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A Party Within the Democratic Party

The Congressional Progressive Caucus is mapping out not only its principles, but also a strategy for taking power.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

“Barbara Lee was right.” 

It was one of the first statements made from the stage at the Congressional Progressive Caucus strategy summit last weekend in Baltimore, and it was echoed more than once on stages and panels and private conversations. In a Democratic Party that is still searching for an identity after the disaster that was 2016, the CPC was flexing its muscles a bit. The reminder that Lee, a representative from California, had been the only person to vote against the authorization of military force after 9/11, which at the time she called a “blank check” to the president, was a statement of purpose of sorts, a callback to the Caucus’s willingness to stand up to its own leadership on issues of principle.

But at the summit, power, not just principle, was on everyone’s mind.

Most people within the broad orbit of the Democratic Party are assuming that anger at President Donald Trump and his dysfunctional, venal presidency will give the Dems a boost at the polls come November. But the question, at least for the CPC members and allies, activists, and think-tankers who gathered at the summit, was what, exactly, that will mean. For most of the people in attendance, it was a given that “not Trump” was not enough—but whether a coherent message for the party can be found is a question that remains unanswered. 

The CPC itself was on something of a high. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign had highlighted many of the issues that the Caucus members have long championed, from single-payer health care to higher wages. And the newest class of freshmen congresspeople had brought new champions—like Washington’s Pramila Jayapal, who took the stage more than once—into the caucus. Democratic members of the caucus, like Mark Pocan, who rose to prominence during Wisconsin’s 2011 battle for union rights, had held town hall meetings in the districts of conservatives—in Pocan’s case House Speaker Paul Ryan—to challenge them directly.

But there were down notes too. Elizabeth Warren’s keynote speech reminded the crowd that 16 Democrats, including the 2016 vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, were crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans on a bill that would deregulate banks. “When I saw a handful of my Democratic colleagues vote for it, it felt like a stab in the heart, not for me, for all the people who bailed out the banks,” Warren said from the stage. “It’s worse when some of our teammates don’t even show up for the fight.” Organizer Ady Barkan of the Center for Popular Democracy, honored at the summit for his work fighting for health care, acidly noted, “We have a lot of house cleaning to do.”

Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and former CPC co-chair, told me that Warren was right to call those Democrats out. “Here’s why we don’t have a message. Because the message turns out to be relationship, program, and follow-through. We’ve got the second one. We don’t have the first one or the third one,” he said. Too many Democrats, he noted, are quick to drop their principles when a PAC check comes waving their way. “It’s not that people don’t know what we say we stand for, they don’t know what we stand for.”

To help them puzzle through some of these challenges, the CPC had invited for the first time a delegation from European left parties: U.K. Labour’s Diane Abbott (who drew cheers from the crowd when she introduced herself in her keynote as being from “one of the oldest socialist parties in Europe”), as well as Sevim Dagdelen of Germany’s Die Linke (Left Party), Eduardo Maura of Spain’s Podemos, and Yiannis Bournous of Greece’s governing Syriza party. Abbott advised that Democrats would do well to focus not on Trump the personality and his phony populism, but on the interests he represents—which became crystal clear after the corporate tax cut bill, which also hobbled the country’s health care system. That, she said, would allow the opposition to build its identity on not being beholden to those interests (which would, presumably, entail not voting to gut Dodd-Frank).

But being not the other guy is not enough. Anat Shenker-Osorio, communications researcher and adviser with ASO Communications, told me, “People feel incredibly and rightfully disillusioned and cynical about the political process at all. When we run as ‘not Trump,’ when we run as ‘not that other guy’ but nothing positive, then what we are saying to them is that their cynicism is well placed. We’re not actually offering to do something, we’re not offering to create something, we’re not offering a beautiful tomorrow, we’re offering them a whole bunch of problems and the best that we can do is some amelioration of those harms.”

Program, in other words, really matters. This was a lesson from Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to revitalize Labour, as well as the work of the organizers present at the summit. Lorette Picciano of the Rural Coalition argued that the best program will come from listening to people—including those who are in often written-off parts of the country, the ones these days usually assumed to be “Trump Country.” If there’s one lesson for the left from the West Virginia teachers’ strike, it’s that struggles can erupt in the places that we least expect them. 

It was the democratization of Labour, Diane Abbott told the crowd, that had made Corbyn’s program, which is growing in popularity, possible in the first place. “When you put the election of party leader in the hands of ordinary people they chose someone who thought like them about the issues of the day,” she said. They didn’t care that people like Tony Blair said a socialist like Corbyn was unelectable. They followed that move by calling for nationalizing railroads, scrapping tuition fees, taxing the rich, and other proposals that they had been told, she said, they’d be crazy to run on. On that platform, they made historic gains in the June 2017 elections—in the face of near-constant attacks from the mainstream and tabloid press, the Tories, and within Labour itself.

This is, of course exactly what the Congressional Progressive Caucus would face if it managed to gain the upper hand in the Democratic Party.

In the wake of the Sanders campaign, there is at least the beginning of a platform for the left of the party, and it starts with single-payer health care. Ellison, who has taken over the lead role on the House version of the Medicare-for-all bill, said that the next steps are putting together a task force on the issue and having the bill’s sponsors do a tour in their districts to whip up support.

Barkan of the Center for Popular Democracy suggested a campaign around a jobs guarantee, with the hope of making the issue central to the 2020 presidential race. “It would be a great campaign to say if you can’t find good work in the private sector, we are not going to give you unemployment benefits, we are going to give you employment,” he said. “We are going to put you to work cleaning the streets, rebuilding our infrastructure, taking care of older people or young people, writing plays, making music. There is so much good to be done.” 

The #MeToo moment was on many people’s minds, and one of the guests had played a key role in turning the public’s attention away from famous women and toward the working class. Mónica Ramirez of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, the farmworker organization behind a widely circulated letter from farmworking women to Hollywood actresses about sexual violence, noted that there were real policy issues that Democrats could bring forward—not just improving the federal laws around sexual harassment, which still leave out women in small businesses and have a short time frame for people to take action, but also extending the protections of the National Labor Relations Act to include farmworkers so that they can organize to protect themselves through a union.

The “Barbara Lee was right!” comments echoing through the crowd signaled, certainly, a direction on foreign policy away from interventionist wars. But more was needed. To Yiannis Bournous of Syriza, it was necessary for the CPC to think through the way American wars in the Middle East have created a refugee crisis that is now bearing down on his country and shaping right-wing anti-immigrant discourse across Europe. The Democratic Party has long tended to assume that it is weak on so-called national security issues, and has over-corrected to sometimes disastrous effect. But Corbyn, Abbott noted, bucked the entire establishment (including, again, much of his own party, which had backed Tony Blair on Iraq) and actually gained in popularity for criticizing the U.K.’s involvement in wars in the Middle East following a bombing in Manchester last May. This is, despite the challenges in Washington, a winning issue. 

To Ellison, the question of health care is intricately tied up with the question of concentrated economic power in the hands of a few elites. He pointed to Martin Shkreli, the loathed pharmaceutical executive whose sentencing for fraud was underway as we spoke, as an example of the problem. He even suggested a form of “maximum wage”—taxing executives more if they made more than, say, 20 times more than the people who make the products and perform the services at their companies. “This idea that you can leave people in poverty as you are stacking up dead presidents like nobody’s business has got to come to an end,” he said.

Echoing Michael Kink of the activist group Hedge Clippers, Ellison noted that the social distance between the extremely wealthy and everyone else might make it harder to challenge them. “Your average working-class person,” he said, “They know lawyers. They might even know a doctor. But they don’t know who owns McDonald’s because the guy who owns McDonald’s doesn’t fly commercial. Unless you work at Mar-A-Lago you don’t see these people. And so we’ve got to figure out a way to make them famous in a bad way.”

Yiannis Bournous was surprised, in the summer of 2016, to find that the American left did not share his and his colleagues’ prediction that Trump would likely beat Hillary Clinton. Having watched the rise of the nationalist right across Europe, he assumed—accurately, it turned out—that given an establishment  politician versus a nationalist, the nationalist would win. People who were feeling excluded from an attenuated welfare state, along with a middle class afraid of losing what it had, made up a base of those frustrated with the status quo and increasingly willing to listen to racist anti-immigrant attacks. Yet in Greece and, this past election, in the U.K., there was another anti-establishment option: the left. People voted for these parties, as Abbott noted, not even because they agreed with everything they stood for, but because they saw them as genuine.

The CPC operates something like a party within a party, putting out its own budget and priorities each year, but often operates under the radar. Yet it is on some level no less powerful than a small parliamentary party like Die Linke—which got a little under 10 percent of the vote in Germany’s recent election—or Syriza, which bounced from being, in Bournous’s words, “a middle-class minor opposition left of 4.5 percent” to power on the back of a left populist campaign. 

To help it advance its program, the CPC could take another page from the European leftists and adopt a particular feature of the parliamentary system: the shadow cabinet. The shadow ministers are appointed within the opposition party to shadow the ministers from the leadership party, to study the position closely and put forward a response to every government policy. Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary, explained, “It helps because we focus more than we might otherwise on actually being in government and what we could do or say.” The CPC already puts out in essence a shadow budget—a shadow cabinet could help move the caucus from principled opposition to thinking seriously about power. 

The challenge for the Democratic Party writ large is, Bournous suggested, how to reconnect with the working classes—not just the small number who voted for Trump, but the larger number who didn’t bother to vote at all. This is a connection that has been lost, and in lieu of renewing that connection we get focus groups and “Trump country” articles. Lorette Picciano noted of those stories, “Rural people like people everywhere want to be actors in their own lives, they don’t want to be the objects.”

It was working people acting as agents in their own lives that changed the tenor of the #MeToo debate, Mónica Ramirez said. And it will be real conversations, real connection, Picciano added, that helps candidates and social movements connect with the people they’ve lost around the country. “It’s relationships that lead where change happens.”

In her recent research, Anat Shenker-Osorio of ASO Communications has found that ordinary people are increasingly concerned about the division in the country, and to her this showed the potential of a new way to talk about racism and inequality—a way to explain that the divisions are actually created intentionally to keep working people from coming together. It’s a language that comes naturally to Ellison, who argued, “We’ve got to ask who benefits from all this racism. Who loses? All of us! Because Florida purged black voters in the year 2000, the whole country got George Bush, which led us into a war with absolutely no justification and the whole country got a prescription drug benefit that enriched big pharma. This happened to everyone of every color. Racism helps elites control everybody else. Therefore our fight has to be solidarity.”

That’s been the lesson in the U.K., where Labour managed to change the debate in a country that was deeply divided after the Brexit vote. It made the general election discussion about renationalizing core utilities and free college and better wages, rather than immigrants. Abbott pointed out that Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader had tried pandering to the right with “Controls on Immigration” and lost badly, while Corbyn picked up seats in districts that had both the highest Leave percentages and the highest Remain. And that put Abbott—a black woman, daughter of immigrants, with a long history as a civil libertarian—in the position of overseeing immigration for Labour.

The personal and political attacks of course will come with any left program. But worrying about what the opposition thinks too much, Shenker-Osorio said, is counterproductive. In fact, the best message is one to “engage the base, persuade the middle, and alienate the opposition.” She pointed to Black Lives Matter, or to the Parkland, Florida youth, as two movements that don’t worry about the fact that they make some people mad, and in turn have successfully changed the discourse.

The hardest part of the struggle, these days, is providing hope for people, allowing them to believe that positive change is possible. People, Shenker-Osorio said, are plenty angry. What they need to see is a plausible alternative, one they believe can win. That will require a compelling platform, relationships that are built for the long haul, networks that can act when something—the Parkland shooting, the #MeToo moment—breaks through the noise. And it will, in fact, require sticking to those principles like Barbara Lee did, even when they are unpopular. After all, Diane Abbott told the CPC summit, “We believed in the politics of the long haul and we have lived to see the things we campaigned on for years now form the center of the political debate.”