When Democrats recaptured the House in 2019 after eight years of Republican control, a crew of newly elected progressives—a squad, if you will—quickly garnered headlines for their willingness to challenge party leadership and their uncompromising idealism. During new member orientation in November 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a group photo of herself alongside fellow new members Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, and the caption officially birthed “the Squad,” a title derisively employed by detractors and inspiring to supporters.
The ranks of vocal, social media–savvy young progressives soon expanded after the 2020 elections, in part due to success in unseating established incumbents, and the process repeated itself in the 2022 midterms. Four years after that selfie, AOC is now an elder millennial stateswoman of the group. “The Squad” is an amorphous term rather than an official designation, but membership has roughly doubled since its inception, now registering somewhere between eight to 10.
But despite greater numbers, the new and old members came back to a changed reality in D.C. at the beginning of 2023. After four years in the majority, Democrats lost the House once again. For the Squad, which have only known their votes to matter, this transition to relative impotence may come with a sharp learning curve, but also opportunity: to present a united front against Republicans, and coalesce more of the party under progressive ideals.
“I actually feel good about all of this,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told me in early January. “I think there are certain aspects here where we can flex our muscles even more sometimes than under a Democratic majority.” Ocasio-Cortez argued that being in the minority “allows us to propose and work on legislation in ways that [are] just simply difficult when you’re a governing majority and there are literally fires that you are putting out every single day.”
Republicans’ small governing margin means that the 212 Democrats in the House will still have a say. Given the dissension within GOP ranks, it’s likely that new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will eventually need Democratic votes to pass government funding bills or raise the debt limit. But he’s also started to use the new conservative majority to sideline certain Democrats, including Omar, whom House Republicans are attempting to block from retaining her seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Still, Tlaib, a fellow inaugural member of the Squad, told me that her experience in the minority party in the Michigan legislature prepared her for the next two years in Congress. “There’s a lot of similarities,” Tlaib said. “I already feel it.” She highlighted the possibility of finding common ground with Republicans on her committees, and the work she does on her bipartisan caucus aimed at removing lead from water supplies.
However, Democrats’ power will lie more in gumming up the works for the opposing party than actually legislating. “It’s easier to be unified in the minority,” said Representative Ro Khanna, who entered Congress in 2017 in the minority and who, while not a Squad member, is another prominent progressive in the House. “It’s easier to be unified against an extreme Republican Party.”
Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—a broader coalition of progressive members that all Squad members belong to, and where Omar was recently elected deputy chair—told me in January that the caucus would meet for a training session to discuss the practices and procedures, because “it’s a really different experience being in the minority.” The newest members, as well as those elected in 2018 and 2020, will need to know the tools at their disposal. “It’s different this time, because we have the Senate and we have the White House. So it’s not like when I came in ’17,” Jayapal said, “where it was just so painful the whole time because the things that we voted on actually ended up passing and being signed into law” by President Donald Trump. It helps that the ranks of progressives are ever-expanding, not only within the Squad, but the Congressional Progressive Caucus as a whole. The caucus now boasts more than 100 members, including 16 new representatives, making it one of the largest ideological caucuses in the House.
Democrats are quick to tell reporters now that they don’t just stand against Republicans, they have an agenda for American advancement—a “proposition party” rather than merely an “opposition party,” as Jayapal described it to me—which is the mirror image of the argument Republicans made just a few months ago. But as the now-splintering GOP majority could attest, having an enemy is a powerful motivator.
Moreover, many progressive ideas have been mainstreamed in recent years, a trend accelerated by the Trump presidency and the pandemic. After all, while the package never made it out of the Senate, the House did eventually pass the full Build Back Better Act, with its provisions like free community college, paid family and medical leave, an expanded child tax credit, and affordable housing investments. Coalescing under those values may be easier in the minority, when there are lower stakes and a common enemy.
It may be helpful for progressive morale to see the next two years through rose-colored lenses as a time for coalition building and preparing the groundwork for future action. “I think this is a really great opportunity for us to deepen and build down—down-ballot, grassroots organizing,” Ocasio-Cortez told me, “and also in drafting a lot of grassroots-led legislation to then be reintroduced when we hopefully have the majority again in 2024.” But for supporters of progressive causes, the situation is still far from ideal. “The alternative would definitely be better,” said Deirdre Shelly, the campaign director at the Sunrise Movement, a youth-oriented grassroots organization supportive of the Green New Deal, although she acknowledged “it could be worse.”
“It’s always going to be an adjustment going into the minority,” she told me, “and it’s not what we wanted, but … progressives have never really had more influence in the time that the climate movement has been involved with Congress.”
While Democrats are in the minority, the focus for progressive groups may shift slightly away from who is already in Congress, to those who have yet to be elected. “We’re all in a period of time where we recognize that the transformative legislative possibilities of the first couple of years of the [Biden] administration are off the table until we’re back in a trifecta situation,” said Leah Greenberg, the co-founder and co–executive director of the progressive advocacy group Indivisible. “This is a period of time in which progressives, like all Democrats, can be building towards, what are the ideas that will represent and define us as a party?”
Shelly said that the Sunrise Movement will look for progressive primary and general election candidates to support. Rahna Epting, the executive director of grassroots progressive organization MoveOn, highlighted the need to “maximize any possible wins that we can that remain out of a Democratic presidency,” and support Senate Democrats as they confirm President Joe Biden’s judicial and administrative nominees. Congressional progressives have also urged Biden to take more executive action on those Democratic priorities that cannot be accomplished in a closely divided Congress. Pressley and Omar, for example, repeatedly urged Biden to cancel student loan debt. “The wins are different,” Epting said.
There are also the fundamentals of what it means to be a member of Congress. When I spoke to him in December, Representative Jamaal Bowman argued to me that the core of his job would remain the same: representing his constituents. “Well, I’ve been a minority all my life,” Bowman, who was elected in 2020, quipped. After telling me that I “opened the door” for that joke by asking what it would be like to transition to life in the minority, he continued: “The bottom line is, my constituents have needs, and I’m going to continue to fight for those needs. And that happens here [in Washington] from a legislative and collegial perspective, that happens outside of here with my advocacy and using my platform to continue to share what my constituents find important, and why those things are important to the country as well.”
But progressives have accounted for critical votes for four years, I pressed. If they aren’t part of a majority anymore, does that diminish their power completely? Do they still have the juice?
“I can’t speak for [other progressives], but ain’t nobody taking my juice away,” Bowman replied with a laugh. “I’m always having juice.”