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Why Democrats’ Most Liberal Wing Is Struggling To Gain Power

I argued in a piece published earlier this week that the “Super Progressive” bloc of the Democratic Party was largely losing its fights with the party’s Progressive Old Guard wing. Big ideas pushed by more liberal Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — such as the Green New Deal, the impeachment of President Trump and single-payer health care — just aren’t getting much traction right now in the House, which Democrats control.

In particular, it seems like the most progressive wing of Democrats is not as influential under Democratic control of the House as the Freedom Caucus — the bloc of the most conservative House Republicans — was when the GOP controlled the chamber. So why are the Super Progressives struggling? I don’t think that there is one simple explanation. But here are a few theories, based on my own thinking and that of some congressional experts.

The Democrats’ base is more moderate than the GOP’s

The number of Democratic voters who identify as liberal has been increasing for some time, but the party is still about equally split between people who call themselves “liberal” and people who call themselves “moderate” or “conservative.” In the GOP, by contrast, people who say they’re “conservative” outnumber liberals and moderates. And you can see this difference in how elected officials behave. Polls suggest that more aggressively liberal positions (like impeachment) garner a fair amount of opposition1 among Democratic voters. This makes it easier for House Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi to sideline those ideas.

Instead, Pelosi is pushing forward proposals that are nearly universally popular among Democrats, such as allowing Americans to register to vote on Election Day.

“Progressive media and activists would not reward the most aggressive tactics,” said Gregory Koger, who is a political science professor at the University of Miami and studies Congress. “In 2013, there were conservative groups and media arguing sincerely that they could repeal the ACA by shutting down the government. If a super-progressive House member tried to argue on MSNBC or on Daily Kos that the House Democrats could force the Republicans to overturn the 2017 tax cut if Nancy Pelosi had the ‘courage’ to hold the debt limit hostage, he or she would be heckled.”

The Democratic moderate wing is powerful too

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is bigger than ever; it boasts 96 of the 235 Democrats in the House as members. But the New Democrat Coalition, a bloc of more moderate members, is bigger than ever too, and it now includes 101 members. Many of those members are not particularly excited about single-payer health care, the Green New Deal or other lefty stances. And while most of these members don’t have the same national profile as rising liberal stars such as Ocasio-Cortez, they have the same one vote that she does. Perhaps more importantly, many of these members are in swing districts — and Pelosi is focused on making sure these members can get re-elected in 2020.

“Pelosi is clearly keeping her eye on the prize of a Democratic Congress and White House,” said Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University who specializes in congressional politics. “Her strategy is very similar to the one she followed as speaker in 2007 and 2008 — bring up bills popular with the base that also force moderate Republicans to break with their party, while staying clear of polarizing issues that could galvanize the opposition or alienate moderate voters.”

Green predicted that, if Democrats have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency after 2020, Pelosi might be willing to push more liberal goals, as she did in 2009 in embracing Obamacare and a cap-and-trade environmental bill.

And speaking of Pelosi …

Pelosi is a powerful speaker

The Freedom Caucus — perhaps because they are more closely aligned with GOP voters than the Congressional Progressive Caucus is with Democratic voters, and because Fox News and Trump are able to galvanize the party’s activists — was often able to run roughshod over the speaker, overpowering John Boehner or forcing Paul Ryan to bend to its will.

Pelosi, in contrast, seems fairly willing to ignore her party’s left wing — and as the speaker, she ultimately has the power to determine what bills come up for votes in the House. But Green argued that Pelosi’s power does not come just from her role as speaker.

“I don’t think Pelosi’s formal power alone explains why she is more immune to her party’s extreme wing than Boehner or Ryan, who also had substantial formal power. Her informal power is probably more important. She commands the support of committee chairs, whom she had substantial say in appointing,” said Green.

The Super Progressive bloc may be too big

You would think having more members would make a congressional bloc more powerful, but its broad membership might be having the opposite effect. “The Congressional Progressive Caucus is far larger than the Freedom Caucus, making it harder for them to reach agreement on strategy,” Green said. (The Freedom Caucus does not publicize its membership, but estimates in 2017-18 put its number at around 30.)

The progressive bloc includes some members of Congress who are more closely allied with Pelosi than with Ocasio-Cortez, for example. Indeed, she has floated the idea of creating a smaller, closer-knit group outside of the formal Progressive Caucus. I think that might be a more effective way for the most liberal members to pursue their goals.

The Super Progressives won’t blow things up

Cohesiveness aside, though, the Freedom Caucus members were influential in part because they were willing to engage in very aggressive tactics (opposing must-pass bills to fund the government and to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, for example). That approach gave them a lot of leverage. There is no indication at this point that the Democrats’ liberal wing will take similar steps — they are part of the pro-government party after all.

“The ties that bind the Freedom Caucus together seem to be more ideologically-oriented or value-oriented than to be about specific policies,” said Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University. “The fact that the Progressive Caucus is more policy-oriented suggests they may be more willing to negotiate within their party than the Freedom Caucus was.”

Add all this together, and you get a Super Progressive bloc of Democrats that, at least so far, is struggling to push the Democratic Party to the left. I’d emphasize so far, however. Remember that in 2009 it was considered a fairly left wing position to propose including a public option — a Medicare-style plan Americans could opt into — as part of the health insurance choices offered through the Affordable Care Act. Now, the public option is considered a more centrist position, and many Democrats are going a step further and backing single-payer health care (in which Americans would get their coverage through a government-run system). So the progressives may, over time, push the party left. But the first months of 2019 suggest that progressives won’t be successful immediately — and maybe no one should have expected them to be.

From ABC News:

What is the Green New Deal?

Check out our 2020 polls tracker.


  1. Or, at least something less than full-throated support.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.