...and probably just saved the Democratic party from itself.
In response to CNN anchor Dana Bash suggesting that the budget reconciliation package could land at $1.5 trillion on CNN’s flagship Sunday morning show “State of the Union,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal laid down a prescient proclamation: “That’s not gunna happen.” When asked why not, the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus responded flatly, “It’s too small to get our priorities in.”
That’s not just talk. Jayapal and House progressives spent the last week thwarting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and regressive Democrats who tried to force a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure deal before a final reconciliation bill had been negotiated.
And they won.
For the first time in a long time, progressives flexed. And in doing so, they not only saved President Biden’s domestic agenda, but a whole bunch of their more moderate frontline colleagues. This moment teaches us a few things about what progressive power can look like. Let’s cut in.
When progressives stand up, Democrats benefit. More importantly, America benefits.
Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is broadly and overwhelmingly popular with Democrats … and Republicans. In a Data for Progress poll, 62% of voters overall, including nearly 40% of Republicans, supported the package — and that’s the package as a whole. When asked about its constituent parts, every single major proposal was up by at least nine points. Americans want Biden’s agenda. The combination of paid leave, universal pre-K and home- and community-based long-term care alone would remake the experiences of millions of families struggling to afford a dignified life on a middle-class paycheck.
This is also good for Democrats. It defies logic that the party freshly out of the wilderness would balk at the opportunity to deliver on all of the promises they ran on. And yet, as I’ve discussed, moderate Democrats’ Pavlovian fear of being labeled by Republicans leaves them shadowboxing themselves. But here’s the thing: voters delivered Democrats the governing trifecta of the presidency, the Senate, and the House. If they don’t have anything to show for it after two years, they’ll have proven they don’t deserve it.
Real power scores from the paint, not just at the three-point line.
Back in early 2021, there were calls by a few YouTubers to #ForceTheVote, a made-for-Twitter stunt that would have progressives threaten to vote against Nancy Pelosi for speaker unless she agreed to hold a vote on Medicare for All. The argument was that by forcing Democrats to go on the record with an up or down vote on Medicare for All, activists could target the holdouts and pressure them in primaries. But to a whole swathe of very online observers, the tactic seemed to promise a shortcut to Medicare for All right then and there. When House progressives didn’t follow through on a gambit cooked up in a YouTuber’s basement, they got mauled online as traitors to the movement who had sold out the left for proximity to power.
I deeply believe in Medicare for All — to the point where I co-authored a whole book on it. If there were some way to shortcut our way to it, I’d be all ears. That’s just not how politics works, though. There is no shortcut.
#ForceTheVote would have backfired spectacularly. First, it undersells the power that individual members of Congress have in their own constituencies. Forced to take a vote and defend, it would have put Democrats who opposed Medicare for All on the offensive in their districts, leveraging their platforms to push against it. Second, it would have squandered the power that progressives do have in the House … to say, drive an agenda that they can help achieve in this session of Congress. As Ryan Grim noted in his newsletter, forcing the vote is exactly what the regressives just did — and it failed miserably.
It also speaks to a broken theory of governing that tends to pervade too much of the left. We tend to confuse Twitter followers for power. We think that if something is trending in the echo chamber of Twitter, that it has broad support beyond our echo chambers. For that reason, to use a basketball analogy, we tend to shoot threes instead of driving to the paint. But without a strong inside game, we’re one-dimensional and easy to defend against.
What Rep. Jayapal and others are teaching us is that our ability to move the public conversation has to be matched by our ability to whip votes and work the levers of Congress. It takes an inside game and an outside game.
This moment is the result of decades of hard organizing on the outside.
But the real power? The reason that progressive reform proposals like universal pre-K enjoy a 25-point favorability in polling? That’s the power of long-term organizing.
Progressive organizations like People’s Action and the Center for Popular Democracy, unions like the Service Employees International Union and the National Nurses Union, and everyday folks volunteering in townships and dells across our country have been doing the real work. They’ve been knocking doors, making phone calls, sending text messages in the election years and the off years to convince people one by one by one that we can and must rethink the broken systems we’re on the cusp of reforming.
It’s not flashy. There’s no hashtag. It doesn’t get retweets. It won’t make the news. But it works. And it may just save America … and the Democrats’ chances in 2022.