The 4 Main Factions Of The House Democratic Caucus
It’s easy for one party to look unified when members of the other party constantly appear to be at each other’s throats. As stories of fissures among Republicans have made front-page news since the party narrowly took control of the House of Representatives, House Democrats have looked positively harmonious: In January, they voted in unison to elect House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries on 15 straight ballots. More recently, during President Biden’s State of the Union address, prominent Democrats rallied around their leader amid intense heckling from GOP dissenters.
But the stories that we’re reading about Democratic cohesion probably aren’t going to last forever — because House Democrats are not actually that unified. Just because their conflicts aren’t all over cable news doesn’t mean the fissures aren’t there.
So I decided to update my former colleague Perry Bacon Jr.’s analysis on the various wings of the Democratic Party. As with my recent update of Perry’s story about Republicans, I focused on the U.S. House, since that’s where intraparty divisions are most visible. If you compare the two pieces, you’ll notice that the categories haven’t changed that much. That could be because, unlike Republicans, the Democratic Party’s identity isn’t shaped by a singular leader like former President Donald Trump. But House Democrats don’t wield a ton of power currently, either, given their minority status, and that’ll likely temper the amount of intraparty fighting we’ll see this year compared to, say, 2019. (As you’ll notice, reader, Perry’s analysis had six categories for the various wings of the Democratic Party while I stuck to four).
Of course, that could change if Democrats are in the minority status for a while and start disagreeing again about the best way to get back into power. But, at least right now, I wouldn’t expect even the most moderate or conservative Democrats to start cutting deals with the GOP. “I imagine for some period of time, Democrats — regardless of their ideological commitments — will be happy to let Kevin McCarthy squirm,” said Ruth Bloch Rubin, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “If you’re eyeing majority status, the best way to do that is to make the current majority look bad.”
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Again, I’ll include the caveat that these categories are imperfect — though I leaned on metrics like voting records, leadership roles as well as expert analysis to guide my reporting. So, without further ado, here are the four wide-ranging camps that I’d put House Democrats in, from most progressive to most moderate:
- These are the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus. They often hold very liberal beliefs on economic and social policies (e.g., supporting the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). They’ve attacked party leadership for being too cautious and supported progressive candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts against Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
- Prominent members: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Here, you have the most progressive members of the House Democratic Caucus who will often criticize party leadership for being too centrist and not taking bold enough stances on progressive policy issues. Its members have touted certain proposals — like the Green New Deal, a higher federal minimum wage or shuttering federal prisons — that are not well-received by the party’s more moderate members. Critics of this group — including some members of party leadership — may say that this group is unrealistic about what can be achieved and that the publicity they attract could imperil Democrats’ chances of winning future elections.
The flip side, however, is that when working alone, Progressive Insurgents don’t have a ton of bargaining power because they’re a relatively small bloc (though that could change). And at least for now, there’s an imbalance between the outsized amount of attention that the group receives versus the things they’re actually able to do, Shom Mazumder, a former FiveThirtyEight contributor who has written about the progressive left, told me. “Can they change votes? Personally I haven’t really seen evidence of that,” he said. “At the end of the day there hasn’t been a roll-call vote on Medicare for All or increasing taxes on the wealthy.”
But they do make headlines. And because they have made small strides in influencing the party’s agenda and several of its members are well-known, I wouldn’t expect them to stop aggressively pushing their vision for the Democratic Party — even when others in the caucus vociferously disagree.
I also don’t expect these members to lose their seats anytime soon, either (assuming they get a primary challenger in the first place). Last year, all six incumbent members of The Squad sailed to reelection — save for Omar, who arguably had the most formidable primary challenger — and their identities and often unconventional backgrounds could be a reason why, according to Meredith Conroy, a FiveThirtyEight contributor and professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. “The newer members of the progressive caucus are young people of color. I’m not sure it’s their defining characteristic but it’s important. And that’s been part of the pitch they make to constituents,” she said. “They’re able to effectively argue that they better reflect the modern Democratic Party. That pitch works well especially when they take on incumbents who are also progressive.”
And this bloc could easily grow in size, too. Progressive upstarts like Reps. Maxwell Alejandro Frost of Florida, Greg Casar of Texas and Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, just to name a few examples, are fresh faces in the 118th Congress and are already making names for themselves. Casar and Lee were also backed by Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that helped Ocasio-Cortez topple a powerful Democratic incumbent in 2018.
- While Democrats in the group above are probably in the headlines more, this group primarily consists of the anointed leaders of the progressive left. As such, they tend to hold leadership roles in groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus. While these lawmakers’ views on economic, social and race-related issues tend to align with those in the first bloc, they’re not rabble-rousers — and even if they’re skeptical of the Liberal Establishment, they’re often more willing to compromise with them.
- Prominent members: Reps. Katie Porter and Maxine Waters of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington.
In terms of a policy wishlist, this group has a lot in common with the first. But unlike the Progressive Insurgents, they’re not trying to blow up the status quo. Because of this, this second group is often more willing to play nice with The Liberal Establishment.
“There’s still a fundamental trust in the party system and the ways in which Congress can get things done. I think the Progressive Establishment might say that things ‘aren’t getting done’ because of Republicans, versus blaming members of their own party,” Mazumder said. In short, I wouldn’t expect Waters or Jayapal, for instance, to publicly lambast former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the same ways that Ocasio-Cortez has. But I would expect them to sometimes sign onto legislation or quietly endorse plans put forth by their oftentimes younger, and more upstart, colleagues.
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Of course, that can lead to tensions between the two blocs. In late 2021, the first six members of The Squad bucked party leadership and opposed Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. Its passage was made possible, however, after the rest of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — save for The Squad — came around and said that they were ready to pass the omnibus spending package as a result of other lawmakers’ commitment to vote for a larger social-spending bill down the line.
“This is the group of OG progressives. And that comes with a flavor of institutionalism, too, which could explain why lawmakers like Jayapal have invested in the Congressional Progressive Caucus as an instrument for wielding power,” Bloch Rubin said. “In a way, she’s taking more traditional tacts of dealmaking in order to pass the things she cares about.”
The Liberal Establishment
- Here are the leaders of the congressional House Democrats. They are also most commonly associated with the party’s establishment wing. But their own politics can be a bit of an enigma at times: While many (like Jeffries and Pelosi) have fairly progressive voting records, lawmakers in this group often move toward the middle so they can be seen as having all members’ best interests at heart and are successful at getting deals passed.
- Prominent members: Jeffries, Reps. Nancy Pelosi of California, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Lawmakers in this bloc are often considered “moderate” or as part of the establishment, but there’s honestly not a ton of policy fissures separating them from the first two blocs. Instead, I’d say what differentiates this wing from the prior two is how they present themselves to the public — and the rest of the caucus. That means that while members of The Liberal Establishment might be former members of groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus (like Jeffries) or have relatively liberal voting records, they’ll avoid publicly advocating for certain progressive stances that are unpopular with the broader public. They also will go out of their way — either implicitly or explicitly — to assert their independence from the party’s left flank.
“This is like the old guard. They were the liberals before the current liberals became liberals,” Bloch Rubin told me. “They may have the same preferences [as progressives] about what kinds of policies they’d like to see passed, but a cynic might say that they’ve been ground down by the kind of wheeling and dealing you inevitably have to do when you’re in politics for a long time.”
Plus, leaders need to get things done for their parties and, as a result, might feel as though they “need to leave their pie-in-the-sky preferred policy proposals on the cutting room floor and get the wins that they can,” Rubin said. In other words, The Liberal Establishment is more pragmatic in its approach to policy and oftentimes wary of some of the most progressive group’s ideas. Instead, they’re more likely to promote policies that all members of the ideologically diverse caucus can get on board with, like a police reform measure in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd. At the end of the day, though, this bloc doesn’t want the party to be seen as going too far left and likely won’t prioritize issues of racial justice or social causes as much as the former two groups do.
Lastly, members of this group are also more likely to have a cozier relationship with Biden — some have already endorsed him for a second term. They tend to be more concerned about candidates’ perceived “electability” and those who appeal to the political center. As such, they’re also probably not going to support the primary challengers to The Centrist Firebrands (more on them below).
The Centrist Firebrands
- These are the most conservative House Democrats. They are generally from purple or red-leaning districts or states and tend to have more conservative views on economic and social issues.
- Prominent members: Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas, Jared Golden of Maine, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.
Some members of this bloc recently threatened to vote no on a large Democratic spending package against Pelosi’s wishes in 2021 (they eventually came around). They’re also the most likely to support policies backed by the GOP, like not expanding abortion protections or calling for greater security around the U.S.-Mexico border.
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But these are the members that you’d expect to side with the GOP at times. Most are members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of centrist Democrats, or the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — and they mostly have moderate voting records, too. It’s likely that the voters they have to answer to “have a shared commitment to Democratic principles, in particular around government’s role in the economy and having a social safety net, but diverge with the rest of the party around issues like crime or immigration or views of the military,” said Jocelyn Kiley, the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. “I think you can map that segment of the public to the more conservative or moderate members of the House.”
As my colleague Nathaniel Rakich reported, many of these members are some of the most conservative Democrats in the House. And while it could be because they tend to hail from competitive districts or states, they might also just genuinely believe in more of a centrist approach to governing. And even if they do agree with Biden or the progressive left on certain issues, you can bet they’ll be quick to assert to their constituents that they’re nothing like their left-of-center counterparts.
While these categories might be broad and not personally describe every single Democratic member of the House, I think they are the four biggest divisions. And while the differences between the various factions might be slow to emerge while House Democrats are in the minority, they’re likely to become more noticeable over time — especially if Democrats stay in the minority and start bickering about the best way to win the majority back.
But, unlike Republicans, I’d say that we can probably expect these categories to remain largely unchanged. While the members might move between categories at various points, and certainly won’t always agree with the members of their particular group, we’re probably not going to see huge shifts like we did with the GOP. If anything, as Perry highlighted, there might be smaller tensions within the groups that lead to subgroups within the more moderate and more progressive wings.