, leaves the podium after delivering remarks during a DCCC election watch party at the Hyatt Regency on November 6, 2018, in Washington, DC.

Election results were still pouring in Tuesday night when pundits on cable news channels began to revive a media refrain that conventional wisdom has been aiming at Democratic Party leaders for decades: Stay away from the left and move toward the center.

We should expect plenty of such advice during the months ahead as Democrats take control of the House for the first time in eight years. It may sound prudent to urge “affordable health care” instead of Medicare for All, or “subsidies for community colleges” instead of tuition-free public college. But such positions easily come across as wonky mush that offers no clear alternative to a status quo that played a role in driving populist anger into the arms of the right wing in the first place.

Last week, in the closing days of the midterm campaign, Barack Obama campaigned saying that he wanted to appeal to “compassionate conservatives,” a phrase propagated by George W. Bush two decades ago. Few Republicans actually turn out to be persuadable at election time. Efforts to pander to them show contempt for progressive principles. Such pandering can lessen the kind of grassroots enthusiasm that helped to defeat GOP candidates in the latest midterms.

Though Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial quest in Florida fell just short of victory and Stacey Abrams may not reach a runoff election for governor of Georgia, their campaigns boosted turnout that surely helped some Democratic contenders to flip congressional districts. People of color and youthful voters proved to be pivotal — energized not by “moderate” candidates but by strong progressive populism.

The same held true for the Senate campaign of Beto O’Rourke, whose inspiring race in Texas came within less than 3 percent of toppling the extreme right-wing incumbent Ted Cruz. Texas journalist Mimi Swartz commented in a New York Times piece that “O’Rourke gave Texans who have long felt disenfranchised a glimpse of what could be, and I hope they don’t take his defeat as a sign that victory is beyond their grasp.” She added that “the enthusiasm for Mr. O’Rourke most likely helped less glamorous and less moneyed candidates win down the ballot.” And seeds were planted for years to come: The president of Voto Latino “said that her organizations saw a 500 percent increase in registration among young Latino voters in Texas, the state that previously had the lowest voter participation of all.”

When political campaigns are deeply authentic from the grassroots, they serve as compost to prepare the ground for future victories. In sharp contrast, there’s little left to build on after Election Day in the wake of top-down campaigns that promote moderate notions in response to extremely dire problems. While commonly applauded by mass media, centrism smothers the fires of grassroots excitement.

This week, media coverage has often focused on “suburban” voters as key to the defeat of GOP candidates — while rarely noting the demographic changes in many suburbs that have made them more racially diverse. People of color and young voters are often drawn to progressive populism that directly challenges widening income inequality, institutional racism and environmental degradation.

Incantations about the need for so-called moderate policies do little to stimulate a big turnout from the Democratic base — and other voters — oriented to voting against Republican candidates if their opponents draw sharp contrasts between advocacy for economic justice and flackery for de facto oligarchy.

Surveys show that voters are hungry for genuinely progressive policies that have drawn little interest from mainstream media outlets. For instance, polling of the US public shows:

Yet such popular positions are routinely ignored or denigrated by elite political pros who warn that such programs are too far left for electoral success. The same kind of claims assumed that Bernie Sanders would never get beyond single digits in his 2016 presidential campaign.

The midterm election results have made Nancy Pelosi the likely next House speaker. Although habitually bashed by Fox News and other right-wing outlets as an ultra-liberal villain, Pelosi has declared allegiance to fiscal centrism and ongoing militarism that forecloses implementing a progressive political agenda.

In September, as House minority leader, Pelosi precluded any potential left-populist agenda by backing reinstatement of a “pay-go” rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts. A former legislative director for three Democrats in Congress, Justin Talbot-Zorn, responded with an article on The Nation’s website pointing out that “bold progressivism and ‘pay-go’ fiscal conservatism are mutually exclusive.” He wrote: “The issues of America’s rising inequality and frayed social contract — including stagnant wages, unaffordable college, and exorbitant health care can only be fixed with major new investments.”

Pelosi is closely aligned with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in obediently saluting President Trump as he boosts military expenditures — which already account for most of the nation’s discretionary spending. Early this year, when Trump proposed an 11 percent Pentagon budget increase over two years, Pelosi proudly declared in an email to fellow House Democrats: “In our negotiations, Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense.” The office of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer proclaimed: “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request.”

Such pandering to the military-industrial complex — enabling and reinforcing endless US warfare now in its 18th year — may well be touted as a sign of “moderate” leadership. But it is far more popular inside the Beltway than it is among working-class voters.

This year, few Democratic congressional candidates talked about how military budget cuts could free up funds for a progressive domestic agenda. Notable exceptions included four women of color who will soon become members of the House: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan).

All four of those newcomers to Capitol Hill will help to swell the ranks of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which already includes nearly 80 members of the House. Yet it’s no secret that many of the Caucus members are “progressive” in name only.

Most congressional Democrats remain inclined to defer to their party’s leadership on domestic and foreign policies. That will only change to the extent that grassroots progressives develop and wield real electoral power.

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